Brits at their Best.com: British History, Culture & Sports, History of Freedom, Heroes, Inventors

British Life

The English
Garden
1

Two children holding hands approach English garden

Monks, lovers, writers, explorers, designers, lords and gardeners created the very popular English garden, which turns out, to our surprise, to be two quite different gardens - magical, enchanting, and free.

Photo: ftwitty@istockphoto.com


Golden tree

The story of gardens

begins with trees –

birch, elm, ash, pine, apple, hawthorne, box,

rowan, yew, lime, hazel, hawthorne, hornbeam,

rowan, whitebeam, beech and oak trees –

and becomes a story about freedom. . .

Shafts of sunlight in a golden beech forest

As late as the 16th century, one-third of Britain was still
shadowy with trees.

Photo: AVTG@istockphoto.com

Paradises

Brits adore trees.

Think of Druids, stories about Robin Hood, Tolkien's Ents, writer John Evelyn, and explorer David Douglas, searching the world for unknown specimens. Because they have families to feed, and ships, houses, and theatres to build – tough oaks support the boisterous crowds watching Shakespeare's plays at the Globe – Brits cut the wildwood, but the spirit of the forest trees survives, and centuries later the trees return.

Brits felled trees by hand with axes, forged to meet the test of oak. To farm, the great roots must be removed, so they took nitre, crystallised from horses’ urine in the earth under stables, boiled it down into saltpetre, bored holes in tree stumps, plugged the holes with the saltpetre, and lit fires. The roots of the trees slowly burned to ash. Then they ploughed the virgin soil with strong ploughs and powerful Shire horses, to feed their families and their descendants.

Christian monks had first forged a plough that could turn heavy soil without breaking. Once the ground was ploughed, the monks created paradises – earthly Gardens of Eden – for contemplation. The gardens planted by Romans in Britain had largely vanished, but the monks planted some of the flowers and herbs which Romans had left behind – lavender, rosemary, hyssop, valerian, the lily, the pansy, cherry trees.

The 14th century English mystic who wrote The Cloud of Unknowing explained that contemplation is a form of love. Contemplation in a garden was not exactly what our mystic had in mind, but the bliss of contemplating beauty may be one of the most enduring reasons for the English garden.

Another is romantic love, and one of the first to be moved by it and to create a garden in England was Henry II, who built Everswell at Woodstock for Rosamund Clifford. His beautiful house for her centred on the Everswell spring, with rectangular pools and a cloister, similar to the marvellous palaces of Norman Sicily and to the fictional palaces depicted in medieval romances. House and pools and cloister have vanished, but Everswell remains, a small spring of bubbling water at Blenheim.

Alba Rosa, the White Rose of York, may have been born in a paradise or cloister. It's a cross between Britain's native Dog Rose (Rosa canina) and a Damask (the scented Crusader rose brought back from Damascus). It's unknown whether the Alba is an accidental cross, or the deliberate "sport" of a gardening monk or nun. The War of the Roses left their principals little time for gardening, but despite the conflict, some Brits living in the 15th and 16th centuries planted walled pleasure gardens reminiscent of paradises with fountains and bowers of roses.

There is something fiercely idealistic and wonderfully pragmatic about planting a garden in the midst of conflict, and we like to think we would have done the same if we could. Sanctuaries of peace, mystery and romance, these gardens were also sources of healing herbs, vegetables, and fruits. But not yet a source of freedom.

Flowering garden in America

The 16th century Tudor pond garden at England's Hampton Court Palace inspired Agecroft Hall's sunken garden (above).
Agecroft Hall is a 500-year-old Elizabethan house, which was transplanted to Virginia.

Photo: Agecroft Hall

Renaissance gardeners

In 1625, Francis Bacon, a scientist who had served as Lord Chancellor of England, described a perfect, and imaginary, garden. In his essay, called simply Of Gardens, he includes a list of the plants best grown in each of the 12 months.

His list for February is exactly what we would like to have – the heart-stoppingly fragrant Mezereon-tree, which we know as daphne, Crocus vernus, primoses, early tulips, Hyacinthus orientalis, and fritillaria. Bacon recommends white double Violets for their sweet perfume and, a bit unusually, "Strawberry leaves dying, with a most excellent cordial smell". He's adamant about the pleasures of planting alleys with fruit trees, likes the idea of green grass (finely shorn), advises the whole garden should be enclosed with a stately hedge, and speaks highly of fountains and bathing pools where water is always in motion.

Curiously, his garden and some of the most beautiful English gardens today resemble the mythical Phaeacian garden described in Homer's Odyssey (Book VII) three thousand years ago:

Outside the courtyard, close to the doors, is a great orchard of four acres, and a hedge runs about it on each side. In it grow trees tall and luxuriant, pears and pomegranates and apple trees with their bright fruit, and sweet figs. . .There, too, is his fruitful vineyard planted . . . , [and] there again by the last row of vines grow trim garden beds of every sort, blooming the year through, and in the orchard are two springs, one of which sends its water throughout all the gaarden, while the other, opposite to it, flows toward the high house. . .

