Overview (ETFG)

Great parks and gardens are nearly always associated with the names of famous people. The triplet of “Louis XIV. – Versailles – Le Nôtre” is surely the most striking example of this.

Today we know that the often small or intimate gardens of many historical figures, e g. writers, painters, sculptors, politicians and industrialists, were places of peace and quiet, contemplation and meditation, of inspiration and creative work. Their houses and gardens were places where visions for the future were developed and political decisions were taken.

Other well-known figures “only” devoted themselves in their free time to the design and care of their gardens or (systematically and successfully) to the cultivation of (new) plants.

And finally, some garden architects are themselves figures of cultural history or of a particular historical period. The (virtual) visit of the gardens they established conveys much about their lives and their creations in garden design.

Many of these famous garden lovers stipulated in their legacies that their houses and gardens should be opened to the public. Exhibitions in the houses give insights into their lives and work. The gardens enable the visitor to sense the authentic nature and special nature of these places and to imagine how earlier inhabitants or famous guests used and lived in them.

When looking at gardens within our own national context, we quickly realise how little we know about our gardens, their history and values. When we cross national borders, the lack of knowledge becomes even more obvious and even a good garden historian can feel out of their depth very quickly when encountering these examples. EGHN has identified that the people associated with a garden, and events that take place in, or relate to gardens is an intrinsic part of garden heritage, and central to understanding the multiple values of gardens.

Somehow we think of gardens as pre-existing, as though they were always there. This is no doubt due to the heritage of gardens that we have, but also we see the garden as a single thing, rather than a complex system that has developed over time. We also tend to think of a garden as something that exists without other references to place, people or change. It is almost like an island; a garden surrounded by hedges, or fences, a park surrounded by roads or buildings. When asked to describe a garden, most will say it is a place with plants and flowers; some will add to this by including statues, seats, temples, walks, etc. Rarely will someone say that it was designed by someone, built by another, or indeed taken care of by someone else. Then there are the ideas, the theories that lie behind gardens; even fewer speak of these.

Gardens are based on ideas, and these have been with us since the earliest civilisations. Francis Bacon wrote his essay ‘Of Gardens’ in 1609 (published 1625); he is one of many theorists and writers who have influenced our thinking on gardens. In this essay he writing is philosophical, rather than practical, although his comments reflect issues and perceptions of a time. It takes time to understand this passage, one of the most quoted pieces of garden literature.

‘God almighty first Planted a Garden. And indeed, it is the Purest of Humane pleasures. It is the Greatest Refreshment to the Spirits of Man; Without which, Buildings and Pallaces are but Gross Handy-works: And a Man shall ever see, that when Ages grow to Civility and Elegancie, Men will come to Build Stately, sooner than to Garden Finely. As if Gardening were the Greater Perfection.’

Few works approach Bacon’s philosophical understanding as most written work falls within two categories, historical or practical. The latter is best described as ‘How to Do’ books and bookshops are full of these. Few ‘How to Do’ books are produced for an international market as they relate mostly to national or regional situations. Some exceptional works are translated; Jürgen Dahl’s The Curious Gardener (i) is a highly personal view and combines philosophy, humour and practicality. Historic parks and gardens are in an entirely different situation. These are part of the high-gloss publishing media circus with beautiful images, but often of little substance. However, there are writers such as John Dixon Hunt (USA) who appeals to the academic market, while Jane Brown (UK) has a more populist approach. There are monographs on designers and places, usually the best known, such as The Gardens of Versailles (ii). Antiquarian books are rising quickly in value as dealers recognise their fiscal value. But they have other values, as Maria Louisa Gothein’s (D) History of Garden Art (iii), an early 20th century work, is still remarkably useful and readable. Regrettably, the more informed pieces are not readily available from bookstores, public libraries or are out of print, and few shops carry serious works on ‘foreign’ gardens, gardeners or designers.

