Landscape gardens - their origins and meaning

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Contrary to popular opinion, landscape garden is not something that all of a sudden was
invented in the 18th century. The truth is that most regular gardens always had adjacent "islands of nature", completely untouched by the hand of landscape designers. It would also be unfair to think that these forests, lakes and what have you received no attention from the owners of regular gardens and parks, because the premises of landscaped areas could very successfully be used for walks, not to mention hunting and other sportsmanship activities. It appears that over time the natural surroundings of regular gardens took over the garden proper and landscape gardens were the immediate aesthetic result of this change.

It is quite interesting that just as the regular gardens of the Middle Ages followed the archetype of the Garden of Paradise, landscape gardens also received a similar theological background. The primordial garden described by Milton in Paradise Lost is very much a landscape garden, nature at its best, so to speak:

Southward through Eden went a River large,
Nor chang'd his course, but through the shaggie hill
Pass'd underneath ingulft, for God had thrown [ 225 ]
That Mountain as his Garden mould high rais'd
Upon the rapid current, which through veins
Of porous Earth with kindly thirst up drawn,
Rose a fresh Fountain, and with many a rill
Waterd the Garden; thence united fell [ 230 ]
Down the steep glade, and met the neather Flood,
Which from his darksom passage now appeers,
And now divided into four main Streams,
Runs divers, wandring many a famous Realme
And Country whereof here needs no account, [ 235 ]
But rather to tell how, if Art could tell,
How from that Saphire Fount the crisped Brooks,
Rowling on Orient Pearl and sands of Gold,
With mazie error under pendant shades
Ran Nectar, visiting each plant, and fed [ 240 ]
Flours worthy of Paradise which not nice Art
In Beds and curious Knots, but Nature boon
Powrd forth profuse on Hill and Dale and Plaine,
Both where the morning Sun first warmly smote
The open field, and where the unpierc't shade [ 245 ]
Imbround the noontide Bowrs: Thus was this place,
A happy rural seat of various view;

Landscape gardens also carried a certain political message. Early on, they were identified with British liberalism, distaste for tyranny and autocracy, and reliance upon home-grown aesthetics, as opposed to foreign influences. It is notable that in the 18th century liberalism was linked to rationalism. This probably explains why "liberal" approach to gardening coincided with Neoclassicism in architecture - classical art was considered the pinnacle of human intellectual history and it had to be followed and replicated because it was rationally understood as best practice.

Baroque garden principles and modern garden design

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The Italian poet Giambattista Marino deserves credit for what is often perceived as the best summation of Baroque aesthetic principles: Chi non sa far stupir, vada alla striglia! (Who is unable to cause wonderment, go to get a horse-comb). Originally applied to poetry, this principle highlights the importance of everything wondrous, amazing, extraordinary and fascinating for Baroque garden designers. There were many ways to achieve this goal.

Baroque garden architects were especially keen on using layering in a form of terraces, cascading waterfalls and varying hights of trees and plants. One must keep in mind that such features require great engineering knowledge and the costs involved are astronomical. Not surprisingly, these elements were not used on a regular basis in medieval and even Renaissance gardens. The wealth and sophistication of garden owners were also expressed through astonishing numbers of statues, benches, staircases, gazebos, urns and other ornamental elements. As opposed to medieval gardens, the symbolism present in a garden no longer had to be interpreted through a single unifying system of Christian thought, but rather demonstrated the owner's education and taste, while attempting to amuse the visitors.

The attention to everything out of the ordinary naturally produced interest towards curiosities: fountains that spring up unexpectedly, optical illusions, faux pavilions, hidden grottoes etc. Irony and unlikely juxtapositions often played a role in these playful contraptions.

The most lavish of Baroque achievements are quite obviously of of reach for most of modern garden owners and designers. But the very principle of trying to astonish, to impress and to surprise can be very easily implemented while staying within a very modest budget. This includes some features already mentioned here, but these days some spectacular lighting effects can really make a garden sparkle: solar step stones, track lights, motion activated flood lights etc. You may or may not directly link all this to Baroque, but when it comes to a good conversation about your garden, why not show some knowledge of gardening design history?