Bacon has a positive aversion to "images cut out in Juniper or other garden stuff," a direct rebuff to fans of topiary and the popular Maze. In the 16th century Brits had enthusiastically adopted the garden Maze, perhaps because they adore amusments and games, and enjoy experiencing, or visiting on someone else, that state of anxious enchantment that descends when we wander between meandering walls of hedge with no visible exit. (Confidently practical Brits also realised that a Maze allows lovers in search of privacy to vanish from sight.) But this was not exactly that most elusive of phenomena, freedom in the garden.

Feedom in the garden

The ideas embodied in many 17th century gardens in Europe were dismayingly dictatorial and authoritarian. A few of these gardens were planted in Britain. They did not last.

Vast Versailles gardens with statues, immense rectangular pools

At Louis XIV's palace at Versailles, geometric lines issue from a powerful central nexus, and march across the almost prostrate countryside. Most Brits were not comfortable with the French king's garden or imperial aggression. Louis sent 200,000 of his Protestant subjects fleeing to Britain with only the clothes on their backs.

Photo: youaintseenme@istockphoto.com

Between 1640 and 1688, while Louis XIV consolidates his power in France, Brits toppled two monarchs, and imagined a new garden – a garden born of an idea.

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 had the money to pay for this green revolution.

Lord Burlington commissioned William Kent to design a garden for his Palladian villa at Chiswick in the liberating new style. (You can read about Palladio and Georgian architecture here.)

Kent, who had begun his career as a sign painter and taught himself architecture in Rome, believed that "All gardening is a landscape painting." At Chiswick, he added to the height of hills, and crowned them with trees, carved pleasant valleys, built waterfalls, and settled several stone sphinxes and a lion on the grounds. More prosaically Kent had his men dig a ha-ha, a concealed ditch first used by Charles Bridgeman (more about him later) to keep farm animals off the lawn around a house without the intrusion and freedom squelching visuals of a fence.

Trees and water of Capability Brown's natural park

Capability Brown's landscape design at Sheffield.

Photo: lanceb@istockphoto.com

Lancelot "Capability" Brown, who had begun work as a servant in a kitchen garden, studied under Kent, and took painting by shovel liberating miles further. Having acquired his nickname by convincing prospective clients that their grounds showed great "capabilities," Brown tore out hedgerows, fences, and formal beds, and had tons of earth moved to create serpentine lakes and grass lawns right up to the house. He had designed the template for the public park.

Having a ball

Washington Park, Portland, Oregon, with big trees, sweeping lawns, and a sculpture of Sacajawea pointing west

Free to the public, Washington Park, in Portland, Oregon, shows the Brown and British park influence. There are big trees, verdant lawns, curving roads, lamps for evening strolls, and sculpture. The idea of common land with rights to its use belonging to the people is very old - it goes back at least to Magna Carta.

The French called this park le jardin anglais; the Germans called it englischer garten; Brits and Americans calledl it a park. The park is a place where people can picnic, play, and roam.

With natural curves, serpentine lakes, and sweeping lawns, big glorious trees, stone stairways, occasional statues and meandering paths, this English Garden embodies freedom – a freedom that values and nurtures the individual while observing a few sensible and imaginative rules so men, women and children can be free, safe, and happy. Originally created for the rich, this style of English Garden went democratic, and beginning in the 19th century became the well-loved public park.

Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738) is almost unknown – admittedly he was to this writer – yet he contributed in a thousand different ways and in a hundred different notable gardens to the liberating and naturalistic new garden style we have just described. Bridgeman can really be said to be the bridge between the older, formal style and the lovely and voluptuous smaller English Garden.

He found designed Rousham House in Oxfordshire with its cascades, fountains, square pools, and outdoor theatre; Claremont; Cassiobury Park, Cliveden; Chiswick House; Richmond; Wimpole Hall, and Kensington Gardens. At Stowe, considered one of the most beautiful gardens in the world, Bridgeman sited the Rotunda and drew the scattered fragments of the garden into a mysteriously compelling whole.

Eventually he became gardener to Queen Caroline, responsible for everything from new designs to tying up fruit trees, and was elected to St Luke’s Club of Artists, before dying young for a gardener. (They usually live to a ripe old age.)

Central Park is a place of enchantment below the towers of New York

Designed by an American and a Brit in the 19th century
as a place of beauty in the heart of New York City,
Central Park is open to all.

Sx70@istockphoto.com

The gardens planted by Romans in Britain have disappeared, the medieval paradises planted by monks and nun have vanished, but as the centuries passed, the free public park was born, and the great trees returned to find their place there. A century later, another English Garden, private and mysterious, appears. Part 2

 

 

When you contribute to this website,
you support Brits at their Best.

Join the Circle of Friends

English bulldog puppy

 

Copyright 2006, 2007, 2008 David Abbott & Catherine Glass