This website uses cookies to improve your experience navigating our site. By continuing to browse, you are agreeing to our use of cookies.

OK, I understand

Bill Henson's Post-Industrial Walled Garden

Gardens

Our Garden’s columnist Georgina Reid will release her debut book, The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants, tomorrow. I (Lucy!) will be speaking at her Melbourne book launch at The Shrub Hub next week (Thursday November 8th!), so if you have a green thumb or appreciation for ‘life with plants’ I hope you can come along!

To coincide with the release of this beautiful hardcover, Georgina shares an excerpt with us, featuring the garden of legendary local artist Bill Henson – we’re starstruck once more!

29th October, 2018

Inside artist Bill Henson’s garden. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

The acclaimed Melbourne-based artist. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

Garden details. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

From the indoors to the outdoor.  Photo – Daniel Shipp.

Dry-stone wall feature. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

An inspiring spot for pondering. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

Georgina Reid
Monday 29th October 2018

‘A big, overgrown garden in the middle of the city is the ultimate luxury.’ – Bill Henson.

Questions of beauty, mystery, order and chaos abound in Australian artist Bill Henson’s garden. As well as being an internationally renowned photographer, Bill is also a passionate gardener. His home and photography studio are embraced by a lush and layered wilderness. It’s hard to know where the garden begins and ends, and that’s the way Bill likes it.

Bill Henson was a surprise. I had been told he had a good garden, but I had no idea of the depth of his obsession. I presumed art had a controlling hand over Bill’s heart, but I was wrong. He’s a very serious garden maker, garden lover and garden thinker. ‘Gardens, books and art are the three fixed points with which I move the world. They’re the trifecta.’

Bill’s garden is an entire universe. It’s an incredibly atmospheric space, imbued with a sense of mystery and beauty only he could create. Walls are invisible, movement in neighbouring buildings can be heard but not seen, and the sky is framed by a tumble of tree canopies. Pepper trees (Schinus molle), Canary Island date palms (Phoenix canariensis), figs, cypress trees and cordylines wriggle and shove, elbowing their way towards the light. Layers of underplanting fill the space, dripping down walls and climbing up tree trunks.

This garden is a wild and beautiful expression of Bill’s creative process – making, meandering and questioning. ‘Gardening is finding a form outside your body through which to articulate things which ultimately you don’t fully understand.’

‘You find out what things are about through trying to make them, create them. That’s how I am with my photographs. I’m never quite sure what it’s going to look like. You apply yourself intellectually, but it’s the process of trying to make the picture, or the garden, that leads you to understanding what it’s about.’

Bill is not just a gardener of the mind – he is as physical as he is cerebral. In 2006, he bought the mechanic’s workshop and carpark that was next to his warehouse home. He excavated the carpark and ordered sixty tonnes of Coldstream stone, which he used to build the tall, dry-stone retaining walls that are now almost completely hidden by foliage. ‘It took me a couple of weeks,’ he says, very casually. ‘Fitting rocks together is exciting. I could do it all day.’

The walls frame a sea of gravel that runs the length of the space. It’s the void to the garden’s mass, the order to nature’s exuberance. Bill rakes the gravel every morning. ‘In a way, the gravel is the known world. And then you climb up into the rocks and you find the wildness. For me, that tug between human control and nature constantly reclaiming the landscape is what I like. I’ve never found pure wilderness very interesting. Walking through Tasmania or the South Island of New Zealand is very beautiful but not actually interesting to me. But coming across a pair of old stone gates in an overgrown landscape on the outskirts of Rome, that’s kinda sexy.’

I find wilderness endlessly interesting, but I get his point. There’s something about the tension between order and chaos – the contrast of form and wildness in a landscape – that creates an attraction like no other. The beauty of Bill’s wild planting is made more pronounced, more dramatic and more mysterious by being constrained by walls, boundaries and gravel. ‘My ideal garden tends towards wilderness. You have the known world, which in my case is the gravel, and then it heads off into the hinterland, where you’re not sure where it begins or ends. Magic, mystery, darkness. That’s what animates the speculative capacity in people. It forces them to think.’

For Bill, gardening is a drug. It’s a form of meditation and ‘one of the most ancient and greatest pathways into contemplation’. Sometimes he’ll head down in the morning to rake the gravel or water his endless collection of pots and he won’t return for four hours. Constructive manual labour is important to him. He waters all his plants by hand every day (many of which are trees in huge terracotta pots), offhandedly mentioning how he can wrangle nearly any sized pot and plant with a crowbar ‘like the Egyptians’, and tells me about installing bird’s nest ferns (Asplenium australasicum) in the tops of the trees. ‘It’s a bit precarious.’

