||The Times Magazine
9 May 1998: p60-62
"Dream Works" by Clive King
With nature as his canvas, Peter Bartlett has transformed his family's woodland into a magical encounter with art
The best reaction Peter Bartlett has had to the Gardens of Gaia was from a woman who said she felt like Alice stepping through the looking glass into a different world, he recalls, smiling as he relates this testimonial to the extraordinary synthesis of art and nature he is creating in 22 acres of woodland in Kent.
At the heart of the park is an artificial lake - a replica of Lake
Chad in Africa - which was created in 1912 by previous owners as a
memorial to their explorer son. Bartlett, 28, who is infectiously
passionate about his enterprise, points proudly to a metal figure
- moulded from his own body - which squats, Buddha-like, in the centre
of the lake. He says he wanted "something which would give off
peaceful vibes" to visitors lounging by the water.
The woods make up a relatively tiny corner of Bartlett's farming family's 500-acre estate, but they have held an aura of enchantment for him ever since he played in them as a child. He lives in a cottage on the outskirts of the gardens, while his parents' house is elsewhere on the land.
"I did a broad-based arts degree at Oxford Poly," he says,
"so I had come across environmental art before, but I had no
particular interest in it. My own work was film and video; this is
a complete turn-around from that." Perhaps even a reaction against
it? "In a way."
Four years ago, as he was walking his dogs through the overgrown woodland,
the idea for the Gardens of Gaia came to him "in a moment of
inspiration. And a really nice moment, because that suddenly was my
The first obstacle was his family. Although the wood was of little
or no use for farming purposes, it took a while to convince them.
"It was a fairly fully formed idea, but difficult to explain.
I was aiming more for an atmosphere, an experience, rather than saying
the place is going to look like this."
Bartlett embarked on the convoluted process of obtaining planning
permission. "The council asked lots of questions, and letters
went back and forth for months. Finally, the planning committee passed
it, and once it had the official stamp of approval, it became more
real to my parents."
Bartlett enlisted his 25-year-old brother, Richard, to help with the
arduous task of cutting and burning through foliage to "make
the place presentable without losing its essence". He was mindful
not to impose too much order on the chaos. "The objective was
to befriend rather than tame nature."
Eighteen months later, he embarked on phase two. An advertisement
in the Artists Newsletter garnered more than a hundred letters
from sculptors replying to his invitation to live and work with him
in the woods. "I wanted them to come without any preconceptions,
get to know the place, and then formulate ideas. They were chosen
on the strength of their existing and on the fact that I had to like
them because, in most cases, was going to be living with them for
a month or so." That the artists spent time in the gardens -
living with him in the cottage - while creating their pieces is important
to him: "It feels more genuine because of that. The pieces have
grown into their spot as opposed to being brought in and plonked down."
So far, Bartlett has contributed just one work of his own - a classical
labyrinth design, formed from a thousand willow cuttings. "My
creative thirst is quenched from just being out there with the artists,"
he says, "but there will come a point when I'll want to do more,
but for now I'm happy with the organisational side."
Having said that, he has a hands-on approach to commissioning. "I
know the area better than anyone else. I am as in tune with it as
you can be with a wood."
The artists welcomed his involvement. Alan Franklin says: "Pete
works on trust and with faith in the artists he chooses. It's an unusually
good and close relationship."
Giles Kent agrees: "It was a very positive experience. Because
we were living together, we would discuss the work in the evenings.
I got on well with him as a friend." Kent spent almost all of
February and March last year at Gaia, getting up at daylight and working
in the woods till dusk.
Asked why he chose the name Gaia, Bartlett says: "I was going
to call the place Chad Sculpture Park after the lake. But it's not
really a park. And sculpture is too exacting a word. It gives people
preconceptions, and I wanted to avoid that." The name he decided
on comes from the Greek earth goddess, and not, he says, James Lovelock's
geophysical theory of the planet as a living organism. "And,
it's just a nice word."
Gaia opened its gates last April, and has already attracted more than
1,500 visitors. "Besides the usual National Trust posse, I'd
like to target younger people," Bartlett says. "They don't
make the effort to see things like this, yet the ones who come really
So far he has funded the project out of his own pocket, but says that
it must start paying for itself: "It has to be able to sustain
itself and to enable me to commission new work."
