Carol McNicholl carefully moulds her thrown together garden
The Kentish Town potter uses found objects in an innovative way
�The first I knew of Carol McNicholl’s garden was as the background to an invitation to one of her exhibitions. There was a striking image of Carol – but the luxuriant, wayward-looking planting was also remarkable.
When I heard that the garden was behind the old piano factory where Carol lives and has her studio, it seemed even more remarkable, given the building’s industrial frontage in a Kentish Town alley.
Carol refers to herself as a potter. This a modest way of describing the activity for which she has been well known since the 1970s, when she and some of her contemporaries emerged to free up ceramics from the conventions of the Bernard Leach era.
Her collaged, colourful work combines exuberance with seriousness (a clay model of a British squaddie, from which she had moulded several, lay injured on her workbench the day I visited).
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This mix is echoed in her garden which – for all its unexpected qualities and invention – is very much a gardener’s garden. With its wealth of plants and unconstrained style, it might seem wild. But a lot of care goes into maintaining that borderline between freedom and neglect.
In the days of the piano factory, there were two big buildings with a high connecting walkway. Several storeys lower, at basement level, were sheds. The garden replaces one of the sheds. It was a space without soil but with some light coming in from the west, between the factory walls.
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To say that Carol built planters is to understate the case. Practically everything which now contains soil she constructed from found materials – waterworn bricks and stones from the strand of the Thames, broken china, flying ducks, iron cisterns, old tiles, sinks, buckets, slabs – anything that this dedicated gatherer could lay hands on and, in some cases, more surprisingly, transport.
To do it all at once would have been an immense labour. But this is the accumulation of decades – a vindication of one of my favourite pieces of advice: “Do thy best, work everyday … though it be little, yet will it be much.”
To get into the garden, you go through the kitchen (trying not to get distracted by all the collaging/collecting in there too) and emerge into a rectangle similar in area to many London gardens but aligned sideways rather than longways.
An assembly of mirrors, tilted slightly upwards to catch the light, lines the opposite wall. To the left, the ambitious rose Kiftsgate rears up and around the perimeter, meeting at some indefinite point with other much-loved roses – the Mermaid and Albertine.
An old ladder leads up to tomatoes growing in a cistern, where they are high enough to catch the sun and join the tops of apple and damson trees. These trees gamely bear some fruit, an impressive feat, given the constraints. To the right of the kitchen door, there is even a fruiting peach, thanks to paintbrush pollination.
Two thirds of the way along the back wall, an arch supported by a fanciful iron stand leads to steps to a bridge spanning the end of the garden. The bridge belongs to the flat above but gives Carol a covered space and somewhere to secure hanging baskets.
In the body of the garden and at a lower level along the walls, an astonishing amount is growing – camellia, ceanothus, clematis, crocosmia, nasturtium, fennel, fuchsia, buddleia, rosemary, lavender, hydrangea, honesty. There are old chairs here and there, a bench, a table, a pond with duckweed and water lily.
You can well believe it when Carol says that both her parents were obsessive gardeners and that, although bored by it, she was taking it all in as a child.