Dancing with Time

The Garden as Art

by John Powell (Author)
©2019 Monographs XVI, 204 Pages


Gardens provoke thought and engagement in ways that are often overlooked. This book shines new light on long-held assumptions about gardens and proposes novel ways in which we might reconsider them. The author challenges traditional views of how we experience gardens, how we might think of gardens as works of art, and how the everyday materials of gardens – plants, light, water, earth – may become artful.
The author provides a detailed analysis of Tupare, a garden in New Zealand, and uses it as source material for his analysis of the philosophical issues art gardens raise. His new account of gardens highlights the polymodal, multi-sensual, and improvisatory character of the garden experience, it offers an ontological comparison between gardens and humans and other animals, and it explains how identical plants, and arrangements of plants, may be mundane when encountered beyond the garden but artful, meaningful, and aesthetically valuable when experienced within it.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part I Setting the Scene
  • Chapter 1 “But Is It Art?”: Case Study of a New Zealand Garden
  • Part II The Territory: A Survey
  • Chapter 2 Changing Views: Philosophical Aesthetics (1700–2017)
  • Chapter 3 Changing Places: Gardens and Philosophical Aesthetics (1700–2017)
  • Part III The Lie of the Land: A Critique
  • Chapter 4 Up the Garden Path: Some Recent Writing
  • Chapter 5 Enjoying Time(s) in the Garden
  • Chapter 6 What Sort of Artwork Are Gardens?
  • Part IV Breaking New Ground
  • Chapter 7 A Philosophical Detour: Definitions, Theories, and Ontologies
  • Chapter 8 A New View of the Garden
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

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Figure 1. Photo of part of Monet’s garden near Giverny, France. Reproduction of “Monet’s garden in May (4)” by Richard White is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 2. Photo of part of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta, at Dunsrye, Scotland. Reproduction of “1983, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta garden: The Present Order is the Disorder of the Future” by Rosa Menkman is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 3. Photo of part of Henry Hoare’s garden, Stourhead, in Wiltshire, England. Reproduction of “Stourhead Autumn” by Graham Duerden is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 4. Photo of part of Le Nôtre’s gardens for the Palace of Versailles, France. Reproduction of “Orangerie” by Emily Mocarski is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 5. Photo of part of Robert Irwin’s gardens for the Getty Centre, Los Angeles, CA, USA. Reproduction of “Getty Museum” by Ian Sanderson is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 6. Photo of part of the Australian Garden, near Melbourne, Australia, designed by Taylor Cullity Lethlean and Paul Thompson. Reproduction of “Australian Desert Garden” by Greenstone Girl is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 7. Photo of part of Tupare garden, near the house. Photo reproduced with permission from Rob Tucker.

Figure 8. Aerial photo of Tupare garden showing location of the house, garden areas, ungardened river flats, and the Waiwhakaiho River along part of the boundary. Reproduction of “Aerial photo” by AAM NZ Ltd is licensed under CC BY 4.0. ← ix | x →

Figure 9. Aerial photo of Tupare garden, showing contours at 2 m intervals. Reproduction of “Aerial photo and contours” by AAM NZ Ltd is licensed under CC BY 4.0.

Figure 10. Photo of Waiwhakaiho River and its source, Mt Egmont / Mt Taranaki, taken from near Tupare garden. Photo reproduced with permission from Massey University, New Zealand.

Figure 11. Composite image of paths, steps, river flats, and river boulders at Tupare. Author’s photos.

Figure 12. Photo of a magnolia and rimu growing from a lower level and overhanging a higher-level path at Tupare. Author’s photo.

Figure 13. Photo of part of Capability Brown’s eighteenth-century, “mimetic” gardens at Stowe, England. The garden uses plants, topography, texts, and structures to represent a range of political, spiritual, and artistic concepts. Reproduction of “Stowe Landscape Gardens” by Hugh Mothersole is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 14. Photo of part of Monet’s “expressive” garden, established from the late nineteenth century onwards, at Giverny, France. The garden uses plants, water, light, and structures to express, and thereby communicate, Monet’s way of seeing and understanding the world. Reproduction of “Giverny – Monet’s garden, lily pond, boats” by Damian Wentwhistle is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 15. Photo of part of the modernist Donnell Ranch Garden at Sonoma, California, designed by Thomas Church in 1948. The pool area exhibits the clear, precise, unadorned lines, shapes, and volumes preferred, for their intrinsic qualities, by modernist critics. Reproduction of “Donnell garden” by Morisius Cosmonaut is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Figure 16. Photo of Martha Schwartz’s 1979 Bagel Garden, in Boston, MA, USA. The garden’s arthood derives not from the artist’s selection and arrangement of her ← x | xi → materials but, rather, from the ways in which the garden relates to the history of art and to the contemporary artworld. Photo reproduced with permission from Martha Schwartz Partners.