See also:

Decorative columns in the garden at Architectural columns in your house

Tudor Gardens

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From "The Shakespeare garden"  by Esther Singleton


Several men of the New Learning, who, like Shakespeare, lived into the reign of James I, advanced many steps beyond the botanists of the early days of Queen Elizabeth. The old Herbals--the "Great Herbal," from the French (1516) and the "Herbals" published by William Turner, Dean of Wells, who had a garden of his own at Kew, treat of flowers chiefly with regard to their properties and medical uses.


The Renaissance did indeed "paint the lily" and "throw a perfume on the violet";-for the New Age brought recognition of their esthetic qualities and taught scholastic minds that flowers had beauty and perfume and character as well as utilitarian qualities. Elizabeth as Queen had very different gardens to walk in than the little one in the Tower of London in which she took exercise as a young Princess in 1564.


Let us look at some of them. First, that of Richmond Palace. Here the garden was surrounded by a brick wall and in the center was "a round knot divided into four quarters," with a yew-tree in the center. Sixty-two fruit-trees were trained on the wall.


This seems to have been of the old type--the orchard-garden, where a few old favorite flowers bloomed under the trees and in the central "knot," or bed. In the Queen's locked garden at Havering- atte-Bower trees, grass, and sweet herbs seem to have been more conspicuous than the flowers. The Queen's gardens seem to have been overshadowed by those of her subjects. One of the most celebrated belonged to Lord Burleigh, and was known as Theobald's. Paul Hentzner, a German traveler who visited England in 1598, went to see this garden the very day that Burleigh was buried.


He described it as follows:


"We left London in a coach in order to see the remarkable places in its neighborhood. The first was Theobald's, belonging to Lord Burleigh, the Treasurer. In the Gallery was painted the genealogy of the Kings of England. From this place one goes into the garden, encompassed with a moat full of water, large enough for one to have the pleasure of going in a boat and rowing between the shrubs. Here are great variety of trees and plants, labyrinths made with a great deal of labor, a jet d'eau with its basin of white marble and columns and pyramids of wood and other materials up and down the garden. After seeing these, we were led by the gardener into the summer-house, in the lower part of which, built semicircularly, are the twelve Roman Emperors in white marble and a table of touchstone. The upper part of it is set round with cisterns of lead into which the water is conveyed through pipes so that fish may be kept in them and in summer time they are very convenient for bathing. In another room for entertainment near this, and joined to it by a little bridge, was an oval table of red marble."


Another and accurate picture of a stately Elizabethan garden is by a most competent authority, Sir Philip Sidney (1554-86), who had a superb garden of his own in Kent. In "Arcadia" we read:


"Kalander one afternoon led him abroad to a well-arrayed ground he had behind his house which he thought to show him before his going, as the place himself more than in any other, delighted in. The backside of the house was neither field, garden, nor orchard; or, rather, it was both field, garden and orchard: for as soon as the descending of the stairs had delivered they came into a place curiously set with trees of the most taste-pleasing fruits; but scarcely had they taken that into their consideration but that they were suddenly stept into a delicate green; on each side of the green a thicket, and behind the thickets again new beds of flowers which being under the trees, the trees were to them a pavilion, and they to the trees a mosaical floor, so that it seemed that Art therein would needs be delightful by counterfeiting his enemy, Error, and making order in confusion. In the midst of all the place was a fair pond, whose shaking crystal was a perfect mirror to all the other beauties, so that it bare show of two gardens; one in deed and the other in shadows; and in one of the thickets was a fine fountain."

Garden views from old books and prints

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Medieval garden: design ideas and symbolism

At the very core of medieval aesthetics lies the concept of Creation. The entire universe was firmly believed to have been designed and created by the omnipotent God, the Source of everything that is good, right and beautiful. As a natural outcome of such a worldview certain objects and systems were seen as directly modeled after the Universe itself. In modern accounts this aesthetic principle is described in terms of macrocosm and microcosm. Along with the human body and church edifices, gardens were deemed to represent the essential structure of the entire cosmos, because a garden contains within it the same harmony, rhythm and richness that characterizes the created world as a whole. In addition, a medieval garden was supposed to be read in the manner of a book, thus revealing through symbols and allegories many spiritual truths, as well as general knowledge about nature and the humanity. A trained eye of a medieval monk or an educated layman never failed to decode the message hidden in every detail of a garden design.

