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Finding the music in garden design: Robert Barker’s Skin Deep garden, RHS Chelsea 2018

22nd May 2018

When a musician turns to another profession, what does he take with him? It’s a question that visitors to RHS Chelsea this year can ask themselves in front of Skin Deep, the garden designed by Robert Barker, which in steeped in musical influences.

Robert Barker, garden designer. Copyright Robert Barker.

Robert Barker. Copyright: Robert Barker.

Garden design was not Robert’s first impulse. He wanted to be a musician from an early age, studied music at college and made some headway as a singer-songwriter. Anyone who’s poured effort and soul into a dream will understand the pain he felt when he finally abandoned his musical ambitions. “It was a huge part of my life. So when I decided I couldn’t struggle on, I was in mourning. It was grief. I didn’t know what to do.”

At that point Robert was working as a concierge and so didn’t have a garden, but he was becoming more and more interested in the gardening world and, on a trip to Chelsea Flower Show with his wife in 2010, “I completely fell in love.” He gained a place at the highly respected Capel Manor College.

“And the following year I was working at Chelsea with Diarmuid Gavin. Sometimes it seems the universe is telling you something.”

Skin Deep Garden, RHS Chelsea 2018. Designed by Robert Barker. Copyright Helen Gazeley

The Skin Deep Garden, RHS Chelsea 2018, designed by Robert Barker. Copyright: Helen Gazeley

Skin Deep is built up from a grid design, in regular intervals of 600 x 600 mm, with nearly 200 concrete blocks treated in different ways to represent different skin conditions. Textural planting also contributes to the picture.

“It sounds pretentious but when I design a planting plan I make sure I’m listening to music so it evokes emotion. And when I plant out, I have headphones on and listen to recreate the emotion.”

He doesn’t just use music to evoke emotion, though. Influenced by the folk sounds of Bob Dylan (after whom he is named, and for whom he named his son Dylan), Tom Waits, the rhythmic alt-folk-rock group Yo La Tengo, and the atmospheric Penguin Café Orchestra, his liking for strong rhythm finds expression in design. “I have rhythm and repetition in the plan. That gives a garden a musical quality.”

Skin Deep Garden, RHS Chelsea 2018, designed by Robert Barker. Copyright Helen Gazeley

Skin Deep Garden, filled with rhythm and shadow. RHS Chelsea 2018. Designed by Robert Barker. Copyright: Helen Gazeley

Tom Waits had more than a background influence on Skin Deep. “He said that when you have bad luck, you need to change your shoes, because they tell the story of the roads you’ve walked down. I realised your skin is the same. It tells a specific story. I've known people with tiny scars which have carried such weight for them. I explore that idea through the garden. The blocks also represent the strength people have when they come together."

Robert learned one other thing from his time as a singer-songwriter that has served him well in his new career. “It’s really important. When starting out, it’s important not to compare yourself with other people. I used to go to showcases and they’re really intimidating. It’s easy to feel intimidated. I just wanted to do the songs justice. If you’ve done that, then you’ve done your job. It’s the same with a garden.”

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