These are the stars of the show, but often too much emphasis is placed on a few while ignoring the many. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has become an international name and symbol for the English style and André LeNôtre is the name associated with the grandeur of the French style garden. After these, few could name another designer of a park or garden, even within their own country. There were other designers in the same time frames, and also many who worked in ‘the style of’, that are those who copied the famous. A few crossed borders such as the German, Peter Josef Lenné who worked in Germany, Paris and Vienna. He is particularly noted for his work in the park of Sanssouci (Potsdam), the Tiergarten (Berlin), and residential areas in Berlin and Vienna. Recently, there has been research into lesser known designers such as Thomas Blaikie, referred to as the ‘Capability’ Brown of France who laid out the gardens at Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne (F), but also the 18th century gardens of Schloss Dyck (D). (iv)

Too often the emphasis is placed on the ‘heroes’ of garden design; this ignores the fact that the majority of parks and gardens are designed by lesser known people, and many are one-off owner designed gardens. These can present the garden with a new and very personal perspective. William Chrisite, a specialist in Baroque music, refers to his garden in the Vendée (F) as being ‘very eclectic. Gardens are like music; I have improvised, interpreted and followed my own inspiration’. (v) At Le Château du Pin (F), the garden was originally laid out by its American owner Gérard Christmas Cignoux in 1921; today his grand daughter Jane de la Celle continues to develop new themes in the garden (vi). Too often a park or garden is overlooked as it lacks a celebrity name; to do so means that we miss the often personal and idiosyncratic qualities that bring new ideas and interpretations into a garden.

If the designers are the stars, then the gardeners are the Cinderella’s of the gardening world. Often unrecognised, and seldom being invited to the Ball. Occasionally, references are made to gardeners but rarely is there any depth of information. Credit is given to those who designed the garden, or those who commissioned the designer-that is, the person who paid for it. Geoffrey Jellicoe wrote of the gardens of the Petit Trianon at Versailles and refers to the plan by J Gabriel for Louis XV and Madame du Barry. He then wrote that a few years later ‘Louis XVI (1774) made the so-called Anglo-Chinese Park for Marie Antoinette’. (vii) There is no intention to undermine the role of the gardener, it is simply that this is the traditional approach in presenting garden history with no mention of the workmen, or the gardeners that developed and managed these gardens. There is almost the impression that Louis XVI actually laid the paths, built the walls and planted the plants!

There are rare examples of great success and recognition. Joseph Paxton was the head gardener at Chatsworth (UK) where he worked for the Duke for 32 years and was allowed to carry out private commissions. He became a celebrity for his design of Birkenhead Park and his engineering abilities with iron and glass in the Crystal Palace (1854). Paxton is rarely referred to as a gardener and few recall his contribution to garden design and horticulture. There are rare photographs of gardeners and their teams working in the parks and on the great estates, but there is little information on them. Often even their names are forgotten.

Quite the opposite is true for the plant hunters who introduced many of our most popular varieties of plants into Europe. Often a ‘botanicalised’ version of their name is attached to a plant: Sir Joseph Banks named Rosa banksiae after his wife; the Kaempfer lilies are named after Engelbert Kaempfer, a German physician; and, Reginald Farrer discovered Viburnum farreri. There is a long history of plant hunting with records even from ancient Egypt under Queen Hatshepsut. New plants arrived in northern Europe during the Roman period, and later through the Crusaders. It is a rich story with many aspects that have direct relationships to scientific developments as many plants were introduced for medicinal reasons. Carolus Clusius, a Flemish physician and botanist, has been called ‘Europe’s first scientific horticulturalist’ for his introduction of many plants in the 16th century. (viii) His introductions came from southern France, Spain, Portugal, Austria and Turkey; this includes the bulbs which formed the basis of today’s Dutch bulb industry.

