Allan Pollok-Morris' 'Close' encounters

In a new book and exhibition, photographer Allan Pollok-Morris discovers the best of British landscape design and land art.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2011; 3:25 PM

At a moment in the year when people are looking to spring and thinking about their gardens, landscape photographer Allan Pollok-Morris is rethinking the whole idea of the garden.

Is it a place of swooning beauty? No. On an old city campus, plumes of pampas grass brighten a forlorn space but cannot quite transform it. A place of flowers? Not in a contemporary town garden, where the landscape is a study in lawn panels and other rectilinear planes. Of permanence? No. Look at an artist named Jim Buchanan, who etches a labyrinth in the sand to be erased by the tide.

You can assess Pollok-Morris's eclectic take on the garden in his book "Close: Landscape Design and Land Art in Scotland" (Northfield Editions, 2010) and in an exhibit at the U.S. Botanic Garden near the Capitol.

Close, as in near, is an old Scottish term for a landscape that is so inspirational, "it's as if the heavens are closer to Earth," Pollok-Morris said in an interview.

Through his lens, a garden is many things, but not amorphous. Indeed, he has captured the work of some of the most focused minds in the landscape world today, and yet you come away from the show realizing that the old barriers between flower gardens, landscape gardening and land art are as artificial as gardenmaking itself.

Pollok-Morris said he is open to various interpretations of his chosen terrains. In each, he says, he strives "to convey a sense or an experience of the place."

Some of the landscapes are distinctly of their region. Others offer universal inspiration. From a purely horticultural perspective, Scotland is an engaging place to garden. The west coast is wet, the east coast is not (so much), the days extend into the night in the growing season, and the amazing temperance of the Gulf Stream is countered by the effects of the coastal winds. It is a land of the north, and even after six years on the project, the 38-year-old photographer is still amazed that a country sharing latitudes with Alaska can support such lushness.

A few of the featured landscapes really grab me, in different ways. Andy Goldsworthy has elevated the high craft of dry stonewalling into an art form. (His exhibit "Roof" was installed in the National Gallery of Art's East Building in 2005.) Near the village of Penpont, Goldsworthy assembled an egglike sentinel recalling the ancient Celtic stone piles or cairns. It is another installation of his that I find mesmerizing: a brownstone arch emanating from the opening of a stone barn. The arch seems to provide a symbolic link between the stone of the barn and the soil whence it came. The muscular arch itself is vernacular in form and material, and yet its use here is strange. The resulting tension is incredibly effective.

Pollok-Morris said he was most inspired by Little Sparta, the art garden near Edinburgh devised by the late Ian Hamilton Finlay and known for its gardens, sculptures and monuments inscribed in "concrete poetry": poetic quotations carved in stone and wood and given heightened meaning by their placement in the environment.

The photographer also likes the way the designer Douglas Coltart forms peaceful landscapes that observe the cardinal rule of gardenmaking in scenic territory: Don't compete with it.

I have a handful of favorites, from afar, Little Sparta being one of them. I am drawn to an estate garden and the dramatic siting of the big turreted Dunbeath Castle on the seaside cliffs of northeast Scotland. Here, landscape designer Xa Tollemache has reworked old walled gardens with tough, big-boned but decorative shrubs, and perennials that are both pliant and defiant in the gale-force winds.

I would like to spend an afternoon with the pop artist and sculptor Gerald Laing in his castle garden, not least to observe the pontoon-bicycle boat in action on his pond.

Pollok-Morris's work also records, perhaps not consciously, how the British garden has changed in the past 20 years. The eye-catching, color-driven floral border, dripping in rambling roses and tender wall shrubs, held out a false archetype. Today, the sizzle in the garden is with herbaceous plants - perennials, grasses, bulbs, even annuals - and the knack is to assemble them in a bold and coherent way that avoids a visual jumble. This is not just a British idea; indeed, it is more Dutch, German and, yes, American.

At Cambo House, a country estate in Fife, gardener Elliott Forsyth has pulled this off with striking blocks of summer perennials and grasses in shades of purple, white and green. In another image, we see a foreground of echinops veiling bands of verbena, grasses, plume poppies, buddleias and what look like red blanket flowers.

This is exciting, vital gardening, but in the broader survey of "Close," this horticultural emphasis seems positively traditional.

If you go

The photography exhibit "Close: A Journey in Scotland" is in the U.S. Botanic Garden Conservatory's East Gallery, 100 Maryland Ave. SW. It runs through June 5. The conservatory is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, call 202-225-8333 or visit Free.

March 28 talk: Hear landscape designer Xa Tollemache speak at the Botanic Garden at 6:30 p.m. Free; reservations required. For more information, visit

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