Statues are such a familiar feature in a garden, that it is easy to stop asking why they are there or how they are effective. It is not simply that they are beautiful – some are brutal or Brutalist; they may have a spatial harmony, but they are disruptive and uneasy to the eye. Others, like Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne are exquisite in composition and execution, but the myth represented is one of violence and violation. The subject is as ugly as the object is beautiful. A good friend used to say, “Don’t look for hidden depths, I have only hidden shallows.” We studied philosophy together many years ago, (If presented with a choice of being a gruntled pig or a disgruntled philosopher, she always chose to be the hog). I suppose I am grasping towards the difference between figurative and abstract sculptures. Take our chubby, winged friend pictured below. Putti are highly ambiguous, at once attendees of Bacchic rites and representations of the omniscient creator; a companion of Venus-Aprodite and a messenger of divine wisdom. But, figurative sculptures do have meanings, albeit tricksy, plural, at times contradictory meanings. Their meanings have a history too, an etymology, a traceable lineage and an identity in the present. The danger with abstract sculptures is that they are only form – profound shallows signifying nothing. The British sculptor Henry Moore’s work is the most numerous in public spaces across the globe, I believe. All statues though, even the abstract, are an external and objective condensation of energies; intellectual, cultural, physical, and chemical, perhaps even tectonic. Their presence in a garden is often ‘tonal’ – it sets a mood. The putto pictured on his ball, squeezing grapes into a goblet, is next to a swimming pool. It is a place of leisure, and licence, perhaps.
Whilst pale stone statues work well against a contrasting, darker background such as yew or bay, they can disappear in open space. Lead pieces, on the other hand, are at their best against a clear sky, or the plant substitute for such, an open-structured, blue-flowered plant such as the Russian sage. As Mary Keen observed, ‘blue is the colour of distance’. A blue-toned planting scheme is always restful and airy, whilst the hot yellows and reds are intense and enclosing. Perovskia’s common name is a good indicator of its hardiness and it is fine down to -15Celsius. It will take as much heat as the British summer can muster too, as befits its native habitat of the Steppes. In general though, silver-foliaged plants do not like too much water at any time of year, and it is often not the cold of the British winter which kills these hardy plants, just the incessant wet: their roots rot in the ground. I enjoy Perovskia for itself – like English lavender or Gaura, it moves, giving the breeze substance, making it visible. Perovskia, Lavandula, Gaura, all three would serve as backdrop to the putto – the movement and airiness is the perfect foil to its leaden density.