While much has been discovered about the relationships between designer and garden owner, the synergy between owner, gardener and plants has hardly been explored. Gardens develop and change through time. The designer provides a structure for the landscape to develop within; perhaps the real creativity and beauty is within the gardener and owner and how they translate and finish the vision, if such a vision can ever be truly finished.

Gardens are often places that invoke memories and celebrations. Our parks are full of memorials to statesmen, heroes, scientists, poets and artists that remind us of our cultural and political history. These are reminders of past events such as the battle (1815) of Waterloo (B), or the signing of the Magna Carta (1215) at Runnymede (UK). These can be of a heroic scale that overwhelms us, or one that is understated and appeals more to the subconscious. Most memorials are formal and are presented within a classicism of balance and symmetry; this produces sense of power over the viewer. Others are more subtle: a simple avenue of trees or a bench can commemorate a visit, an event, a birth or a death. Set in natural woodland is the powerful and subtle design of the Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede; the power is in the simplicity combined with the imagination and memory of the viewer, it is almost a non-design.

Most events or occasions are not recorded or noted for posterity. Meetings between industrialists, politicians, financiers, writers have often taken place in a garden. It becomes a setting, one which is comfortable and relaxed and suitable for informal discussions. Many family events take place in the garden and special events such as weddings are photographed with the garden as a stage setting. Part of the history of garden design is connected to stage design; the opening reception in 1661 of Vaux-le-Vicomte (F) became the setting for 8000 guests with a grand display of music, fireworks, plays and feasting. Parks and gardens have always been used as a place of entertainment and celebration. Many were laid out with ceremonial routes in mind, and there is compelling evidence that numerous 18th century gardens reflect Masonic symbolism of moving from the darkness and into the light.

In today’s terms, parks have become a place of resort, an escape from urban life and many have been built on the back of garden festivals. These events which started in Germany and Holland have been important steps forward in both the development of new parks and our thinking about what parks are and their sustainability. Festivals ranging from food and drink, to plants, to garden design occur in our parks. Particularly notable are the garden and flower shows that take place at Tatton Park (UK), Chaumont (F) and Schloss Dyck (D). These are celebrations of gardens, horticulture and design; they bring the public into direct contact with the latest design ideas, plants and technology. Similarly, our new urban spaces are being re-invented as people take back the streets of our town centres. Riverside promenades become places of entertainment, festivals and relaxation, while many town squares become places of temporary events. These range from art exhibitions and markets to large screen televisions for news or sporting events.

EGHN sees a need to recognise and promote the synergy between the different aspects of the garden; it is peculiar that people take such a low priority within our presentation and understanding of gardens. Similarly, the role of the garden is often undervalued in terms of its contribution to society. It is our system of measuring and accounting that does not accommodate for more abstract values. The approach to understanding gardens needs to be explorative, open and questioning. Only when our enquiry is comprehensive and complete, will we begin to understand the true worth of our parks and gardens.

Prof. E M Bennis, Manchester Metropolitan University
for EGHN, 2006

(i) Dahl, Jürgen The Curious Gardener, Timber Press, Portland, USA 2004. Originally published as a revised version of three works by Dahl as Der Neugierige Gärtner (2002)
(ii) There are many books written on this garden. Particularly useful is Lablaude, Pierre-André The Gardens of Versailles Zwemmer, London 1995 (English edition); Éditions Scala, Paris 1995 (French edition)
(iii) This was originally published in German in 1913, followed by the English edition in 1928. Modern reprints are available.
(iv) Taylor, Patricia Thomas Blaikie, The ‘Capability’ Brown of France Tuckwell Press, Scotland 2001
(v) Valéry, Marie-Françoise Gardens in France Taschen, Köln 1997 p198
(vi) Ibid. p190
(vii) Jellicoe, G and Jellicoe, S The Landscape of Man Thames & Hudson, London 1975 p228
(viii) Jellicoe, G et al The Oxford Companion to Gardens Oxford University Press, 1986 p122. This section was written by Dr Florence Hopper. Also refer to Plant Hunters.