Shocking Beauty

By Thomas Hobbs

Published by Raincoast Books

152 pages, 1999

Buy it online






An Innovative Garden Vision

Reviewed by Jay Currie


Shocking Beauty is an exquisite book about a certain sort of garden sensibility. Its author, Thomas Hobbs, has made a name and a career out of the creation of instants of intense, passionate bursts of pure sensory overload. That Hobbs has worked with plants and flowers is, in some senses, beside the point. What he has really been working with is the very idea of knockout visual imagery.

It is a hard concept to put into words and Hobbs doesn't waste too many in trying to. Rather, he lets page after page of remarkable photography illustrate the nature of drama in the garden. And drama is what Shocking Beauty is all about. In Hobbs' world, the ideal garden jumps out at the viewer. While he understands subtlety and many of the photographs of the rich plantings of Echeverias prove this point, Hobbs sees the subtle as a backdrop for the spectacular.

"Seeing beauty is the creative person's priority," writes Hobbs. As you read through the book you realize that this idea of beauty is a blend of the careful control of the stately gardens of English homes with a jazzy, in-your-face shot of California innovation and a bow in the direction of European formalism.

Hobbs likes color in a garden, but from a restricted palette. As he points out, "Colour is a great stimulus: it can create, it can destroy." But if he restricts his palette he positively thrives on a no-bare-earth philosophy of planting. "I can always fit one more box of plants in, somewhere."

Interestingly, for his own garden he has never sat down to make a pen and paper plan or design. Rather, he plants with a sense of his house, his palette and his desire for private garden rooms. If he can't get a section to work, he is willing to pave it over and make a patio work instead.

It is this sense of the grand gesture which sets Hobbs apart from many gardeners. For most of us, the scale of Hobbs' exploration is part our ability to actually emulate or achieve. But most of us would recognize the results of exploration and use those results in our own more modest essays in garden design.

Hobbs' consideration of garden elements and furniture extending over two chapters and very nearly perfectly illustrated, is a rich source of ideas and images. While not everyone can have a seven-foot plaster wall painted a distressed blue to set off their plantings, almost everyone has a garage which could use a bit of color integration. Hobbs' consideration of container gardening is also filled with a sense of pushing the limits of the plain old plant in a pot. Mixing species, color and positioning all create a melange of effects and each effect can be achieved with a little effort and care.

In fashion, couture is wildly impractical, largely unwearable and absurdly expensive. Yet couture is the essence of what will be seen in the shops of the world for the next couple of years. Couture is the definition of beauty for the fashionable world.

What Thomas Hobbs has done in Shocking Beauty is present a couture collection of the very best he can see in gardens. It is audacious, risky and more than a little bold. It is also wonderful to look at. | June 1999


Jay Currie is the editor of the popular Vancouver, B.C. arts and culture magazine Two Chairs, as well as the editor of a new magazine aimed at greenthumbs called Into the Garden.