From the top window at the back of our house I look down on three gardens. To the right is a wilderness, abandoned to brambles, ground elder, bindweed and buddleia. Then our patch: some of it is paved, there is a frog pond, a fig tree, acanthus, bamboo and cranesbill. To the left an Italian neighbour has set out rows of plants in pots; she also has a well-pruned grape vine. You can see the planting she’s done here in London in front of houses in any hill town in Tuscany. Cheek by jowl, each in a piece of land not more than twenty feet by forty, are wilderness, cultivated informality and disciplined horticulture. All make pictures, two by intention, one through neglect.

The desire to make landscape pictures is particularly strong in Britain. Gardeners’ ideas have been available in print from the time of the great 18th-century landscape gardeners and on through Robinson and Jekyll right up to Christopher Lloyd and Beth Chatto. The highest achievement in gardening, even when plots are small, has always been seen as the creation of a picture. Gardens in which plants are grown for food, medicine or animal feed have their traditions, but their look is determined by more important things than aesthetics. Neat rows, geometric beds and espaliered trees are deeply satisfying to look at, but that is not the reason peaches are trained this way or cabbages spaced just so.

Picture gardens tend to put painters off. In The Tragic Muse Henry James describes the reaction of a young painter called Nick Dormer to a garden of that sort. Nick feels himself ‘catch the smile’ of ‘named and numbered acres’. He appreciates that they have a ‘charm to which he had not perhaps hitherto done justice’ and doesn’t dislike them as much as he used to: he has less of ‘the impression he had received when younger from showy "views” of fine country-seats that had pressed and patted nature, as by the fat hands of "benches” of magistrates and landlords into supreme respectability and comfort’. But he still cannot take a made landscape quite seriously.

Art of the Garden, at Tate Britain until 30 August, is about pictures of gardens, not gardens as such, and one notices quite soon that there are more wildernesses and cabbage patches than fine prospects and flowering borders. Painters don’t love a garden and reject views already made into pictures. As well as pictures there are artworks made with flowers, and records of gardens made by artists. A tenuous historical line (‘The Garden in British Art, 1800 to the Present Day’ is the catalogue’s subtitle) is not enough to make it all hang together. The exhibition has its pleasures, but the curators, having searched the Tate basement and provincial galleries, have found less to make an exhibition of than one might have expected.

From the very beginning there are pictures of English vegetable gardens and Scottish cabbage patches – examples of a long-lived genre, the rural picturesque. But the absence of fine gardens is more than a dislike of ready-made subjects. One reason well-made gardens don’t paint well is that cultivated plants en masse don’t compose themselves as plants left to their own devices do, and painters tend instead to pick up on the artificial foci that gardeners build their views around: a spread of water, garden sculpture or garden architecture. Rubbish, ruined greenhouses and piles of unused pots work just as well. Edwin Smith, who took the pictures for influential books about British gardens in the 1960s, is represented in the exhibition by five photographs. One shows nettles growing through a garden seat, others the head of a sphinx, cow parsley and a classical bust, a marble nymph in a grotto and Vita Sackville-West’s gardening boots. All pictures in rather than of gardens. Paul Nash uses a grotto, a swordfish sword, a stone hen and a set of steps to articulate the greenery (which, because his photographs, like Smith’s, are in black and white, is not green at all). While water and sculpture are picked up by painters and photographers, they are not needed urgently in a real garden. The experience of walking along a big herbaceous border, taking in the complicated plant relationships one by one, is more satisfying than a view of the whole thing (there are some very fluffy watercolours here to prove that borders taken as single items are pretty shapeless).

Imminent dereliction is, for painters, the best state for a garden to be in. As well as C. Eliot Hodgkin’s pictures of plants on London bomb sites, there is a little picture here by Lucian Freud of buddleia, a major coloniser of abandoned buildings and waste ground and the plant most often to be seen in his big pictures of house-backs and overgrown junk seen from a high window.

After overgrown gardens the geometry of well-tended rows is the most productive subject. Vegetable plots give a hatched texture to pictures of wartime allotments in Bethnal Green and St James’s Square. In these, and in pictures by William Ratcliffe and Spencer Gore, it is the architecture of London and its suburbs and the front at Brighton which are the real subjects. Deadpan looks at present-day English suburbs in photographs by Martin Parr and a painting of a patio by David Rayson are also urban landscapes rather than garden pictures. In Rayson’s picture white plastic chairs on a neatly mown lawn lean around a table as if avoiding the gaze of the identical new brick houses which surround them.

There are pieces in the sections entitled ‘Representing and Intervening’ and ‘Coloured Grounds’ in which the reference to gardens is so oblique that ‘Florists’ Shops’ would serve as well. Photographs of Marc Quinn’s display of exotic flowers frozen in silicone and Anya Gallaccio’s Red on Green (‘10,000 fragrant English tea roses, heads laid on a bed of thorns’) give the exhibition a bit of glamour; the lift would be greater if the Quinn piece were more than a photographic record. But they have as much and as little to do with gardens as a buttonhole or a bridal bouquet.

More significant in terms of the exhibition’s theme – and harder to show – are the gardens made by artists: Ivon Hitchens’s six acres on Lavington Common near Petworth, Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta in the Pentland Hills, the garden Patrick Heron had in Cornwall and the garden Derek Jarman made on a shingle bank at Dungeness. Each makes different use of plants in landscape. Finlay’s intention was polemical and the exhibition includes a set of photographs of his garden, mounted in pairs like the pages of an open book. It is called Nature Over Again after Poussin (a play on Cézanne’s desire to do Poussin after nature). Each is ‘signed’ by initials cut into a stone. NP (Nicolas Poussin), AD (Albrecht Dürer) and so on. These, and other historically and politically more challenging set-ups, which are not shown here (a small carving of an aircraft carrier, quotations from revolutionary texts), both use and subvert the tradition of the great English landscape gardens, in which a circumambulation is punctuated by temples and sculpture.

The wind-swept cliff-top garden which Heron carried on – it was established in the 1920s by William Arnold-Forster – was a presence in his paintings (and referred to in titles: Autumn Garden, Azalea Garden) which were conceived as abstract statements and never intended to make direct reference to a view. The look of Ivon Hitchens’s acreage, on the other hand (it was more managed woodland than garden), can be read in his paintings. The large brushstrokes have much in common with those of Howard Hodgkin, but are closer to things seen. Even if you can’t be sure a slab of white is light reflected off water or broad patches of grey are single leaves or whole trees, you sense that everything in the picture had its correlative in something in the world.

Derek Jarman’s Prospect Cottage garden at Dungeness is the most remarkable artist’s garden of them all. Some of the plants in it – like sea kale – also grow as natives in the surrounding shingle bank. It is as though the garden had spread to take in the whole landscape. Old tools, bits of driftwood, bits of abandoned coastal defences and machinery can be seen among the plants: found sculpture, but, like the plants themselves, assembled at a higher density here than on the surrounding shingle. The picture garden tends to cut off the world, to make rooms to be enclosed by screens of trees. When it does let in the surrounding countryside it does so by way of prospects which borrow from it selectively. At Prospect Cottage the nuclear power station, the lighthouse, the shacks, cottages and boat club, even the parked cars, do not feel like an intrusion. The garden, which is as much part of the landscape as the beached boats, is invulnerable to them, absorbs them rather than hides from them.

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