Why Beauty Matters

Sissinghurst Castle library garden

Sissinghurst Castle

It is hard to pinpoint the benefits of a beautiful garden.  In the course of studying for my Master’s of Horticulture, I have read many reports giving statistics on health improvements, the decrease in air-borne pollutants, reduced heating and cooling bills, increased property values and the speed of recovery for hospital patients lucky enough to enjoy green surroundings.  But all are written by people with vested interests and most feel somewhat subjective.  Is beauty really just an extravagance for people with money and/or time?

Painting by the very talented Fiona Cotton

‘Renaissance 2’ painting by the very talented Fiona Cotton

My good friend, Fiona, an exceptionally talented artist, shared a BBC documentary with me of the same name as this blog. In it, the philosopher, Roger Scruton, describes beauty as an age old value, like ‘trust’ and ‘goodness’, but which over the last century has started to be erased.

Scruton describes the 1960s office blocks of Reading, put up to be useful but now derelict.  ‘Today, our only value is usefulness’, he says.  ‘Useful comes first; beauty may or may not be a side effect.’

Tower blocks in London

Tower blocks of flats in London

He feels that architects have, on the whole, become impatient with beauty.  ‘Form should follow function’ and with this we were given tower blocks of flats.  He argues that if we put usefulness first, we lose the use of it.  The empty ’60s office blocks.  If we put beauty first, what you have will be useful forever.  Think of traditional London architecture in Kensington or Chelsea .  Generations of knowledge combined to get the detail right in those buildings and we ignore it today to our detriment.

Potters Field Park, London

Older, more thoughtfully designed London flats with much greater longevity

Scruton goes on to describe how beautiful things can transport us to a sphere of contemplation; perhaps by seeing the face of someone we love, hearing an emotional piece of music, glimpsing the rays of sunlight through trees, or seeing the smile on a baby’s face.  Suddenly life feels worthwhile, time stands still and we find meaning.

He states that if we always put usefulness first, we have nothing.  The best things in life have no use, they go beyond use.  Love, friendship, beauty.  The things that are capable of moving us.

Scruton even goes as far as to say that beauty can potentially fill a ‘God-shaped hole made by science’; that beauty takes us beyond day to day life.  Zen Buddhists say that you must leave all interests behind; only then do you see the true beauty of a flower.  You feel great delight when you focus all thoughts on a beautiful thing or person and none on yourself.  You have a ‘disinterested attitude’.

Camellia

The intricacy of a Camellia flower

Watching this documentary was a light bulb moment for me.  It articulated and made sense of so much I have felt throughout my life. It seems more rational to me now, my love of plants and in particular, the design aspect of them.  It is all about creating beauty; something that has the strength to actually move yourself and others.  It also explains why I get so much from exploring interior design, graphic design and all the other ‘design’ boards I have on Pinterest. It cements part of how I find meaning in life and explains so many of my feelings.

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The pristine beaches of Bermuda.  March 2007

Beauty is not shallow, as I have wondered sometimes.  At least it needn’t be.  And it isn’t just for those with time and money.  I don’t underestimate how much easier it is for me to surround myself with beauty compared with many others, but beauty isn’t just for the lucky few.  A shanty town shack draped with what we would define as rubbish, could look beautiful to the resident. A little bit of love and a little bit of effort can have enormous effects.

Floating Village near Siem Reap in Cambodia

Chong Kneas Floating Village in Cambodia. What a different the red flowers at the front and painted roof panel make to this simple shop in a desperately poor part of the world. June 2008

Scruton states that beauty amplifies our joy and consoles our sorrow – in beauty we can find comfort and peace.  The experience of beauty connects us with the meaning of being.

So next time you are jolted out of the everyday world by something that feels vastly more important than our day to day activities, whether that be a surge of love, the sun on your face, a sublime landscape or a captivating piece of music; whenever you feel that ‘this is enough’, make sure you enjoy that moment to the full.  Perhaps, if you take time to stop, it will inspire you to look for ways to create more beauty and fulfilment in your life.

Tree on the edge of Lake Weyba, near Noosa

Tree on the edge of Lake Weyba, near Noosa, at dusk. August 2014

Click here to see the full documentary by Roger Scruton.

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