Every winter he hopes to add new works so that each summer opening will present a fresh experience. For next year, he plans to hide fibre optics in the branches of one densely wooded area. He even intends to build a stage by the banks of the lake, where Gaia will play host to carefully chosen music and theatre events.
As he prepares to market the park more aggressively, Bartlett is aware
of a possible downside to popularity. Can his al fresco gallery retain
its magic powers with droves of people tramping through the undergrowth?
"It's difficult. There's a fine line between developing the commercial
side and not losing touch with the effect of peace and tranquillity,
which this was originally about."
November/December 1999 : 105-112
"Sculptures of Gaia" by
Follow neweden deep inside this enchanted forest in Kent where nature
and art weave an eerie spell...
Now, I'm a townie, born and bred, the kind of city slicker who can sympathise with Woody Allen and the palpitations he gets whenever he leaves Manhattan. I live on caffeine and exhaust fumes. Hyde Park is about as rural as I get. I'm sceptical, rational and urbane. Woods give me the willies.
I know what lives in the woods: witches and wizards, pixies and fairies, elves, giants, ghosts, will-o'-the-wisps, strange noises, bogeymen, mad woodmen with axes and all sorts of pagan stuff that lies buried in our subconscious, where it should jolly well stay put. Woods mean pretty much one thing to Anglo Saxons: the supernatural, the darkness, the `thing we can't explain' - which makes them both attractive and feared. They are the thing we chop down to make civilisation, the place we escape from, but can't help returning to. Woods occupy a razor-thin line between the downright spooky and the enchanting, between fear and excitement.
Storytellers have played on this ambivalence for centuries. Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, The Wizard of Oz and even the latest hyped-up terror flick, The Blair Witch Project - they've all told us time and time again, `don't go into the woods. Just don't do it. Listen to your mother. Stay at home.' But do we? Of course not. So, naturally, I find myself tiptoeing alone through a creepy wood in Kent.
Before you come to the Gardens of Gaia, take my advice. Stay off the Brothers Grimm. Avoid Disney films for a few weeks. And, whatever you do, don't go and see The Blair Witch Project. I ignored my own advice and spent two hours constantly glancing over my shoulder and twitching at every snapping twig. What's that screech? And that rustling? What moved? Is something watching me? It's broad daylight, but deep in Gaia's beech woods (definitely not gardens - they're as thick as a blizzard) it's always dusk or dawn.
Then, strange things start appearing. Those aren't tree trunks. They've got no branches. They're carved, like giant totem poles. What's that ring of strange red figures hand in hand? And those boulders, carved like a seed or something sinisterly gynaecological? Out of habit my eyes start hallucinating, expecting the unexpected, something to break the hypnotic rhythm of reedy beech trunks. A series of giant wood circles, upright. A startled carving of the Green Man, its open mouth spewing vines. Splinters of bevelled wood, ten foot long, showered through the matted branches, as if just thrown by a giant. A fox, yes a real fox, scarpers for dear life. I creep inside a shelter artfully woven out of twigs, half expecting it to close in on me like a witch's claw. You get to the point when you don't know what's `natural' and what's been `made'. Every branch oddly fallen, every pebble artfully placed, every twist in the flora gives you a start, and asks did someone, something, do this? It's eerie.
So when a man taps me on the shoulder I, understandably, jump like a startled rabbit. `I don't mean to unsettle people,' says Peter Bartlett, the genius loci. `It is a strange place, and I guess you do start to see things that aren't quite there. But each visitor really brings their own mind to the woods.' Mine seems to have digested more fairy tales than is strictly good for it.
Bartlett didn't particularly intend to create Gaia. It just slowly evolved out of his own relationship with the place. He grew up with the woods, his family having bought the estate in the 1950s. `I used to camp out here when I was young,' the 30-year old recalls. `It was a magical place to escape to.' The woods' colourful history can only have added to their spell. Explorer Boyd Carpenter, a former owner of the estate, died in woods of a different sort when killed by tribesmen in West Africa at the turn of the century. He was buried with his brother and friends beside Lake Chad. His family carved out a scaled-down replica of the lake in these English woods as a memorial - another slightly creepy layer of history, adding whiffs of African voodoo to the Brothers Grimm.
