April is a month where those of us lucky enough to have a garden get outdoors to spruce up after the winter and make space for new plants. Garden design is a matter of personal choice; some like neat, colour-themed borders, whereas others want a naturalistic display. At home in Dorset we garden on a steep slope. It's a project we took on five years ago when we moved here and visiting gardens for inspiration is a pastime I really enjoy. In May 2019 I went to China and had the opportunity to see garden design from a completely new perspective.
The main reason for making the trip was a visit to a Chinese artist in her home for some Chinese Brush Painting lessons (you can read my other blog about that). This blog is about what happened next. When I returned to Shanghai from Wuhu, I had twelve days remaining and was determined to make the most of what Shanghai had to offer.
With the unpromising reputation of "over-populated metropolis", I was surprised to find a multi-faceted place with an abundance of green spaces. One Sunday, I strayed to the outskirts south of the former French Concession, to the 240-acre Botanical Gardens (上海植物园). If you plan to visit Shanghai and wish to retrace my steps, make your way to Shilong Lu (石龙路) metro station on Line 3. Exit the station, cross the main road using the footbridge and walk south straight down Dongqianlu (东泉路) and you arrive at Gate 4 to the gardens. Entry costs 40 yuan (May 2019). It’s a huge open space split into different areas including bamboo groves, pine plantation, rose garden and a stunning orchid house.
I headed straight for the Penjing (盆景) Garden. These are the miniature trees and landscapes that we commonly refer to by the Japanese name “Bonsai”. At the entrance to the Penjing Garden, a carved stone plaque tells me this site was originally part of the Longhua Nursery, established in 1954 and reputedly the largest, oldest and most renowned Penjing site in Shanghai – possibly in the whole of China. In the late 1970s the nursery was transformed into the botanical garden we can visit today.
According to the bonsai expert Peter Chan (see footnote), plants grown in containers existed in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon and in Ancient Egypt. The Romans also kept trimmed plants in decorative pots. The art of bonsai as we know it today probably came from India, where medicine men kept their precious plants in pots close to where they administered natural potions. When Dhyana Buddhists travelled from India to China, Zen Buddhists and high-ranking officials saw how to do it, and became keen bonsai growers too.
The Chinese were interested in a naturalistic look; they collected their specimens in forests or on mountainsides before planting them in containers. Specimens with twisted trunks and interesting forms were prized the most, and rocks were added to create a landscape in miniature. The Japanese learnt the art of bonsai when the Zen Buddhist monks arrived in Japan during the Heian Period (794 – 1190). The Japanese were at that time very enamoured with all things Chinese, and absorbed many of them into their own culture: architecture, horticulture, literature, music, calligraphy and painting. To the art of bonsai they added their own distinctive style by paring down the miniature landscape designs to one single tree. They refined it further by growing their own from seed, and consciously shaping trunk and branches with wire.
Perhaps because Bonsai’s roots lie in Buddhism, there is an intended mindfulness attached to tending these miniature trees. Mindfulness has come to the fore in UK culture in recent years, but oriental cultures seem to have always had an in-built knowledge of it. It's a question of space and balance. In art, traditional Chinese composition purposefully includes blank unpainted areas to symbolise spirituality and encourage the viewer to self-reflect. Whereas in the West, artists were encouraged to cover all the white canvas and fill any spaces with paint, in China and Japan almost three quarters of the paper can remain white. The object we are viewing is perhaps in one corner or possibly at the bottom of the paper. In Chinese landscape paintings especially, tradition dictates that the foreground should relate to "Earth" (trees, people, houses), the background to "Heaven" (mountains), and the middle is "Emptiness".
Similarly, oriental gardens want to provide reflective space too.
The Humble Administrator, Wang Xiancheng, created his garden in the early 1500s in Suzhou after he had retired from a rather tumultuous career as an official. It was his mindfulness project. It shows how gardening has always been a great stress-reliever. It was astounding to see so many pavilions, all placed as the central focus in areas designed to provide a beautiful view and mental space to think. There were spaces within spaces. The geometry of space isn't forgotten here either; whether circular or angular, there is a harmonious balance. The planting is dignified, by which I mean it slots perfectly into the whole without shouting for attention. I doubt I will attempt to mimic this in my own garden, but it inspired me nevertheless.
On my return to the UK, the bonsai in those two gardens stayed in my mind for many months. To begin with, I didn't know how to process all the inspiring things I'd seen. Finally, during the summer of 2021, I began to make sense of it all. Sketches became paper cut-outs, silhouettes were placed within a fan format traditionally used in Chinese painting, and on one day in the studio I created a whole series of monoprints experimenting with the balance between ink and space. The "Shanghai Garden" series of monoprints would not have been possible without my almost daily visits to the Painting Gallery at the Shanghai Museum, where I began to grasp the essence of composition in Chinese art, and why it differs so greatly from western art.
The "Shanghai Garden" series consists of nine large (roughly A1) monoprints. All different, but related to each other. Four of those originals have been selected and are now available as limited edition giclée prints (A3). They are so well colour-matched to the originals, you wouldn't know the difference. They are printed on beautifully smooth 300gsm Hahnemühle paper. Most important of all, they are affordable.
Please do take a moment to visit my SHOP and view the full range. Why not visit my WEBSITE and sign up for my quarterly newsletter? If and when I manage to exhibit all the nine original monoprints in this series - and others - you will be the first to find out.
Thanks for reading, and happy gardening!
Chan, Peter, 2002. Bonsai. 1st Ed. London: PRC Publishing Ltd.