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The History of Gardening

by Candida Lycett-Green

   - Our relationship with the land springs from a primal instinct.

Since time immemorial we have sought to fashion nature and contrive the landscape for a variety of reasons, and the legacies of our Neolithic forbears still serve to stir the soul. The great earthwork of Maiden Castle in Dorset, its curvaceous contours flowing around the hilltop, the myriad stone circles in wild and lonely places up and down the land, and the abstract informality of the White Horse depicted on the rolling chalk down above Uffington are proof that art is a continuing process. Even though there were times when we left nothing to show for it, our gardens today stand testament to an underlying need for beauty in landscape.

StoweGreat Britain is the most geologically complicated country in the world. In consequence its gardens are as varied as the soils they bloom in, and its gardeners, constricted by conditions, have been inventive and idiosyncratic. We may have had strong outside influences over the last two thousand years, but we have emerged as some of the most confident and best gardeners of all.

Few countries can match the great contrasts these islands can provide from hidden temples among the old, red, sandstone peaks of the Kaha mountains in Ireland to the sylvan elegance of the Palladian bridge over the lake at Stowe in Buckinghamshire (pictured & here) or from the stark simplicity of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s moorland garden in Scotland to the tumultuous explosions of colour around the deep tiled roofs and tall chimneys of Great Dixter in Sussex.

Though religion, defence and agriculture had been the primary shapers of the British landscape in prehistoric times it was the Romans who brought the concept of gardening for aesthetic purposes to Britain. They also brought almonds, sweet cherries, figs, peaches and grapes and their villas often contained decorative gardens within their confines. When they began to leave our shores, however their great gardens at Fishbourne in Sussex for instance or the sweeping terraces in Swindon’s hinterland were soon lost in undergrowth It wasn’t until various monastic orders, from the 5th century onwards began to make physic gardens using herbs for medicine and beds of flowers for holy festivals that the seed of plantsmanship was first sown in the minds of our island race.

During King Alfred’s time there were probably around 100 different garden plants. Some were grown for medicine and some for food but by the time of the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century several varieties of rose and the Madonna Lily had been introduced from abroad and together with the native flag irises, poppies, sage and marsh mallows these were primarily regarded for their beauty.

It was the Crusades from the 11th Century onwards which really set Britain’s gardening ball rolling. The Holy Land was on the edge of both worlds. Islamic gardening was by then highly advanced compared to ours. Water was used sparingly and elegantly. Flowers sometimes grown in the designs of a Persian carpet were set in large courtyards and Western Europe was suddenly wakened to the riches of the Orient. Chinese philosophies taught that man should align himself with nature in order to lead a life free from sin and Buddhist monks created gardens as a microcosm of everything in nature. The Crusaders returned with new ideas and new plants, most famously the Red and White striped Rose Rosamundi. Enclosed gardens often within crenelated walls became more fanciful as time went by displaying wild flowers in their lawns, arbours of roses and flower bed divisions with wattle or lattice fencing. Fountains played and in medieval Britain the Kings of England began to express their status through their gardens. Perhaps the most famous was Henry VIII’s garden at Hampton Court Palace which contained elaborate depictions of the Royal Coat of arms at every turn.

By the 1500s the renaissance garden began to develop, not only around royal palaces but around the great houses of England. The Italians had taken the arts and sciences to new heights and as a result of the growth of commerce and huge accumulation of wealth, art in all its forms flourished. Renaissance theologians thought that all God’s handiwork should be gathered together in one place and important botanical gardens sprang up in European seats of learning. The Oxford Botanical Garden (left & here), the oldest in Britain, was founded by Henry Danvers in l621 and inspired by physic gardens he had seen at Padua in Italy and Leiden in Germany. Its function was to promote learning and glorify the works of God. (Today it displays 7,000 species within a 4 acre site.)