This layering of history, of people exploring and adding to a place, inspired Bartlett to create an area where people can go on their own journey into nature, guided by art. He began to invite artists and friends to come to work with the woods, living with him for several months, `getting to understand the place, spending time out in the woods. It's a simple idea.' But it's not quite a sculpture park. `They're all very formal,' says Bartlett. `The sculpture's the thing, the centre. That's fine. But it's not the point here. Sculpture is only part of the place.' So there's no pressure for the visitor to get the `right' response, and none for the artist to clamber on to a pedestal. It removes that awkwardness the British often feel with sculpture. Should I touch? Of course. That's the point. `Some visitors even add their own stuff. Every time I go round, there's a new collection of pebbles.'
If some of the works seem a little cheesy, a little craft fair-ish, most, like Giles Kent's Giant's Spears and Rick Kirby's Ring of Hope, fulfil what Bartlett intended, using found materials and conditions to respond to the place simply and profoundly. Works like Anna. Gillespie's stoneworks, whose unsettling form could represent the reproductive organs of either plants or humans, blur the boundary between conventional human/nature distinctions. The stones are already covered in lichen and creeping tendrils, and underneath them the earth is cracked as if about to open up and receive the seed. Artists play with nature, but nature always lurks, ready to take over. I guess that's what makes Gaia, and woods, so unnerving - our lack of control.
`People come here looking for something,' remarks Bartlett. They always come to the woods to look for something. That's why hapless heroes and heroines in the tales always go into the woods and ignore their mother's advice. Curiosity. They're after nature, the other; something profound to escape the city's sodium glare, to reaffirm the connection between humans and nature - hence the name, Gaia, the Greek earth goddess. So the gardens are modern in an extremely old-fashioned way. They serve as a romantic escape, a picturesque other world to experience with all the senses, including the imagination. Like after a really great film, you stumble out of the woods with your heart beating and your senses alive. Colours, noises, smells. Everything is amplified. After half a day here, I was lying on the grass in the dying summer sun, watching specks of delicate fluff from the old man's beard float off in the wind. They looked almost like fairies. Just don't tell anyone I said that. I live in the city, after all. I'm rational.`
||The Sunday Review (The Independent on Sunday)
15 October 2000: 48-51
"The Enchanted Forest" by Liz Hoggard
In the glades and water of a secluded Kent woodland, something
magical is growing: a curious hybrid of art and horticulture. Liz
Hoggard visits a very contemporary garden with a strong sense of mythology.
Gaia was the goddess of the earth, according to Greek mythology. And a rather modern goddess at that - she married the sea and gave birth to time, before getting hitched again with indecent haste to the sky. With such impeccable connections, it's not surprising that she's had a garden named after her.
It is five years since Peter Bartlett - then only 26 - set about creating
the Gardens of Gaia in 22 acres of Kent woodland. Now open to the
public, it is, says Bartlett "an island of inspiration within
the everyday sea of hustle and bustle". Gaia herself wasn't the
inspiration for the garden - he just liked the sound of the name -
but it is fitting none the less. Combining sculpture and landscape,
materials and elements, Bartlett's creation is an alfresco gallery
worthy of the goddess.
Kent is an area rich in garden history - Vita Sackville-West's Sissinghurst is only 10 minutes away. And yet Bartlett has pulled off something that is utterly contemporary. "There's not a heritage banner in sight. In fact it's not really a garden at all. True, there's a wilderness, a beech plantation, an amphitheatre and a lake - but there's little formal planting or landscaping. Nature is befriended rather than tamed.
Bartlett has commissioned over 30 sculptures which are intended as
a permanent extension of the woods. He hopes that people will respond
more strongly to work sited outdoors than in an art gallery: "It's
the antithesis of the intellectual, conceptual approach. There's no
pressure on the visitor to have the `right' response and none for
the artist to clamber on to a pedestal." Many of the artists
live on site, making work from found materials. As the seasons pass,
pieces become weathered and patinated. Most are permanent, sometimes
they are sold or replaced - occasionally an artist forgets to reclaim
Peter Bartlett is clearly an idealist. He funded the project himself, with the entrance fee going towards new work. His parents have owned Buckhurst Farm since the 1950s - and the adjoining woodlands have held an enchantment for him ever since he played there as a child. His interest in art took him to Oxford Polytechnic and a degree course, specialising in film and video. Then, five years later, walking his dogs across the overgrown woodlands, he had a vision for a different type of gallery.
