The 2014 M&G show garden, which won Gold. Photo: Darryl Moore
Designer Cleve West draws from memory and experience to create complex, alluring spaces. By Darryl Moore.
Cleve West is a sought-after, award-winning designer with experience in public, private and show projects, who is also known for his dedication to his allotment. While much of contemporary garden design circulates in a currency of cut-and-paste familiarity, his work maintains a design language that exhibits a very personal sense of aesthetics and integrity.
Fragments of memories are subtly and often subconsciously disseminated throughout his designs. His teenage encounters with the landscape of Exmoor, for example, were the inspiration for his garden for show sponsors M&G for RHS Chelsea 2016. “Going into spaces that you can’t quite figure out, understand or see adds another layer to a garden,” he says. “It’s like that simple thing of looking at a plant when it’s just about to open – it’s almost better than when it is open. So not quite being able to see something, or wondering what’s going to happen or where it goes, is quite an alluring thing in design.”
Interpreting abstract impressions into material designs is a skill West has honed over many years. He studied art as part of his degree, and then worked for fine art publishers Petersburg Press. He also spent a brief sojourn in David Hockney’s studio.
Given this background, it is hardly surprising that a prominent feature of West’s design signature is sculpture. His designs have successfully integrated bold, large, abstract sculptural forms, injecting unexpected dimensions of scale and mass that manipulate the spatial dynamics of a site.
Cleve’s 2012 Brewin Dolphin garden was another Best in Show winner. Photo: Darryl Moore
Early in his career, he collaborated with sculptor Johnny Woodford, and in a series of gardens over the past decade at RHS Chelsea he has worked fruitfully with French artists Serge Bottagisio and Agnes Decoux, as well as producing some pieces of his own. He considers the use of sculpture in show gardens important in making an impact in a crowded field. “There’s not much you can do these days that hasn’t been seen before,” he explains. “It is theatre, and you have to try to make an impression. Most people are nervous about putting large scale heavy mass into a small space, but nine times out of ten it can work in your favour.”
West’s highest-profile public project has been Horatio’s Garden for the Duke of Cornwall Spinal Treatment Centre at Salisbury District Hospital. Olivia Chapple contacted West to create a garden for patients in memory of her son Horatio.
West designed the formations of the paths and walls as metaphors for the process of patients coming to terms with life-changing injury. The project received high praise, particularly from West’s peers who bestowed on it three of the major SGD Awards in 2014. But the greatest reward for him has been watching people come out into the garden and seeing their responses. He believes it is the only garden he has designed that has been useful and helped people: “If there’s one job that makes me thankful for being a garden designer, it’s that one,” he says.
• To find out more about Cleve’s work, see www.clevewest.com
• Cleve’s book Our Plot, about the allotment he tends with his partner Christine, was published in 2011. The Bushy Park allotments in London occasionally hold open days for visitors – see www.bushyparkallotments.org.uk
• Read his thoughts on sculpture in show gardens at http://on.ft.com/1XShAmw