Gradually gardens became symbols of power but the basic structure of a walled enclosure containing a fountain and a flower bed, called Hortus Conclusus, remained. The 15th Century Italian Leon Battista Alberti produced books reiterating the site designs defined centuries before by Pliny and a steady stream of garden literature began to appear providing inspiration for ever more elaborate and decorative Knot gardens. These sprang up around smaller Elizabethan Manor houses and the British began to enjoy creating different patterns within a framework, often with inspiration from the most glamorous gardens of all at the Villa D’Este and the Vatican Belvedere in Italy as well as the Royal Gardens at Blois and Fontainbleau in France.

The most famous name to come from this period was Salomon de Caus, a Huguenot from Normandy who had studied Italian gardens at the end of the 16th Century in detail and had a tremendous influence on England’s Sir Thomas Vavasour. The latter created the famous Hortus Pembrochianus for the 4th Earl of Pembroke at Wilton House near Salisbury – a reflection of the ideals of the court of Charles 1st Such was its glory that it gained European fame. Throughout the country the gardens got ever larger – avenues and vistas radiated for miles from stately piles like rays of the sun.

It was the French who dominated 17th Century gardening in Europe. Le Notre, who created the garden at Vaux-le-viscomte with its terraces, manicured grass, broad gravel paths, statuary and perfectly trimmed evergreens, who set the grand standard which the British then translated in their own gardens. The now vanished gardens at Audley End in Hertfordshire were on a stupendous scale. Tulips and new and exotic plants were arriving from foreign parts and much the most celebrated plant collector of his time, John Tradescant, began the great British tradition of pioneering plant collecting, which continues to this day.

By 1700 the formal garden had reached its zenith, William of Orange brought a fashion for Dutch gardens across the channel in which exaggerated topiary hedges lined endless gravel walks. Nearly every great garden worth its weight was surrounded by complicated geometrical patterns. There was a rigidity and a formality about them which generally suited the symmetry of the new houses rising up during this golden age of building. Few of these formal gardens remain today for in the 18th Century heralded a radical gardening movement which decreed that “nature abhorred a straight line” and in its wake swept away many a formal garden and replaced it with a contrived informality. The Hortus Pembrochianus was razed to the ground in one fell swoop.

The English landscape garden is arguably one of this country’s great contributions to European art. Garden designers such as William Kent, Charles Bridgeman, “Capability” Brown, Sir William Chambers and Humphrey Repton advised their clients to replace their formal gardens and clipped hedges with winding walks, looping lakes and natural looking plantings of trees. This romantic approach went hand in hand with the paintings of such artists as Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin which told of mythology and the appreciation of classic art and architecture and Edmund Burke’s book The Beautiful and the Sublime. By the end of 18th Century false rock formations simulating the Lake district, grottos of tufa stone resembling stalactite-d coastal caves abounded in gardens and parks and some style conscious aristocrats even employed Hermits to inhabit the hermitages they had built in groves of trees.

William Kent’s fashioning of the garden at Rousham near Oxford (left & here) remains one of the greatest legacies of this 18th century landscape ideal and the classical serenity of the park at Stowe in Buckinghamshire displays the idea on a grander scale. Not everything however, suggested a completely natural arcadia or a Greek grove. Many inventive designers came out of this century like Thomas Wright, an astronomer and philosopher who created arbours and Summerhouses in rustic, gothic, palladian and castellated styles at such power houses as Shugborough in Staffordshire and Badminton in Gloucestershire. Batty Langley produced pattern books of garden lodges and an eclectic range of garden ornamentation began to proliferate. Humphrey Repton also created fanciful rosary gardens surrounded by arches of roses. And the smaller manor houses and rectories retained their flower gardens if not in such rigid forms as had gone before.