His parents took some convincing - not because they needed the site
for farming, but because Bartlett found it hard to put the concept
into words. "I was aiming more for an atmosphere, an experience,
rather than saying the place is going to look like this - so it was
really an act of faith on their part." After the arduous process
of gaining planning permission, Bartlett and his brother Richard set
about cutting and burning through foliage to make the place presentable
without losing its essence. "It was quite a rite of passage for
an art student," laughs Richard. "He had never used a chainsaw
Peter then advertised for sculptors to live and work with him in the
woods. "I wanted them to come without preconceptions. My selection
criteria were based on their existing work and whether I liked them
or not. After all we had to live together in the cottage for a month
The Gardens of Gaia are designed as a hide-and-seek detective trail. Entering them, you're welcomed by Scott Reading's Iden sculpture made from trunks of ash knocked down during the Great Storm of 1987. From then on in the clues get harder. Sometimes you don't see pieces straight away, as with Giles Kent's Six Sculpted Scots Pine Trees which are still growing in the earth. Climbing up on scaffolding, Kent carved geometric shapes out of the trunks.
Other pieces involve subtle optical illusions. Simon Ings's installation, Explore the Wild Wood consists of textured wooden uprights which echo the verticals of the conifers. Often makers are inspired by the same geometric shapes, from Nic Joly and Wim Peers's Five White Rings sited through the forest like giant fairground wheels to Peter Bartlett's own contribution – a classical labyrinth designed from a thousand willow cuttings. Throughout the woods, there are echoes of formal statuary and classical urns, but with a modern twist. The loveliest is Rick Kirby's The Ring of Hope - a frieze of dancing figures made from rusted red steel set on four pillars, which have fused with the nearby beech trees.
Gradually the site transforms from traditional woodland to something more sinister. Deep in the beech plantation, there's even a touch of the Blair Witch Project, as you stumble over tree roots and wonder if you'll ever see your companions again. As centuries of storytellers have noted, woods occupy a razor-thin line between the downright spooky and the enchanting. Encountering Nic Joly's menacingly empty Giant's Chair, you look over your shoulder nervously for the return of the bogeyman. But then the final sculpture in the trail, Alan Franklin's comfortingly shaped Humpty Dumpty, made by assembling thousands of triangular wood pieces, arouses maternal instincts.
Interestingly, while the male artists tend to contribute cerebral, androgynous figures, it's the women who are obsessed by body parts. Anna Gillespie's sensual boulder carved with delicate inner lips sets the imagination racing, while Natasha Houseago's Ear, made from fleshy red fibreglass, is most definitely gynaecological. According to Richard Bartlett - who as well as managing the family's arable farm is also responsible for the gardens' upkeep - it has provoked the most heated debate among visitors.
Often it's hard to tell what is natural and what's been made. You look at everything with a new eye - whether it's the patina of the tree bark or the swirl of leaves in a puddle. And visitors have contributed their own interventions, from teacher Mary Mellish's calligraphic swirls of willow to mini tree sculptures by local schoolchildren. Then there's the Arthurian lake with a cast figure of Peter Bartlett by Rick Kirby in the centre. It's the most wonderfully Zen space - you could be the only person in the world. And overlooking it, you'll find Wim Peers's carved oak totem pole, The Guardian of the Lake. A magisterial head sits atop a pine tree. Birds are pecking away at the top of the trunk and his face will be next. You can't stop the natural chain of destruction.
The lake itself was built at the turn of the century in the shape of Lake Chad in West Africa. It was designed by the aristocratic Alexander family to commemorate one of their sons, Lieutenant Boy Alexander, a Victorian explorer who spent three years crossing Africa in a boat before being killed by tribesmen and buried on the lake's banks. The African theme is insistent - and towards the end of the trail there's definitely a more primitive, tribal feel with Natasha Houseago's carved wood sculpture, Ripe Pod, and Scott Reading's Earth, Wind and Fire totem pole.
Gaia survives by word-of-mouth recommendation. None the less, it attracts
more than 1,500 visitors a year - from hippies and tree-huggers to
smart American tourists bewildered by the lack of Tarmac paths. "One
woman even tried to make me pay for her dry-cleaning because of the
mud," laughs Richard. There are plans to hold concerts and events
in the grounds - one couple want to hold their wedding here, conjuring
up fantasies of losing unpopular relatives in the dense undergrowth.
The only blots on the landscape are the cheap wooden garden benches
dotted across the site. Although the Bartlett brothers have plenty
of design ideas, the budget can't yet run to commissioning new seating.
Wealthy philanthropists please take note.