Naturalistic native gardens might be a familiar concept these days but they were once a novelty.
When Gordon Ford began combining rocks, water and Australian plants in the 1940s to make landscapes that looked like they had sprung up of their own accord, he was going against the grain.
Ford was never one to accept the status quo. He was interested in ideas, debate and the sort of local ethos first espoused by Edna Walling and Ellis Stones. Ford’s gardens reflected his environmental approach to living and, over a 50-year career, he worked on thousands of projects.
But almost 20 years after his death, landscape architect, horticulturalist and university lecturer Annette Warner says our reading of Ford has only skimmed the surface.
While we might be able to cite key aspects of his designs – an emphasis on “mass and void”, the non-defining of boundaries and asymmetrical layouts – she says there is a lack of detail beyond this.
“I felt I was reading the same things [about Ford’s work] over and over again,” she says. “There were the (design) concepts that had risen to the surface of this complex soup but we didn’t really understand how to make the recipe, or even know the ingredients. Natural Australian garden design has a very strong association with an environmental approach but what does that actually mean, and what did it mean for Gordon?”
Over the past five-and-a-half years Warner has set about amassing an assortment of archival materials so that we can start to find out. The results are displayed in an exhibition at the McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery in Langwarrin.
Warner has noted every text Ford kept in his diverse gardening-book library, sorted through all his gardening journals and newspaper cuttings and listed the plants he grew in his home garden.
She has spoken to his family, friends and acquaintances and examined historic photographs of his landscapes being constructed. She made a film, built more than 50 paper clay models of his rock arrangements and had his Eltham garden measured and mapped (the property was bought by Ford in 1945 and sold after his widow, gardener and writer Gwen Ford, died in 2012).
There’s seemingly no end to the avenues Warner followed. She explored Ford’s role as an environmental activist and his place in the dynamic circle of artists, designers and writers working in and around Eltham last century.
It has led to a tightly packed show that is both homely and encyclopedic. The personal and the professional are bound together. There are paintings by his friends, photographs by his second wife, renowned photographer Sue Ford, and recordings from the early 1980s in which he speaks to Barbara Blackman for an oral history project.
Warner has fun with her finds. She transfers information into an array of high- and low-tech mediums: the show includes handwritten lists, dried plant material, a display on an iPad and a circular floor projection.
Atlas of Memory: (Re)Visualising Gordon Ford’s Natural Australian Garden is at the McClelland Sculpture Park and Gallery until November 11.
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