Book Review Heading


The Renaissance Garden in Britain

Shire Garden History series, No. 4, 1991

By John Anthony

The English Rococo GardenThe English Rococo Garden

By Michael Symes

Shire Garden History series, No. 5, 1991

Published by Shire Publications Ltd, Cromwell House, Church St., Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire HP17 9AJ, UK

Reviewed by Helen M. Leach

On opening the first of these attractive booklets, a small postcard fell out explaining what fields Shire Publications aim to cover and asking me to send for more details of my special interests. I could have ticked boxes on Garden History, Farming Bygones, Industrial Archaeology, Architecture and ten other topics, but in fact I knew quite a lot about their range already, having been adding Shire publications to my bookshelves since 1980, especially from their Archaeology and more recently their Garden History series. Their purpose, as somewhat understated on the postcard, is to produce "inexpensive books about unusual aspects of our heritage".

To their credit, Shire publications are affordable even when converted to New Zealand currency, yet they show no indication of having cut costs in illustrations, which are a good mix of colour and monochrome, nor in the choice of authors, who are all well-known and respected figures in their fields. Although written about British topics, many are nevertheless relevant to New Zealanders whose gardening styles, farming equipment and domestic artefacts were heavily influenced by British prototypes.

The first of the Garden History series, Restoring Period Gardens, was written by John Harvey, a meticulous researcher into plant introductions, expert on Mediaeval gardens, and stickler for authenticity in garden restoration. It was followed by Ruth Duthie's Florists' Flowers and Societies, and Miles Hadfield's The English Landscape Garden. John Anthony's booklet now covers the two centuries of gardening before the 18th century landscape movement swept away the accumulated riches of garden ornaments and ornamental gardens in the name of idealised Nature. Ironically Anthony is himself a landscape architect and town planner, but his approach to landscape is quite clearly qualified by a strong sense of history, unlike the 'manscapers' of the 18th century.

Assuming no prior knowledge of European history in his readers, Anthony begins by explaining what the Renaissance was, its origins in Italy in the late 13th century, and how it progressively affected house and garden design as it moved through Europe, reaching Britain in the 16th century. Although we now know that Roman gardens were not exclusively of formal geometric shapes, it was the Renaissance interpretation of classical antiquity that was influential in imposing human arrangements of space, more often seen inside habitations, on the natural worlds adjacent to the house. Thus galleries reproduced corridors, rectangular enclosures simulated rooms, with hedges and fences as their walls, knots replaced carpets, and fountains, sundials, and sculptures provided outdoor furniture.

Anthony illustrates how this extension of human patterning grew in complexity from early Tudor gardens in which Renaissance features were blended with earlier Mediaeval fashions (such as arbours, mounts, and turf-covered banks), to the final immense grandeur of Williamite gardens still reflected in the fountains, avenues, and long canal at Hampton Court. Skilfully weaving in the separate threads of the birth of botany as a scientific study, and the impact of plant introductions from the Americas, the eastern Mediterranean and eventually the Far East, Anthony describes the famous gardens of each royal era and the designers and gardeners who created them. Despite the sense of national pride which emerged in Elizabethan times and subsequently fluctuated according to foreign relations, people who commissioned gardens over the 16th-17th century usually looked to France or Italy for inspiration or actually employed foreign designers.

From Italy, the Huguenot Salomon de Caus and his brother Isaac brought the "hydraulic wonders" of Italian Renaissance gardens to England, as well as the mannerist pre-occupation with grottoes. Arcades and Italianate terracing proved ideal for sloping sites, providing opportunities for the display of marble statues acquired from Italy. For flat location, highly embroidered parterres, incorporated in a unified symmetrical overall design, were the trademark of French designers such as André and Gabriel Mollet and André Le Nôtre. It is significant that the French word 'parterre' replaced 'knot', the Tudor term of English derivation, in English garden writing from the Jacobean period. These grand Renaissance gardens were not simply designed to impress or be fashionable. Many were created as an allegory, using themes from Classical mythology, cosmology or the Bible.