A typical monastery garden had the form of a square divided into four parts by paths. The crossing of the paths obviously pointed to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross and His subsequent resurrection. In the middle of the garden one would often find a well, a fountain or a small pond, with water acting as a symbol of life or knowledge. Sometimes, a tree planted in the middle of a medieval garden served as a reminder of Paradise. This idea helped create a new concept of an "enclosed garden" (hortus conclusus), because after the Fall the Garden of Eden became inaccessible. Also, Virgin Mary became closely associated with hortus conclusus as a symbol of perpetual virginity, chastity and yet the ability to bear fruit. The Annunciation illustration from a medieval "Book of hours" shown above has some very specific plant symbols connected with Our Lady: the white lily, emblem of her purity and holiness,the red rose, emblem of her burning love of God, the myrtle, emblem of her virginity, the violet, emblem of her humility, the columbine, emblem of the Holy Spirit, and the strawberry, emblem of the divine fruit of her womb, Jesus.

These motifs were to some extent also present in the gardens of medieval nobility, but these "enclosed gardens" of castles and estates were often more utilitarian in their use, providing herbs, vegetables and, one can assume, poisonous substances for various uses. These gardens also incorporated some aspects of "loci amoeni" (pleasurable places) of Antiquity, with emphasis of earthly pleasures.

It appears that medieval notions of garden design can be easily implemented in modern times. The basic layout of such a garden would be simple, as described above, but rich symbolism must be established through the use of just a few accents. The medieval inspiration of your garden can ultimately be purely cerebral. If you have a solitary tree or a centrally located fountain all it takes is a mental exercise in seeing these objects as representations of some important universal truths and archetypes.

Formal Garden vs. Landscape Design school

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Sir Reginald Theodore Blomfield discusses the main differences between formal and landscape schools of design in his 1901 book "The formal garden in England".


The question at issue is a very simple one. Is the garden to be considered in relation to the house, and as an integral part of a design which depends for its success on the combined effect of house and garden; or is the house to be ignored in dealing with the garden ? The latter is the position of the landscape gardener in real fact. There is some affectation in his treatises of recognizing the relationship between the two, but his actual practice shows that this admission is only borrowed from the formal school to save appearances, and is out of court in a method which systematically dispenses with any kind of system whatever.


The formal treatment of gardens ought, perhaps, to be called the architectural treatment of gardens, for it consists in the extension of the principles of design which govern the house to the grounds which surround it. Architects are often abused for ignoring the surroundings of their buildings in towns, and under conditions which make it impossible for them to do otherwise; but if the reproach has force, and it certainly has, it applies with greater justice to those who control both the house and its surroundings, and yet deliberately set the two at variance. The object of formal gardening is to bring the two into harmony, to make the house grow out of its surroundings, and to prevent its being an excrescence on the face of nature. The building cannot resemble anything in nature, unless you are content with a mud-hut and cover it with grass. Architecture in any shape has certain definite characteristics which it cannot get rid of; but, on the other hand, you can lay out the grounds, and alter the levels, and plant hedges and trees exactly as you please; in a word, you can so control and modify the grounds as to bring nature into harmony with the house, if you cannot bring the house into harmony with nature. The harmony arrived at is not any trick of imitation, but an affair of a dominant idea which stamps its impress on house and grounds alike.


The formal school insists upon design ; the house and the grounds should be designed together and in relation to each other ; no attempt should be made to conceal the design of the garden, there being no reason for doing so, but the bounding lines, whether it is the garden wall or the lines of paths and parterres, should be shown frankly and unreservedly, and the garden will be treated specifically as an enclosed space to be laid out exactly as the designer pleases. The landscape gardener, on the other hand, turns his back upon architecture at the earliest opportunity and devotes his energies to making the garden suggest natural scenery, to giving a false impression as to its size by sedulously concealing all boundary lines, and to modifying the scenery beyond the garden itself, by planting or cutting down trees, as may be necessary to what he calls his picture. In matters of taste there is no arguing with a man. Probably people with a feeling for design and order will prefer the formal garden, while the landscape system, as 1t requires no knowledge of design, appeals to the average person who " knows what he likes," if he does not know anything else.


The word " garden " itself means an enclosed space, a garth or yard surrounded by walls, as opposed to unenclosed fields and woods. The formal garden, with its insistence on strong bounding lines, is, strictly speaking, the only "garden " possible ; and it was not till the decay of architecture, which began in the middle of the eighteenth century, that any other method of dealing with a garden was entertained.



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