The history of garden design in Europe can still be vividly experienced today: walks in Baroque and Renaissance gardens, English landscape gardens, farm and monastery gardens, botanical gardens and other complexes lead the visitor back through this history. Trees, shrubs and bushes reveal the period when the garden was created or redesigned. Sculptures, fountains, bridges, buildings and paths bear witness to the ideals and visions of the creators and garden architects.
Why were the parks and gardens established? Where and when did new ideas, “new” plants and contemporary elements make their way into the design of a park or garden? How were new models and fashions adapted to local conditions and preferences? Where can development phases of this kind still be recognised today? Which parks and gardens influenced the history of European garden design?
This European theme of the EGHN wishes to provide answers to questions of this kind. This will be done using short texts, on the one hand, but even more so by presenting examples of parks and gardens in Northwest Europe. The partners of the EGHN have chosen these gardens consciously so as to illustrate how the common garden heritage has developed and how principles and motifs which were developed in one place were taken up in other regions, modified and thus introduced into their characteristic garden culture.
The partners of the network are conscious of the fact that a presentation of the history of garden culture in Europe remains incomplete without the inclusion of the southern European area and other regions.
One of the network’s main priorities is to remove this initially unavoidable limitation. Even now, the EGHN would be pleased to admit further active partners, parks and gardens to the network.
Reference books on garden history tread a predictable path: start with the ancient civilisations – Egypt, Greece and Rome; add in the Persian/Islamic garden of paradise – somewhere; briefly delve into the Middle Ages; then move into the Renaissance, Baroque, and English garden; follow this with the late 19th and early 20th century gardens; then finish with some modernist gardens and a rather eclectic collection. The gardens of and usually float as few writers are clear as to where they belong as garden history is normally presented within a European envelope. We need to look beyond a classification system as the subject is far too complex for such an easy solution. The garden, while composed of hard and soft elements, also has purpose, use, function, beauty, feeling, atmosphere, etc. In the most memorable and iconic landscapes, there is something greater than corporal properties; there are dormant theories that need to be awakened in order to understand the meaning and fabric of that landscape. To understand a garden, its relevance and place in time, we must trace the genealogy of the landscape, (i) it is the same process that we would employ to understand our ancestors and hence ourselves.
We can trace the genealogy of the ideas behind the great French gardens of André LeNôtre. While these gardens are based on earlier Italian gardens, they were a result of new ideas – social and artistic – and a changing political scene. There were great feats of hydraulic engineering to impress, yet there were visual subtleties in the use of levels and perspectives. In comparing these gardens to their ancestor, the Italian garden, the French garden developed in a different direction, one that dominated both man and nature. The humanist qualities of the Italian Renaissance became lost in this translation. Similar connections can be made either side of this timeline. The Italian gardens, often credited with the idea of the outdoor room, are clearly based on earlier Roman villa designs where the peristyle garden was an outdoor room. Their gardens ultimately took on a different form; again contemporary influences would create a new and identifiable typology. Moving forward in time, there was a great fashion revival for Italian gardens in the late 19th and early 20th century, both in the private garden and in the public parks, but again time distorted the end results. Gertrude Jekyll was indebted to the Italian garden; she was inspired by them, but she never copied them. However, she condemned the fashion of imitating other designs and lamented the misuse of ornament and ‘geometric form’ that ‘lacks unity and cohesion’. She referred to the effect as being ‘chilling and unsympathetic. The design may be good, the details correct, and yet the thing that is most important is wanting. You have the body without the soul’. (ii)
The issue is historic value, and it comes in many forms. A garden may be seen as being important as it is a prime example of a particular design movement, such as the English Garden style (Gatton Park, UK and Schlosspark Anholt, D), or the formal French garden (Schlosspark Augustusburg, D). This means that as an example it is generally complete without great alterations – but in truth, few older parks and gardens can be as pure as both man and nature has intervened over time. What is also notable is the way garden styles and ideas were copied between countries: Schloss Benrath (D) is French in both building and garden; Dunham Massey (UK) still exhibits vestiges of the French style in its avenues; and the English Garden style can be found throughout Europe (Schloss Dyck, D), as well as every other continent. Villa Hügel (D) is essentially in the informal English style with aspects from the Arts and Crafts, or Jugendstil, period. This last period can also be seen in the gardens of Tirley Garth and Hestercombe (UK), and in the Parc de la Garenne Lemot (F). The style or design period is probably the strongest physical element by which garden historians categorise gardens, yet it is not the only criteria in determining importance.
