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Speaking of gardens - incorrectly and vividly

I'm back, and the long phone calls that prevented me from posting yesterday are a thing of the past. Happily! But perhaps I'm still feeling cross since I have a few points to argue with Andrea Wulf.

Andrea Wulf writes about English gardens and their American inspiration in the Wall Street Journal, and in doing so omits four essential facts while enthralling us with other details.

First she apparently doesn't realize that plant explorer John Bertram was a British subject who lived in America, as was everyone else living in the colonies during most of the 18th century.

Second she seems to say that Bertram was the first to collect plants and send them to London when in fact John Tradescant the Younger hunted for plants in Virginia between 1628 and 1637. He brought back magnolias, the Bald Cypress and Tulip tree, and garden plants such as phlox and asters to the house in London that he and his father, the elder John, called "the Ark".

Third she implies that the English garden developed solely because of excitement with American plants. However the urge to create the English garden was also moved by a delicious delight in liberty. As we wrote in the English Garden -

Between 1640 and 1688, while Louis XIV consolidates his power in France, Brits topple two monarchs, and sweep autocratic British gardens away. They imagine a new garden – a garden born of an idea. It took some time to realize.

In December 1731, as gently falling snow made trees and meadows look as startlingly beautiful as a naked man, a salvo was discharged in the cold still air. We cannot exaggerate how important and liberating Alexander Pope's Epistle to Lord Burlington will prove to be.

Pope had been crippled by tuberculosis of the spine when he was a boy. He stood just 4 feet six inches tall, but he was passionate, and he was also a master poet and gardener. Declaring that liberty is nurtured in natural landscapes, Pope began a revolution against garden artifice in his Epistle. He urged Brits to follow their inner light, consult "the genius of the place," and express their love of freedom in free and natural garden design.

Writers Joseph Addison and Horace Walpole joined the fray, along with artists and philosophers on both sides of the Channel. Fortunately, the recipient of Pope's Epistle has the money to pay for this green revolution, and Lord Burlington commissions William Kent to design a garden for his Palladian villa at Chiswick in the liberating new style. . .

Fourth, she breathes not a word in her column about the poetry and design genius that created the two distinct styles of English garden - on the one hand garden 'rooms' and herbaceous borders and on the other hand the British park-style that you experience today in America and Europe in countless public parks, including, most famously, Central Park, in New York.

Andrea does give us vivid details about plant explorer John Bertram and she points out the blazing impact of American plants in Britain.

Stourhead in autumn

The result of exploration was that gardens in Britain blazed with autumn colours. Stourhead, above, shows what a gifted amateur with money can do. It is largely the creation of Henry Hoare II between 1741 and 1780.

Image: Henry Maunders, Beautiful Britain

Comments (1)

Roger :

Interesting post, Cat! There are no gardens like the English -- though in our part of France a few Englishmen have done marvels. Speaking of which, at some point, you might want to put in something about Andrew Marvell, writing about gardens. Not only 'The Garden', deservedly well-known, but also the four 'Mower'poems, especially the wonderful 'The Mower, against Gardens' which describes the (formal) gardens of his time, girt with tall hedges, as 'dead and standing pools of air'. That one is here: http://www.luminarium.org/sevenlit/marvell/mowagainst.htm

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