After 30 years at Chelsea, in his 25th and possibly final show garden, Julian Dowle has created something openly inspired by his Christian faith.
In a garden which bucks the trend for instant gratification, quick makeovers, decking and artificial baubles, he has expressed his own firm belief that gardens should not just be beautiful places full of visual stimulation and pleasure. They are enhanced and made more fulfilling when they are also spiritual, tranquil places. Places to reflect in, to meditate, to pray and have an increased awareness of nature and the meaning of life.
Dowle’s garden, jointly sponsored by the Salvation Army and Buildbase, is the first church garden in Chelsea’s 82-year history. He chose the theme “From darkness to light” to convey both the spiritual and practical aspects of the Army’s work.
“The Salvation Army is best known for helping people when they are in trouble and going through bad – or ‘dark’ – times,” he says. “But they also have a reputation for transforming lives ‘into light’ through practical and social welfare, as well as Christian influence. I wanted to demonstrate the much wider, Christian ethos of the human individual’s transition from ‘darkness’ to ‘light’ – from despair to hope – through the intervention and sacrifice of Christ.” As a garden designer and a practising Catholic, Dowle says he gets a kick from working with creation: gardening in partnership with God. “He created all these things. We have the privilege of working with them,” he explains.
Sometimes, he thinks, Western garden design has lost that link with the Creator. “Some of our gardens today can be very superficial. Many have lost their spiritual roots. I try very hard to bring a quality of spirituality to all the gardens I design.” Visitors agree. Despite the crowds at Chelsea, this garden is serene.
So how is it achieved? The planting takes the visitor, literally, on a journey from darkness to light with its innovative use of planting. The colour spectrum goes from black, purple and red to gold, silver and white. The duality of life, “Darkness and Light”, and the concept of transformation are symbolically represented.
Contrasting forms of plants are selected to reflect this. Sambucus nigra “Black Lace” and the golden Sambucus racemosa “Plumosa Aurea”: dark Physocarpus “Diabolo” contrasting with Physocarpus “Dart’s Gold”.
The path in the lower, dark part of the garden leads past an impressive high wooden sculpture made by Walter Yeoman. “Light” is entered via a bridge crossing over a pool of cleansing water with three glass water jets representing the Holy Trinity. The planting here reinforces the transition with both light and dark zantesdeschias growing at the water’s edge.
This is the first time the Salvation Army has exhibited at Chelsea – better known for its canapés and cocktails than con
nections with homelessness. “We see it as an opportunity to take Christianity out of the church, to communicate with a new audience,” says Major Bill Cochrane, spokesman for the Salvation Army. “We hope our garden will inspire people to think about their own faith, and about God.” Julian Dowle is drawing on both Western and Eastern traditions in his design. In the Bible gardens have a significant role: the risen Christ was first seen, by Mary Magdalene, in the Tomb Garden (she mistook him for the gardener); Christ sweated blood in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before the crucifixion; Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden.
In the East, both Buddhist and Islamic gardens are underpinned by a religious rationale. For Muslims, the garden was believed to possess a spiritual dimension, to be a reflection of
future paradise as revealed in the Koran which describes it as “alYanna”, a word which embraces the two meanings of “garden” and “secret place”. It was expected to be intimate and introspective, a “closed paradise”, invisible from the outside and turned in on itself.
Islam teaches that a sense of unity should pervade life’s diversity, and Islamic gardens were designed to reflect order and regularity. Usually enclosed, the walls gave privacy and provided a retreat. The typical Islamic garden is probably the forerunner of our Christian monastic cloistergarden and the medieval hortus conclusus.
The simple, rectangular design was divided into four by a cross of shallow water – channels representing the Four Rivers of Life. Water meant life – quite literally for desert nomads. A pool was placed at the centre. The design was known as the “chahar bagh”, or “four-fold garden” and is still a fundamental of garden design.
Significantly, the Islamic garden was to be enjoyed by all five senses: the sight and smell of the flowers; the feel and taste of the fruits; the sound of the water, which should just trickle making a gentle murmur. This sound, like soothing music, was considered to be the most pleasant to encourage meditative thought.
These principles are paralleled in another of the world’s great religions, Buddhism. Initially, gardens were seen as re-creations or representations of some aspect of the natural landscape.
A deep-rooted belief in the sanctity of all nature was fundamental to this. It was not sufficient just to admire and enjoy the physical elements of the garden. The true design was only properly fulfilled when a person had so drawn themselves into the spirit of the garden that the picture of it was completed in their own mind.
Sakuteiki, or Notes on Garden Design, was written in the 11th century. By the 14th century the contemplative dry gardens were built for monks of the Zen Temple to seek through meditation their goals of enlightenment and discipline. The Japanese Tea Garden was an enclosed garden where walking along the stepping-stone path to the tea-house was designed to prepare the visitor spiritually for the ritualised tea ceremony just as rinsing the hands and mouth in the stone water basin prepared the body.
Dowle has a strong Christian faith, but his work brings him in contact with those of other faiths, particularly in the East. He regularly works in Japan – currently on garden schemes in Tokyo and Hamamatsu with the Japanese garden-designer Koji Ninomeya.
“Temple gardens were especially for reflection and medita
tion, places of tranquillity away from the problems of the everyday world,” he says. Today strong spiritual beliefs still underpin Japanese garden design.
At a time when our global village resonates with the horrors of war, it is encouraging to find such strong unifying links between the great religions made explicit through the designs of a committed Catholic for one of the international Christian churches.
Julian Dowle lives in Newent, Gloucestershire and worships at Our Lady of Lourdes where he is actively involved in ecumenism. He is a man with a vision: “I once saw television footage of the area in present-day Iraq where the legendary Garden of Eden was supposed to have been,” he says. “I’d love the chance to re-create it and restore it to that mythical glory which it has in the Bible.”