There are many aspects that can give historic and thus actual value – social, economic and cultural. Gardens may be valued because they include special plant collections – ferns, vegetables, trees, roses, etc.; specific trees due to age and date of introduction; garden features such as grottos, sculpture, buildings, land forms; social aspects – employment, model farms, model villages, public parks; people associated with the gardens – designer, politicians, artist, writer, social reformer; technology – new methods in farming, crop production, new plant hybrids, development of materials such as glass, iron and steel. Ultimate value is rarely contained within one area, in most cases, it is group value that is important – when combined, and the individual elements become greater than the whole. It is often very difficult to disentangle these elements as they are so interrelated. John Dixon Hunt referred to the study of garden history as being porous, one that transgresses traditional boundaries and one that is international. (iii) Porous is an ingenious word to describe the history of landscape; it is a composition of layers, physical and intellectual, which converge together to form a unique place. The identification of single layers may be impossible in some gardens, and their contribution is mixed and hidden within others. But these ideas also travelled and were re-interpreted to suit local conditions and understanding. Giving a garden the label of historic becomes a matter of judgement about numerous values and qualities; while there may be a dominant aspect, there is rarely a single aspect that makes it valuable.
Garden styles and uses change over time and while they generally became smaller over time, more people had use of them. As the pressures of urbanisation grew, the garden became more important. Even the 19th century industrialist incorporated the idea of ‘garden’ into the planning of their industrial villages such as Port Sunlight (UK) and Margarethenhöhe (D). Driven by a social responsibility, the ‘garden’ moved into a larger arena and scale; it became the basis for public parks, the Garden City movement, and later for new towns. The garden is often influenced by art and architecture, but it can move forward without the restrictions of conforming to other fashions. Mark Treib said that architecture follows artistic movements by 15 years, and landscape follows architecture by another 15 years. (iv) This is perhaps the reason why a garden style does not always reflect the style of the associated building, or indeed, why gardens can be created independently of buildings.
There are also specialist themes that provide historic significance. Garden owners have always been subject to new ideas and fashions. The 18th century saw some wonderful garden features: sham ruins of castles dotted the estates, while in the wilder landscape one could find a hermit to tell one’s fortune. Some hermits were permanent while others would be employed just for visitors. Plants always played a decorative role, as well as a means of showing the latest import from across the world. However, the fashion for tulips between 1635 and 1637 resulted in tulip-mania and the collapse of the Dutch economy. The 19th century saw all sorts of specialist themes and gardens such as rose, dahlia and fern gardens. There was the development of specialist niche gardens including Chinese, Italian, Indian, Egyptian, Cottage and American – almost anything could happen. One of the most fashionable themes in the early 20th century, which was an exciting time for the development of gardens, was Japanese gardens. There are few examples of Japanese buildings in Europe , but the fashion for ‘Japanese’ style was at its peak at this time. This is reflected in the design of the decorative arts-furniture, porcelain, etc. These new gardens were informal with some Japanese features such as lanterns or a tea house. Plants would include Japanese maples, bamboos and camellias – but few of these were really Japanese gardens. However, some came remarkably close to the real thing such as the Japanese garden in Tatton Park (UK), while Parc Oriental de Maulévrier (F) has developed into the largest Japanese garden in northern Europe . As a garden style, the Japanese garden was normally part of a larger garden, often earlier in date. Why such a garden became fashionable has multiple reasons such as the introduction of new plants from the Orient, and new trade routes with and in the late and early 20th centuries. There were of course earlier periods when Chinese influences, the basis for Japanese gardens, were fashionable in Europe , particularly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The ideas resurface and become adapted to a particular time and society, hence the reason why even the best examples are not absolute in their concept and detail. Other reasons must be simply the interest in the exotic, and the one-upmanship that could come from having the newest and rarest species set in a garden that reflected the origins of that plant. And, never underestimate the simple desire and need for change, for something new and fashionable.
Look at gardens as types, but look beyond the obvious and discover the complexity, the connections, and the sources of the ideas that have created these living art forms. They are all individual and have unique properties; gardens are one of the few things in life that cannot be copied or mass produced. Even when we copy what we most admire, we need to adapt to local situations otherwise the result is ‘the body without the soul’. Similar problems occur when dealing with the care and management of our historic parks and gardens. How can we maintain them and allow them to flourish with modern constraints and yet preserve their historic integrity? While a garden may be considered as a living museum, it is the ability of gardens to allow for change, indeed this is part of the very essence of gardens. Decisions on how to manage, what to change, what to alter or lose are never taken lightly and these cannot be found within a formula. Each garden is unique in its own right and must be addressed as such. But there are common issues that EGHN has sought to identify and address, but more importantly EGHN has looked at the potential of parks and gardens to demonstrate how they can be an integral part of our society.
Prof. E M Bennis, Manchester Metropolitan University
for EGHN, 2006
(i) Bennis, E Connecting History and Theory in Landscape Architecture, 1st International Landscape Studies Education Symposium Tongji University: Shanghai, China 27-30 October 2005; presented paper, published as conference proceedings
(ii) Weaver, L (Ed) The House and Its Equipment Country Life, ND p147 This is from a chapter by Gertrude Jekyll titled ‘On Garden Design Generally’
(iii) Hunt, J D (Ed) The Italian Garden: Art, Design and Culture Cambridge University Press, p2
(iv) Treib, M (Ed) Modern Landscape Architecture: A Critical Review MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass. 1993 pIX
(v) Pevsner, N The Englishness of English Art Praeger, New York 1955 pp114-115