Many of the plants in Bill’s garden have been rescued. ‘I can’t stand the disappearance of the city’s gardens. Every time they pull down an old house they bulldoze the garden. It’s destroying the city. There are so many things that could be saved.’ So Bill saves them. He has rescued accidentally bonsaied radiata pines (Pinus radiata) that were growing in tin cans in a run-down nursery, an old cypress from a building site, and more. He tells me about a recent mission to a nursery he’d visited as a child. ‘When they bulldozed it, I went out with my friend who has a digger and a truck and saved a whole bunch of ferns. They would be hundreds of years old.’

There’s always room for more plants in Bill’s unruly garden. ‘A big, overgrown garden in the middle of the city is the ultimate luxury.’ He likes the country, but there’s something about the containment and humanity of the city that appeals to him. It’s like he needs structure to push against.

For Bill, gardening and making art are one and the same. He has committed himself fully – mind and body – to both. Both are acts of construction. Both are about creating mood and stimulating emotion.  Both are about using beauty as a tool for discovery and speculation.

‘The best experience you can have with art is to go away with more questions than you came with, even though everything today is about certainty and exactitude and measuring. To encounter the great untidiness in good art is like going into a garden where you can’t see the beginning or the end of the space.’

Bill Henson’s garden, then, is the work of a great artist.

‘The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants’ by Georgina Reid with photography by Daniel Shipp is published by Thames & Hudson. Released tomorrow October 30th, it is now available for pre-order online.

The Latest

TDF Design Awards

The Emerging Designers In The Running To WIN At The TDF Design Awards

Seven of Australia's most accomplished new designers and emerging design studios, in the running to WIN at TDF Design Awards!

Homes

Plant Mama’s Plant Haven!

Green guru Jenna Holmes aka Plant Mama shares her Collingwood jungle home.

Architecture

A Modern Country Home Inspired By The Aussie Shed

The Wensleydale by Byrne Architects is the epitome of luxe, contemporary country living - and you can stay here!
Miriam McGarry

Interiors

A Swedish Summer Cottage In South Australia

Emma Read and Sarah Hall of My Sister And The Sea create a cosy cottage getaway on the edge of the Innes National Park.
Miriam McGarry

TDF Design Awards

And Winners Of The TDF Design Awards Are...

After celebrating last night at our fabulous awards ceremony, we are so excited to announce the WINNERS of the TDF Design Awards 2019!

Studio Visit

The Story Behind Our One-Of-A-Kind Awards Trophies

How glass artist Amanda Dziedzic created the exquisite glass trophies we'll be awarding to the TDF Design Award winners tonight!

Modernist Australia

A Robin Boyd Bushland Block Up For Sale!

A classic home by Australia's most loved modernist architect, the 'Uglow House' in Montmorency is on the market for a steal!
Patricia Callan

Food

Julia Busuttil Nishimura's Seasonal Flavours: Spring Greens with Ricotta

Our favourite foodie is back with another must-cook dish! Today, the self-taught cook shares her recipe for a simple crowd-pleasing starter....
Julia Busuttil Nishimura

Creative People

The New Australian Furniture Brand That ‘Won’t Break The Bank’

The new Peninsula furniture range by Jake Williamson aims to make local design accessible.
Lucy Feagins
  3 hours ago

Gardens

A Robust Rooftop Garden In Rozelle

Klaus and Anne Schindhelm share their expansive apartment 'backyard' with spectacular water views!
Georgina Reid
  11 hours ago

Art

Influential Australian Women Star In National Portrait Prize Shortlist

Nova Peris, Magda Szubankski, Annabel Crabb and other icons grace the paintings in the running for Australia's richest art prize, the 2019 D...
Elle Murrell

News

The Archibald Arrives At TarraWarra

Australia’s oldest and most prestigious art award comes to Victoria, featuring portraits of 51 subjects.
Miriam McGarry

Interiors

Apartment Life, Furnished Right!

Simone Haag Interior Design transforms a tiny apartment in Clifton Hill into a fun and functional space.
Miriam McGarry

Studio Visit

The Art Of Daydreaming, Captured In A New Exhibition By Kat Macleod

Inside ‘Reverist’, a new body of work that goes on show at Lamington Drive tonight!
Elle Murrell

Shopping

Ten Things Lucy Loved At Maison & Objet In Paris!

