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What can we learn about artists from their gardens?

'I have a dream sometimes," writes Olivia Laing in her new book, A Garden Against Time. "I dream I'm in a house, and discover a door I didn't know was there. It opens into an unexpected garden, and for a weightless moment I find myself inhabiting new territory, flush with potential … What might grow here, what rare roses will I find?"

It's a beautiful book that explores the garden as a political site – of sanctified and at times selfish seclusion in an unequal world – but also as a place of healing, hope, creativity and renewal. Melding biography with art, Laing looks at the restorative power of gardens during times of distress and plague, from planting her own during the pandemic to Derek Jarman's Prospect Cottage in Dungeness, where he settled after his HIV diagnosis and intertwined sculpture with growing santolina.

Reading this at the inception of spring, when plants are bursting out of their winter cocoons, reminded me of the artists who sought out gardens: as places of refuge, as places to exhibit their work, or, as Laing writes, to "obliterate the border between cultivated and wild". I love visiting artists' gardens. It's a way of seeing their work anew and can provide a fresh insight into their character, as both gardener and artist.

My favourite remains Niki de Saint Phalle's Tarot Garden in southern Tuscany. Saint Phalle was 25 when she declared, in 1955, that she would one day build a sculpture garden. She had visited Antoni Gaudí's Park Güell in Barcelona, having turned to art while in a psychiatric hospital. Twenty years later, she was hospitalized again, this time for a lung abscess. Forced to relocate to an environment with cleaner air, she settled in Tuscany where, after being given a plot of land, she started work on her "garden of joy".


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