Shed Week 2009 interviews: Alex Johnson

This guest post is from Alex the mastermind behind the wonderful, I am aspiring to be a shedworker and Alex advice and wossnames are always worth a read!

Myself and Alex have been in contact for a few years (4 I think!) but we have never meet, each shed year we are supposed to get together for a pint but we always seem to be busy.

But Alex get that homemade cider ready I will be down for the opening of your new shedworking HQ (2010 shed of the year?) anyway over to him for a history lesson.


There are obviously many reasons to enjoy shedlife, but not least among them is that as the owner of a shed you are part of a tradition that stretches back thousands of years.

In China, pavilions were built at least as early as the Zhou dynasty 1122 BC to 256 BC while ancient Romans like Pliny the Younger (“When I retire to this garden summer-house, I fancy myself a hundred miles away from my villa”) were keen on embellishing their gardens with a range of temples, nymphaeums (a type of watery grotto) and monuments: the Emperor Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli had around 60 different garden buildings.

In Japan, traditional wooden tea houses became popular during the Sengoku period, around the 15th to the 17th centuries, built by Zen monks searching for somewhere simple and tranquil, embodying the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, attractive transience.

In the UK, permanent buildings in gardens belonging to men of substance started to feature prominently by the Tudor period at private houses such as Nonsuch in Surrey where excavations at the end of its park have revealed a moated banqueting house. After the accession of Elizabeth garden buildings became even more popular, especially grottos.

These were imitations of caves and remained all the rage throughout the next two centuries as the better off began to enjoy the delights of pastoral play and communing with nature. By the 18th century, and under the guiding spirit of writer philosopher Alexander Pope, they were considered to be melancholy spots associated with creative eccentricity.

The 18th century also saw the growth of the hermitage, a key element in any romantic garden. These were built to look as if the resident hermit, often a retired family servant, had made it himself, so construction materials included tree roots, boulders, branches and moss. Inside, an entire lifestyle was staged with books laid on rustic tables and maybe even a hermit himself sitting reading and working.

Most popular of all were temples which owners believed gave their gardens authority and more authentically replicated a classical ideal. For the same reason, temples were popular with architects since it gave them the chance of achieving classical perfection without the need to consider any truly practical requirements.

At gardens such as Stowe and Stourhead, temples were liberally strewn around the grounds, often providing a kind of punctuation at vistas. These contributed to what writers such as Pope, Horace Walpole and Joseph Addison enjoyed as ‘pleasing prospects’ and abundant use of small outbuildings and follies was a key element in offering good views without compromising the sense of shelter.

Indeed, various garden buildings historians, such as Gervase Jackson-Stops and Professor Alistair Rowan argue that while many of these shedlike buildings were only really built as an attractive adornment to a garden, in fact they were used by architects as experimental models for larger projects and so were the prototypes for various architectural developments such as Gothic revival, Neo-classical and Neo-Palladian. Your shed is not merely a nice place in which to hang around, it’s a key part in the development of world architecture.

Alex’s Book on shedworking is out soon, watch this space

By Andrew Wilcox

I love sheds Founder & judge of Shed of the year - Wilco writes mainly about sheds. About the blog Enter your shed into #shedoftheyear