The suburbs around Ashton-in-Makerfield don’t feel as if they contain a garden centre, which are more often on the fringes of habitation rather than amid the long neatly-trimmed streets. But then most garden centres nowadays have huge plots, to incorporate their car-parks, cafes and flora-related gift shops. When I reached Rectory Road Garden Centre I wasn’t entirely sure I was on the right track. Looking more like a construction yard, unbranded and slightly battered, it feels a place where the business, the selling, has taken a back seat, or is even incidental to its existence, as if there’s just a few too many plants so they’ve decided to flog them off a trestle table.
The garden centre is not the reason for making this trip. Amidst and around the site has been constructed from scrap and home-made materials the most fantastical version of a Tudor village, crossed with something out of The Hobbit. This is not a recreation of what Ashton might have looked like five hundred years ago; no actual Tudor person other than perhaps Henry himself would have had so many statues or houses so wonky. Nevertheless, here are cottages, street-scapes, even a chapel.
I never feel comfortable in the suburbs. There’s always a sense that behind the blank facades deep emptiness is being endured, or worse. Occasionally this is fractured and the underside starts to show. This could begin at A La Ronde, where two spinsters create a secluded eccentric life. It can be glimpsed in Oxford where a shark has crashed snout-first into the roof. Here in Ashton we are plunged inside the imagination of the creator, Kevin Duffy, literally as it unfolds.
The project began in 1980, after Kevin Duffy’s wife died, and began with no plan, no purpose other than the urge to create. It feels like a constant negotiation between desire and possibility is being played out, as form follows the shapes the materials can achieve, decorated with what’s to hand. This gives the experience quite an unsettling quality as nothing quite fits the supposed historical ideals. Statues who lack the classical proportions and smooth texture of marble, doorways that feel like a Grimm fairy tale is about to come crashing down around you.
Outsider art as a term can seem derogatory, but here it feels real, beyond an art establishment, against the local authority, an alternative reality to the road back to the station. It’s both an honest expression, a provocation, but mainly it’s the result of an obsession, a passion, and a mischievous flare for the dramatic.