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