Vignettes from a suburban front yard observed

Richard Aitken

I am a relative newcomer to the work of Vicki Mason and it was through the Australian Garden History Society that we met, rather than through craft or jewellery circles. So in her work I see not just beautiful objects, artfully crafted for adornment, but miniature representations of gardens and their plants, and it is on that basis that I evoke personal responses.

Vicki Mason’s earlier Botanical Fictions series (2011) bore a resemblance to flowers of the kind breathlessly published in the monthly floricultural journals of the early nineteenth century. And indeed her works were imbued with something of the abstract idealism of early nineteenth century florists’ flowers (codified in the 1830s by British floriculturist George Glenny in his ‘properties of flowers’ wherein petal numbers, shape, and disposition were rigorously prescribed for the purposes of competition). The Ever Popular Camelia traces its lineage to these Botanical Fictions.

Aside from the ancient tradition in jewellery of depicting plant forms—which Mason keeps alive—these Botanical Fictions also evoked the intriguing history of artificial flowers. Associated principally with late eighteenth and nineteenth century French fashion, they formed part of the adornment using vegetation that my colleague Elizabeth Anya-Petrivna characterises as ‘wearing the garden’. The distinction between real and artificial was often difficult to discern and at its most extreme was even anthropomorphised into whimsical flower people in the work of artists such as French cartoonist J.J. Grandville (in Les Fleurs Animées (1847) or The Flowers Personified). Overlaid on this were sentimental nineteenth-century notions of ‘the meaning of flowers’. The Cheerful Pomegranate celebrates this rich fusion.

Vicki Mason’s new Vignettes represent a move forward, however, from generic floral work to larger assemblages of garden plants, and from decontextualised objects towards more literal, location-based work. Her earlier work has now morphed into a wider palette of plants—lawn, shrubs, and trees—alongside more familiar flowering plants. Standard Roses all in a Row, Welcome Mat Lawn, and Clipped and Neat underscore this shift. These assemblages are given subtle context in the gallery setting by white architectonic silhouettes (replaced by more fluid backdrops when worn on the body). Just as these Vignettes progress thematically beyond the floral, so the locus for this work moves from the generic to the suburban front yard.

Suburbia has long been a site of cultural investigation and inspiration. In terms of architecture think Peter Corrigan; art, Howard Arkley; popular music Dave Warner; fashion, Mambo. While this popular appraisal burgeoned in the 1970s, the garden as a specific site of cultural investigation is a little more recent, with authors and historians such as Katie Holmes, Susan Martin, and Kylie Mirmohamadi ‘reading the garden’ and Peter Timms scrutinising the ‘quarter acre block’. Mash-up and Faux Grasses speak to the special qualities of the suburban garden.

Vicki Mason’s work is rooted in her adopted Notting Hill in Melbourne’s south-east. As a self-professed emigrant (albeit from New Zealand—hardly the exotic East) she sees her suburb as a distinctive field of study, approaching it with an artist’s eye, discerning rapid change. Her work is given specificity by the landscaping of both the old and new architecture of Notting Hill, of which Sentinel Conifers and Big Tree form bleeding chunks in the true operatic sense. But this is a post-war estate, so the ‘old’ of Mason’s lexicon is the 1950s to 1970s. And the terrain is not the ‘designer suburbs’ of which Judith O’Callaghan & Charles Pickett write—expressive project houses by the likes of Merchant Builders and Petitt & Sevitt—but the speculative villas of Glenville Homes and A.V. Jennings with trim eaves and perhaps a single eucalypt amid lawn rather than an earthy bush garden shaded by rough-sawn beams. O’Callaghan & Pickett lament the trend towards ‘Suburbia on steroids’, a land of giants—large new houses on seemingly small blocks wherein small houses once sat on relatively large plots.

This shift of scales is also perhaps unwittingly mirrored in these Vignettes. Recalling Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), when translated from life size to jewellery these become Lilliputian miniatures, diminutive though rich in content. Mason—as Notting Hill’s Gulliver—picks her way carefully through neighbouring streets, empathetically noticing variety where many see monotony, subtle richness rather than mindless blandness. Suburban flaneurs may not get to see backyards, but front gardens are a snapshot capturing the local ethos. These are not the productive gardens of post-war Australia, the richly yielding ‘harvest of the suburbs’ of which Andrea Gaynor writes; nor again are they the tight designer chic of Paul Bangay or Jamie Durie. These are unashamedly vernacular expressions of venerated garden traditions; distilled and tamed yes, of mixed parentage, but to the philosophic eye never dull.

For work that is explicitly localised, are there wider implications? Are there national or international themes that might be examined? Strappy hints at universality, wherein its favoured status in generic resort gardens—differing only in the palette of plants dictated by climate—is here in less extravagant hands turned into low maintenance landscaping of the sort favoured by government instrumentalities and low-brow commerce. Perhaps this is a theme for a future series.

Vicki Mason also moves in this series towards a greater interest in sustainability, now preferring natural materials to synthetic. This mirrors a trend in garden making but also points to a conundrum of modernity—is functionalism and truth to materials sufficient? As I am exploring in my forthcoming book Cultivating Modernism, these two dicta are hallmarks of modernism, yet are problematic when applied to gardens. Plants have a highly evolved functionality and what is truth when plants are concerned? Local? Australian? Cosmopolitan? Promiscuous?

So are Vicki Mason’s Vignettes modernist? Their function is suited to use, even if some are a little ‘out there’; they exhibit truth to materials, even if playfully used; they are certainly crisp. Perhaps they are post-modernist? Whimsical, maybe, but they are not overtly witty or parodic. So, no, perhaps they are statements of modernism after all. Wrestling with the conundrum of modernity and gardens, Peter Shepheard in Modern Gardens (1953) noted that beauty and pleasure were widely regarded as principal functions of gardens and concluded that maybe this was sufficient—aesthetics trumped the more pragmatic functional concerns of the built environment.

Vicki Mason describes the evolution from Botanical Fictions to Vignettes as ‘a small leap for me’ and we rejoice that she has leapt the garden fence. Her output is finely wrought, carefully observed, subtly nuanced; and her trajectory from flower to garden will surely further broaden to bring this astute eye to wider fields. We can only wait with keen anticipation.


Recommended reading

Gaynor, Andrea, Harvest of the Suburbs: an environmental history of growing food in Australian cities, University of Western Australia Press, Crawley, WA, 2006.

Holmes, Katie; Susan K. Martin; & Kylie Mirmohamadi, Reading the Garden: the settlement of Australia, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2008.

Muenzner, Daniel, and the Notting Hill History Group, Notting Hill: memories of a village, Notting Hill Community Association, Notting Hill, Vic., 2009.

O’Callaghan, Judith, & Charles Pickett, Designer Suburbs: architects and affordable homes in Australia, NewSouth Publishing, Sydney, 2012.

Shepheard, Peter, Modern Gardens, The Architectural Press, London, 1953.

Timms, Peter, Australia’s Quarter Acre: the story of the ordinary suburban garden, The Miegunyah Press, Carlton, Vic., 2006.


Biographical note

Richard Aitken writes widely on garden history and is the author of Gardenesque (2004), Botanical Riches (2006), Seeds of Change (2006), and The Garden of Ideas (2010).


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