Lucy shares the top ten picks from her whirlwind trip to Paris, for Maison & Objet, the premier trade fair for decoration, design and lifest...

‘The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos and Plants’ by Georgina Reid is now available for pre-order online. Photo – Daniel Shipp.

View Comments

Similar Stories

Gardens

Barry Byrne and Miguel Alvarez

Barry Byrne is a man of vision. When he and his partner, Miguel Alvarez, moved to ‘Bebeah’, a five-hectare garden estate at Mo...
Georgina Reid

Gardens

Jenny Rose Innes, Serial Renovator And Garden Maker

A luscious and full residential garden in Bowral that's only four years old!
Georgina Reid

Gardens

Heronswood House + Garden Celebrates A Milestone

We tour the grounds of Diggers Club, Australia's largest garden club, ahead of the not-to-be-missed Heronswood Harvest Festival.
Georgina Reid

This Week

Shopping

Ten Things Lucy Loved At Maison & Objet In Paris!

Lucy shares the top ten picks from her whirlwind trip to Paris, for Maison & Objet, the premier trade fair for decoration, design and lifest...

Gardens

A Robust Rooftop Garden In Rozelle

Klaus and Anne Schindhelm share their expansive apartment 'backyard' with spectacular water views!
Georgina Reid
  11 hours ago

Art

Influential Australian Women Star In National Portrait Prize Shortlist

Nova Peris, Magda Szubankski, Annabel Crabb and other icons grace the paintings in the running for Australia's richest art prize, the 2019 D...
Elle Murrell

Interiors

Apartment Life, Furnished Right!

Simone Haag Interior Design transforms a tiny apartment in Clifton Hill into a fun and functional space.
Miriam McGarry

Modernist Australia

A Robin Boyd Bushland Block Up For Sale!

A classic home by Australia's most loved modernist architect, the 'Uglow House' in Montmorency is on the market for a steal!
Patricia Callan

Food

Julia Busuttil Nishimura's Seasonal Flavours: Spring Greens with Ricotta

Our favourite foodie is back with another must-cook dish! Today, the self-taught cook shares her recipe for a simple crowd-pleasing starter....
Julia Busuttil Nishimura

Interiors

A Swedish Summer Cottage In South Australia

Emma Read and Sarah Hall of My Sister And The Sea create a cosy cottage getaway on the edge of the Innes National Park.
Miriam McGarry

TDF Design Awards

And Winners Of The TDF Design Awards Are...

After celebrating last night at our fabulous awards ceremony, we are so excited to announce the WINNERS of the TDF Design Awards 2019!

Studio Visit

The Art Of Daydreaming, Captured In A New Exhibition By Kat Macleod

Inside ‘Reverist’, a new body of work that goes on show at Lamington Drive tonight!
Elle Murrell

News

The Archibald Arrives At TarraWarra

Australia’s oldest and most prestigious art award comes to Victoria, featuring portraits of 51 subjects.
Miriam McGarry

Architecture

A Modern Country Home Inspired By The Aussie Shed

The Wensleydale by Byrne Architects is the epitome of luxe, contemporary country living - and you can stay here!
Miriam McGarry

Creative People

The New Australian Furniture Brand That ‘Won’t Break The Bank’

The new Peninsula furniture range by Jake Williamson aims to make local design accessible.
Lucy Feagins
  3 hours ago

Homes

Plant Mama’s Plant Haven!

Green guru Jenna Holmes aka Plant Mama shares her Collingwood jungle home.

TDF Design Awards

The Emerging Designers In The Running To WIN At The TDF Design Awards

Seven of Australia's most accomplished new designers and emerging design studios, in the running to WIN at TDF Design Awards!

Studio Visit

The Story Behind Our One-Of-A-Kind Awards Trophies

How glass artist Amanda Dziedzic created the exquisite glass trophies we'll be awarding to the TDF Design Award winners tonight!

Similar Stories

Gardens

Barry Byrne and Miguel Alvarez

Barry Byrne is a man of vision. When he and his partner, Miguel Alvarez, moved to ‘Bebeah’, a five-hectare garden estate at Mo...
Georgina Reid

Gardens

Jenny Rose Innes, Serial Renovator And Garden Maker

A luscious and full residential garden in Bowral that's only four years old!
Georgina Reid

Gardens

Heronswood House + Garden Celebrates A Milestone

We tour the grounds of Diggers Club, Australia's largest garden club, ahead of the not-to-be-missed Heronswood Harvest Festival.
Georgina Reid