Friday, 20 November 2009

Kevin Duffy's Garden Centre, Wigan, UK

Kevin Duffy has spent the last thirty-one years building his own Tudor Village and experimenting with historical vernacular-style buildings at his garden centre near Wigan, England. Kevin is now sixty-two years old and states that the work simply evolved from his love of building, but unlike the conventional need for shelter or function his works are all follies.

Their only purpose is to satisfy a need in Kevin to build, to create something that he enjoys looking at. The works also enable Kevin to ponder the past and to think about the people that once lived in buildings similar to the versions he creates.
Kevin left school at the age of fifteen and like lots of people at that time in Lancashire, went to work in the cotton mills. He worked fifty-six hours per week and had over an hours walk to work and back each day. After a period of economic decline, the northern mills began to close and Kevin was forced to make his living through musical performance, playing with his wife Pat, across the county in pubs and clubs.

During the daytime he continued to develop his interest in growing plants and vegetables and took over an allotment. He purchased a house adjacent to the allotment field and began clearing the scrubland and neglected allotments, which took around six years of daily labour. During this time he began selling plants and cuttings to passers by and his reputation as a quality plant supplier grew. Almost by accident he had transformed the allotment into a business and spent everyday tending to his nurseries. He eventually sold the house and built a bungalow on the site where he now lives and manages the nursery along with his son, Carl. His move onto the site also enabled him to spend extended periods of time working on his structures and to live within his bygone fantasy.

He has very strict rules with respect to his building methods and may only use found or donated objects. He sometimes decides to swop one object for another, more preferable one, and will even use something that is ‘new’ providing it is donated and not specifically bought for the task. His calls this system, ‘the standard’ and it has resulted in some extraordinary uses of materials independent of their original function.
Most of the work is routed in Kevin’s interpretations of classic English vernacular styles. He is particularly fond of the Lake District in the north of England and also enjoys the Stately homes of Yorkshire. It is from these places, that he occasionally visits, that he draws most of his inspiration. However through his own private study of books and pamphlets [some of which are brought by visitors to the site] Kevin has widened his sources to as far a field as Egypt and South America.
He studies the principles behind the styles and has spent considerable time, for example, perfecting ‘gothic’ arches. He told me that the ‘Roman’ arch is easy to construct as a dustbin on its side can be used as a former, whereas the gothic arch needs special consideration.
The work is for the most part a façade-based installation. Very few of the structures have an interior, they are built more like stage sets along a continuous wall that stretches 460ft. The facades are constructed using reclaimed interior doors. A mesh is then fixed to the doors, which, enables the final layer of sand-cement render to be applied. Using this method Kevin has been able to construct his Tudor village and Tea Shop. He sells sand and cement at the garden centre which keeps him in regular supply. In addition to the facades there are other more three-dimensional works, such as a castle and tower structure. Kevin thinks about the perspectives and axis that are created by his installations. He explained to me how he thinks of the foreground, middle and distance views, being careful to place structures at key moments to create a scene and carefully composed arrangement. As a result, the visitor is gently led through the site, in a similar way to the Renaissance gardens and their follies.
He has developed a small chapel, with an alter constructed from old railway sleepers and kitchen cabinets. The chapel is well received by visitors who light candles and donate to the collection tin that Kevin then gives to various charities. It is certainly a spiritual place and one is startled when leaving the church to realise that this place is within a working garden centre. However, in contrast to the commercial, ‘force grown’ and expensive world of horticulture, this place is only a ‘garden centre’ by name, even by default. It has really transcended that world being a convenient backdrop to the project as well as helping with the bills.
The Tudor Village is laid out as if part of a village square and the collection of around ten houses, clock towers and statues create a realistic setting. The scale of the work is slightly smaller than life size. Most of the buildings in the village have their own clock, located on the front façade and many have bells. Kevin collects these objects and for a period in the 1960’s even received payment in the form of Grand Father clocks for work he did for an antique dealer. Many of these clocks are still in Kevin’s home whilst the damaged and unwanted versions are reused in his constructions.

A variety of objects and building components are salvaged from demolished buildings and Kevin has managed to obtain capstones from Wigan polio hospital, bollards from Liverpool’s docks through to the peculiar, such as a donkeys grave stone. To store these objects he has a built a museum and an antique shop. Nothing is for sale, but along with the tearooms and Tudor village, they invoke a distant, perhaps fantasy view of England.
Kevin also departs from this picturesque village scene with his small niche devoted to the ancient Egyptians and a larger scene that he has labeled, ‘Aztec’. The Aztec section is a small enclosure for a family of ducks to live in. It consists of a series of large painted concrete scrolls embellished with additional ornamentation and rendering. He has also created a monument to his wife, who passed away twelve years ago. Within this discrete memorial he has set a small angel and it serves as a moving tribute to Pat, whom Kevin clearly misses.

Whilst I was at the site, Kevin was working on the latest addition; a small villa located within a very tight corner of the site. Kevin enjoys surprising visitors and at various points there are mannequin heads and figures to shock the visitors. Within the villa he is planning on positioning a figure. He can only work on the project sporadically throughout the day as he gets called away to serve in the garden centre, however despite this distraction he is preparing the ground for a ‘Victorian London’ section, due for completion within six months. It is fascinating to see this garden develop and to listen to its creator explain the significance of particular aspects and features. These explanations clearly add meaning to the site and Kevin enjoys retelling these tales, using the garden both as a diary and as a tribute to medieval and Romantic styles.

This article was originally published in Raw Vision Magazine, no. 62. Please support this magazine as it is world class, and has continuously produced some of the most seminal writing/photos for well over ten years now.

Kevin's latest work has shifted from architecture towards sculpture. He has developed several sculptures, depicting human forms and often relating to historical characters, such as Jane Austin's Mr. Darcey.

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