The 19th century witnessed ever more fanciful flower gardens and a burgeoning of brave and different ideas. At Sezincote in Gloucestershire (left & here) for instance, a Moghul garden unfurled across an unsuspecting Cotswold landscape, displaying Indian Temples, onion shaped domes and the flaunting of it’s owners long service in the East India company. A hero of the early Victorian gardening day was the Scotsman, John Claudius Loudon who was a follower of the Scottish philosopher Archibald Alison. A garden should be seen to be a work of art and that beauty lay in the eye of the beholder. To this end he believed in artifice and in planting trees in isolation from each other and composing a garden of non-native species. He was against deceiving the eye by pretending nature had created the garden. The art of bedding out was born and this sort of garden began to emerge around the abundance of new villas which were springing up on the edges of towns and cities.

The architect Charles Barry laid out terraces in a style adapted from the Italians with the assistance of William Nesfield around the garden at Trentham in Staffordshire and by the mid-century many practitioners notably Joseph Paxton at Chatsworth and George Kennedy at Bowood were creating strong architectural gardens to be seen from the windows of the house. Another favourite of the new rich was Harold Peto who designed a spectacular series of water falls at Buscot House in Oxfordshire.

The Industrial Revolution created untold wealth and the building of many a lavish and ornate Victorian house with equally lavish and ornate gardens to match. Perhaps the most startling of all, which displayed the owners’ wealth to an unprecedented degree, was that at Waddesden in Buckinghamshire the home of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild. The gardens today are maintained to the same high standard and are awash with carpet bedding and 3 dimensional flower sculptures which epitomise the high Victorian style of gardening. Rockeries and ferneries were also popular and everybody’s gardens were filled with more and more exciting plants which Victorian plant collectors were bringing back from the Himalayas and New Zealand. The perfection of Victorian gardens knew no bounds as did the money to furnish them.

As at the end of the 18th century there was a move among artists and poets to return to an age of romanticism and innocence, so at the end of the 19th century Ruskin and William Morris set a precedent by eschewing wealth and opulence and seeking a pre-Raphaelite simplicity. The architects and consequent garden designers who followed this natural, organic school like William Robinson who wrote The English Flower Garden and Gertrude Jekyll, became enormously influential and their style of garden design can still be seen in many a British garden today. It is in fact a return to the “sweet disorder” of a cottage garden and was even adapted for much larger houses like Hestercombe in Somerset (pictured & here) where an an encompassing cosiness is transferred to the larger scale. The framework was designed by Jekyll’s favourite collaborator the architect Edwin Lutyens Shallow brick steps, wisteria clad pergolas, simple rills of water edged with flag irises and borders of lavender, lilies and irises and lupins allowed to grown naturally and without stricture.

The 20th century witnessed the disappearance of many of the more lavish gardens and the radical reduction in size of others, not least as a result of two world wars. A mechanical revolution gradually rendered lawns like billiard tables and the clouds of daisies, speedwell and clover flowers were mown out of the picture. Odd interspersions of Hollywood glamour cropped up in the 1920s with the birth of the swimming pool as a garden feature and the lavishness of Port Lympne in Kent created by Sir Philip Sassoon was the most spectacular of the period. Philip Tilden was employed to create a gigantic Roman swimming pool with a fountain jetting up from it, from which led the grandest possible marble steps scaling the great height from the swimming pool to the cliff below. Rhododendrons and azaleas were popular since once planted they required little maintenance and the Savill Gardens in Windsor Great Park and those at Exbury in Hampshire (above & here) set precedents for gardeners all over Britain.

Women began to play a greater part in garden design and Vita Sackville West created a series of garden rooms at Sissinghurst, including a white garden which displayed her adamant advocacy of “good taste”: not a red hot poker to be seen. Geoffrey Jellicoe and Rusell Page’s use of simple water features, paving and flowers in blocks of colour looked cool and streamlined in comparison with what had gone before, but still retained echoes of the past. Two thousand years ago the Romans created simple pools in their gardens and used fruit trees ornamentally. Over the centuries and through all its influences the British garden has emerged as something unique. Together with the “borrowed landscape” of surroundings hills, fields and woods, for my money our gardens are the best in the world.