At this year’s Chelsea Flower Show two gardens have stood out for me: The Modern Slavery Garden, designed by talented psychiatric Doctor, turned talented garden designer Juliet Sargeant (who by the way is also the first black woman to ever exhibit at the show...yes in 2016, over a hundred years since it was founded WTF?!?!) and The Antithesis of Sarcophagi Garden by Martin Cook and Gary Breeze. Both were worthy winners of gold medals, but that’s not what unites them. In fact they are opposites, but only in so much that they are two sides of the same coin. All is not as it appears.
The Antithesis of Sarcophagi Garden
The Antithesis of Sacophagi Garden is exactly what it says it is (even if what it says sounds like a rejected title for a third rate undergraduate essay on Foucault’s Order of Things, which it very much is not). Glistening with the greens and purples of woodland textures, the planting is beautiful and rambunctious. That is, if you can see it. This is a woodland in a clearing, to see it the viewer’s eye is cocooned between cracks and peep holes like an Anish Kapoor sculpture, between 44 tonnes of high-walled marble. As shadows from the marble and granite bounce up and under the leaves and between petals and katkins, it evokes that often overlooked patch of garden seen briefly on a dewy morning, when you realise how beautiful it is and how it lives in spite of us, how much life goes on when we’re not looking.
The Modern Slavery Garden
A similar theme runs through The Modern Slavery Garden, but it is far from a jewel-like centre. Sponsored by “The Modern Slavery Garden Campaign” Sargeant’s gold winning design, tells the story of some of the 13000 slaves, of which 5000 are in London, currently living behind Britain’s bright and civilised front doors. Bearded irises, fox gloves, delphiniums, fennels and grasses paint a ring that goes from the purple of liberty to the red of fire. It is at once both inviting and unsettling. This surrounds the solid front doors and a wrought iron fence, which as Sargeant has explained, can be as much about keeping people in, as it is about keeping others out. At the back, two solid oak front doors have been left open. A black and white world of an envy-inducing diamond pathway, gives way to a monotonous sea of slate and a solitary oak tree. Tiles are left scattered like a half finished Escher illustration. Look carefully though and in the shadow of the iron bars and the looming tree, the fresh sprigs of oak saplings are seen to break the monotony. The tree is not alone.
It has been almost 230 years since William Wilberforce stood under an oak tree and declared his life to the ending of slavery. His contribution was great, but it is telling that each oak in Sargeant’s garden has been planted by an individual who has survived slavery in the 21st century. The story of slavery is not confined to the Nineteenth Century, nor to the contribution of one man. The Trafficking in Persons Report estimates that 27 million people are currently enslaved globally, that’s more than the entirety of those trafficked by the transatlantic trade. From nail bars to farms to domestic servants, this is not an issue confined simply to a stereotypical illegal world of sexual, child or drugs trafficking. Sargeant’s garden demands us to look beyond appearances, to look for the saplings planted in plain sight.
Historian by trade. Gardener by passion.