There was a developing interest in plants for their own sake. First evident in William Turner's Herbal of 1568 and Thomas Hyull's Gardeners' Labyrinth (1571), it can be traced through Gerard's plagiarised but popular Herbal of 1598, Bacon's famous essay on gardens, and the practical garden books of Lawson (1618), Parkinson (1629), Evelyn (1664) and Rea (1665). These books provided information for the educated middle classes and smaller landowners whose aspirations included a productive vegetable garden and orchard as well as popular and novelty flowers, medicinal and culinary herbs. As Anthony points out, the simple rectangular enclosures which were so appropriate for their gardening needs, remained in use "long after their grander brethren had been 'landscaped' by the fashionable practitioners of the landscape garden school of design" (p. 61).

Anthony has covered all the important aspects of British Renaissance gardening in this booklet, giving a balanced picture of the trends in fashion over two centuries. Readers with a taste for garden history will be keen to follow up the suggestions for further reading. Unfortunately there was no space for Anthony to describe the recent research in which other members of the British Garden History Society have been engaged, and which is reported in their Journal. This involves archaeology, archival research, palaeontology and other methods of revealing the past layout and contents of gardens.

In contrast, Michael Symes draws directly from articles published in Garden History, Journal of Garden History, and Country Life, giving references to these and to the major books relevant to his theme, the English rococo garden. Dealing with a much shorter period (1730s-1770s), Symes is able to devote more attention to particular gardens which exemplify the movement, especially Painswick and Hampton Court House, and the rococo forerunners Belcombe Court and Carshalton House. He is also fortunate to have the benefit of recent intensive research into the influential garden designers Thomas Wright and Sanderson Miller, and the garden artist Thomas Robins. Reproductions of some of Robins' distinctive watercolours, originally painted for the owners of the gardens over the period 1747-1766, are scattered through Symes' book; all bear sinuous but balanced borders of wild flowers, tendrils and leaves, butterflies, shells, and birds which, Symes argues, reflect the rococo spirit of the gardens themselves.

What exactly is meant by the term 'rococo'? I have the impression that this question is quite hotly debated among garden historians. The garden designers themselves would not have recognised the word. First used by art historians in the 1840s, it has been applied to particular English gardens only in the past twenty years. Since it is used in practice, says Symes, it needs to be defined. As he presents it, there are two manifestations of rococo that have to be dealt with separately: rococo gardens per se, and rococo elements within larger, non-rococo gardens. It is not difficult assembling a list of rococo features from Symes' booklet: they include the use of curving asymmetric serpentine paths and waterways; flower and shrub borders planted in tiered and naturalistic formations; rocks and shells used to make decorative patterns in grottoes, cascades and arches; painted lead Statues; Chinese pavilions and bridges; simple Gothic temples and towers (usually featuring the ogee pointed curve); mock castle and ecclesiastical ruins; sham bridges; and rustic hermitages. These elements are not always rococo since they emerged at different periods and from several traditions, but in the three decades from 1740 to 1770 they came together "as an expression of the something new, a freedom of style and a sense of experiment that link it to the freeing of the English garden from centuries of formality" (p. 7).

Many other descriptive terms are applied by Symes to the English rococo gardens of this period: they possess "innate smallness" (p. 6), "exuberance" (p. 15), "fanciful naturalness" (p. 16), intricacy (p. 26), "surprise, irregularity and illusion" (p. 56), and "whimsy" (p. 57). Given that smallness is not quantified and that many of the other epithets are personal value judgements, it is hardly surprising that Symes admits that exact definition of what makes a rococo garden is not possible. At the outset he had to concede that the "subject is beset by contradictions and confusions, and it might even be argued that the label serves no useful purpose" (p. 4). But to dismiss the distinctiveness of these combinations of rococo features is to perpetuate the undue influence over English garden history of 'Capability' Brown and the landscape movement. In fact, Brown's arena was the country estate of the wealthy aristocrat, while over the same period as Brown was active, the rococo approach thrived among the lesser gentry and middle classes. Often executed by amateurs, it has more to offer the social historian as a guide to mid-18th century fashions and philosophies, than the individualistic vision of Brown. We owe a considerable debt to Michael Symes for this first attempt to set the record straight in a booklet designed for a wide readership.

Horticulture in New Zealand: Journal of the Royal New Zealand Institute of Horticulture 1992 3(1): 16-17

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