Figure 17. Contemporary advertising image for a typical, off-the-shelf, nineteenth-century villa garden plan, offering potential owners opportunities for satisfying their social, utilitarian, and aesthetic ambitions. The utilitarian features of such gardens were themselves enough to disqualify the gardens from being “art.” Image reproduced with permission from Amoret Tanner.

Figure 18. Illustration of Humphrey Repton’s Forcing Garden at Woburn Abbey. The 1816 aquatint shows colourful, possibly exotic, plants flourishing in a heated environment under the shelter of a glass and steel structure. The increasing availability of such “over-wintered” plants contributed much to the increased emphasis on botanic novelty in nineteenth-century gardens. Illustration reproduced from Repton’s “Fragments on the theory and practice of landscape gardening.” ©RHS Lindley Library.

Figure 19. Photo of an extreme, twentieth-century example of a garden in the nineteenth-century gardenesque manner. The overwhelming focus on individual colours, shapes, and especially flowers in this garden undermines any claims it might have to being considered a traditionally conceived coherent artistic entity. Photo reproduced with permission from Four Seasons Garden UK.

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I have called my book Dancing with Time because that title invokes three important, intertwined themes of the study: gardens change in time; we, in our own time, move and participate freely in gardens’ times and spaces; and our garden encounters have the potential for artfulness. Time, movement, and sensory awareness are at the heart of the garden experience.

The book’s subtitle, The Garden as Art, may suggest that two important questions – what is “art”? and, what sort of gardens may be works of art? – have been settled or, if not, are to be explored in the text. However, these and related questions have already been carefully debated by philosophers of art and my concern is not primarily with them. Let me, for the moment, proceed on the basis that you have at least a rough idea of what art is and what sort of gardens may be artful and later, I will introduce theories and insights, which vary from time to time and place to place, that philosophers have offered to confirm, and at times deny, that certain sorts of gardens can indeed be art, and to define what, after all, is “art.” For now, suffice to say that the concept of “art” remains hotly debated today and that Western art gardens have enjoyed a chequered relationship with philosophical aesthetics, being, at different times, both lauded and rejected as exemplars of art and, for most of the last 150 or so years, largely ignored.

In this study, my concern is not with whether gardens can be art – for the most part, I assume that appropriate ones can be – but with how gardens, assuming they are art, are conceptualized within the arts and by philosophy. How are gardens the same as and different from the other arts? And, more importantly, what do any similarities and differences they possess imply for the ways in which we experience and understand gardens, and the ways in which we conceptualize their ontology, or, more simply, the ways in which they exist?

There exists already a literature devoted to examining the place of gardens in contemporary aesthetics. So, you may rightly ask, what is wrong with these existing accounts? Is a new one indeed needed? And, if a new ← xiii | xiv → account is needed, what features should it exhibit and what aspects of gardens should it consider? These questions are the guiding ones for this study, and answering them determines, broadly speaking, the book’s shape and direction, and provides its motivation and momentum.

In an earlier study, Ismay Barwell and I invoked the American philosopher Susanne Langer’s philosophy of art in order to account for gardens’ modus operandi and, in that context, I proposed some similarities between gardens and music in terms of their temporal natures and their abilities to function rhythmically.1 In this book, these “threads” of interest are reconsidered, interwoven with new elements, and their implied implications for the ways in which we experience gardens, and for gardens’ unique ontological status, temporality, and modes of signifying meaning are drawn out. In particular, the idea of gardens’ being temporal entities is developed further, and in new directions, and it assumes a central role in the study.

1 Ismay Barwell and John Powell, “Gardens, Music, and Time,” in Gardening: Cultivating Wisdom (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).


XVI, 204
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2019 (February)
gardens philosophy of art aesthetics The Garden as Art Dancing with Time
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2019. XVI, 200 pp., 15 fig. col., 4 fig. b/w

Biographical notes

John Powell (Author)

John Powell lives in New Plymouth, New Zealand and is a Visiting Research Fellow in the School of Architecture and the Built Environment at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.


Title: Dancing with Time
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