LONDON — BILL BROWN has done it again: Not for the first time, he has won the Chinn stone lantern.
At the October Show of Britain's Royal Horticultural Society, W. H. Brown, graphic artist turned antique dealer (but chiefly one of Britain's outstanding practitioners of bonsai) has accumulated more points than his competitors.
"My wife won't be pleased," he grins. "She'll have to dust it."
He is referring not to his 40-year-old miniaturized specimen of sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) in its shallow container nor to his cascading white pine in a dark-glaze pot of his own making, but to his prize, the stoneware lantern, the Oscar of Europe's oldest bonsai club, Bonsai Kai of London.
Mr. Brown and his nearest rival have led the field so often now that they actually "try not to win!" he says. Believe that if you will. But clearly his enthusiasm is not for winning the twice-a-year competition, but for the art itself.
Brown is not Japanese, nor are any of the other 200 members of Bonsai Kai, one of 40 to 50 bonsai clubs now active in Britain, where bonsai's popularity increases apace.
"Nature never made a good bonsai," Brown says. Skillful artifice is everything. No special tools are required, however, and the techniques are little different from hedging.
Bonsai means "plant in a container." An art of the ideal, the aim is to make the tree, though miniature, into the perfect characteristic shape for its species. But Brown says he hardly ever sees such an ideal form in nature. For a successful bonsai, plant and container make up the composition. There is often a best viewing side, though bonsai is, of course, a three-dimensional art.
Bonsai clearly satisfies Brown's aesthetic needs. He no longer draws. Making the ideal bonsai exercises the same judgment of eye and hand as draftsmanship or even sculpture. Unlike a sculpture, however, a bonsai is always changing and requiring attention - daily watering, feeding, pruning, wiring, redirecting visible roots, perhaps, or replanting at a different angle.
Traditionally a Japanese art (though it began in China, the Japanese refined it), bonsai's popularity in the West has burgeoned recently. Japanese-Americans and returning servicemen after World War II brought it to the United States.
Age, as such, doesn't guarantee quality in a bonsai, though some are extremely ancient, with successive owners. Smallness, as such, doesn't make a bonsai good, either. There is no large-size limit. The point is, it must be in a container. One class of bonsai, known as mame ("pea-sized"), are no higher than six inches.
But Brown prefers bigger bonsai. "No," he says, "I'm not a small man myself."