Sophie Walker has transformed her uniquely positioned, lifelong love of nature into a career making remarkable, award-winning gardens. Her careful choice of words there - ‘making’ rather than designing, which she elaborates on during our interview - offers an insight into the mindset of the youngest woman to ever present a garden at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show: she is prolific without being afraid to delve into thoughtful dissections of bigger-picture issues.
It is these twin qualities that are embodied in our conversation with Sophie, which we share with you below. Our talk traverses diverse terrain: from childhood dreams of the Amazon to the relationship between gardens and art, the universal challenges that women face in a male-dominated system and the intrinsic qualities of Japanese gardening that form the focus of her upcoming book for Phaidon. As her world begins to take shape, you quickly find that every answer is as considered and conscientious as her own creative output.
How did you first become interested in gardens and the horticulture world? When did you realise it was something you wanted to do professionally?
As a child I was never afraid of flowers or of wild untamed landscape; I had fantasies about travelling up the Amazon river. Once, when my grandma had been left in charge of me, my poor mother came home to find that I had snipped all the roses off the bushes in the gardens - all the ones I could reach, that is - to make gardens with them on her baking trays! I never imagined though, that horticulture could be a 'serious' work, so I trained in art history and art. Then I went on holiday on a trip into the Amazon jungle. We were headed to stay with an indigenous tribe, and as we chugged up river in a motorised canoe, I saw a fully grown tree being dragged by the river back down into the river. I had never seen such a connection between growth and decay. The river banks were being eroded by the rushing water, and then new islands were being created with silt deposits that had been carried downstream by the river, it was an astonishing site. When we arrived that night after trekking for hours in the jungle, we camped on the banks of a lake - a lake that was black from the tannin of the surrounding tree roots, such that it was completely mirror reflective. I promised myself there and then that I would return to study horticulture, and I did. I had no idea it would lead to making gardens.
In 2014 you became the youngest woman to design a garden at RHS Chelsea flower show. How did this come about, and how did your contribution, Cave Pavilion, take shape?
I was very determined to set a challenge to myself and challenge the norms of Chelsea Flower Show. I wanted to investigate what we think of as beautiful - after all the flower of Chelsea Flower Show is beautiful, but it's an immediate beauty, an immediately recognisable beauty because of all the formal and sensual components - shape, colour, texture, smell. Leaves and decay are more complicated in relation to beauty - they don't smell like roses! They are difficult and challenging and I think that the jungle, which might seem so disorderly, is interesting because of this fact. It is in fact completely ordered, self-made, auto-generated: a complex and inherently beautiful system. I am interested in rare and unusual plants primarily from a design point of view. We are so subtly tuned to our surroundings that to present plants that we are simply unable to locate produces a kind of body-mind dislocation; we don't know where we are! So there can be no preconceived ideas, and I think this frees us better to engage with design itself. So for Cave Pavilion, we used plants that had been collected in the wild from seed by plant hunters Sue and Bleddyn Wynn-Jones. Every single plant could be fully traced back to where and when it was collected, which is quite extraordinary. We included many new species and even a new genus, which they named Ucodendron whartonii after their guide in the Vietnamese hills called Uc and their botanist friend Peter Wharton.
It was important to work as a young woman at Chelsea. So often the boys are promoted over the girls, as if its expected they can deal with contractors and building sites better. It's a real genuine challenge to be taken seriously as a young woman, (it is astonishing how many jobs I've been asked not to charge for, when I am sure a young man in my position wouldn't be asked such a thing.) I am very keen to take a strong stand with young women in horticulture.
You have a book on Japanese gardens coming out early next year and you lecture on the subject also. What draws you to this particular brand of gardening?
I've just finished writing a book that I've spent two and a half years on, which explores the conceptual nature of the Japanese garden. The Japanese garden is so conceptually ambitious that it is able to reach to the arts, philosophy, even religion. I feel that invention in garden-making has been left behind, while its counterpart architecture and the other arts have moved on. The Japanese garden is intellectually astute and alive and this interests me deeply. In the Japanese garden, such is the conceptual ambition that a rock may not be a simple rock, but a mountain! It is an extraordinary leap of imagination that is prompted by the Japanese garden. When I first visited the Japanese garden, I was completely confounded; I didn't know what I was looking at or why it was meaningful, but I knew it mattered. So I returned over and over again. I've now written about this philosophical ambition of garden making in Japan, and covered one hundred gardens.
You studied History of Art initially and much of your work appears to be devised from the starting point of an artist rather than, say - gardener. What is it do you think about flowers that are so ripe for artistic exploration?
Art is clear in its aspiration to the highest of cultural forms. Garden design traditionally has aspired to the great arts too - think of Versailles the great garden of the sun, brimming with political ambition and godly splendour, or of the great Islamic paradise gardens, of the ancient Japanese gardens; these gardens were built with the belief that the garden could aspire to the greatest of world objects and world places - even of heaven itself. Somehow I feel we've lost that sense of ambition. In fact, I don't like to call myself a "garden designer" because I believe that design for the sake of design is redundant, completely meaningless. I tend to say that I "make" gardens, it feels more tactile and more dimensioned. I don't believe that making gardens is so different from writing a poem, or practicing religion, or making architecture. But to take this view we need to educate ourselves away from trade and industry and back to something literary.
Why is public space and green space in urban areas so important? What do you try to achieve with your commissions in these arenas?
I believe that the garden (and I refer here to all gardens both in the public space and private) is one of the great human achievements. It encourages us towards communal space, towards democratic activity, towards co-habitation - of course I mean with plants, but I also mean with each other. It is a space that requires a very particular kind of care - continued, patient care, and through our seemingly ordinary contact with the garden, something transformative arises. The garden affirms to us that it is possible to cultivate a place of play and discovery and imagination. In early 14th Century Florence, Brunelleschi built public space that would encourage men to walk and think 'more nobly'.
I truly believe that in the same way medicine is hailed as the great hero of the twentieth century, plants will prove the heroes of the twenty first century. In our attack on the environment, we wage war against what it means to be human. The garden has great ethical possibility and in the garden we are able to reorientate ourselves with the true nature of things, with the true democracy of things. This is why public space matters and this is why the 21st century is so important. We need to be deeply ambitious in the public space we are willing to make, and those who commission public space need to be equally ambitious in their aspiration for public space.
What would be your general advice to aspiring urban gardeners trying to make the most out of their likely small London plots?
Watch and feel for a plant. Remember intuition above all. Look at the fall of the soil, the texture and colour, what smell it gives off when its wet. Use your hands when gardening, if you can't physically feel a plant, then you can't feel for it. Never use a machete! I've recently learnt this on a job in Bahamas. Every cut needs to be calculated and precisely cut, one by one.
Every space can be a garden; plants first require intuition, then knowledge. In other words, to have a feeling for a plant is more valuable than any academic. But to be intuitive takes practice and time just as learning the piano cannot be done instantly. A garden could be made in a jam jar, on a baking tray (as I made my rose garden -and the Easter garden too!), in an egg shell.... Every place, every thing can be played with and filled with imagination, if only we are able....
Find out more about Sophie Walker and her work here.