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The Evolution of the English Garden

England is one of the pioneering countries in the Art of Gardens, and this heritage is a source of great national pride. The continental vision of the "English garden" is commonly associated with a representation of "beautiful nature." The English garden is the "wild garden." However, like France, England has experienced numerous landscaping trends. Depending on the era of their design, gardens illustrate the passions, concerns, and interests of men

Oxford, credit photo: Unsplash

The Beginnings of the Formal Garden

The Tudor garden broke away from the monastic gardens, known as "hortus conclusus," to establish the style of the Renaissance. The Tudor fashion embraced symmetry and order, drawing inspiration from Italy with the introduction of knot gardens. These "knot gardens" featured elegant arabesques that intertwined geometric shapes in a play of symmetry. A few Tudor and Elizabethan gardens still exist at Haddon Hall (Derbyshire), Montagu House (Somerset), and Hampton Court Palace (near London).

Taming Nature

The Jacobean architectural style (1603-1625) and the early Caroline Era (1625-1649) led to the construction of majestic manor houses and completely transformed the concept of scale in gardens. The lines of the residence extended into the garden to create a harmony of proportion. This architectural echo is known as "design unity." It was the first time that the architectural structure was taken into consideration in garden design. Knot gardens and their interlaced patterns could be appreciated from an elevated view, such as from the upper floors of the house.

However, the destruction and alteration of many gardens were consequences of the Civil War. A new wave revitalized the Art of Gardens with the Restoration of Charles II. Returning from a nine-year exile in France, Charles II sought to shine like the "Sun King." He praised the work of Le Nôtre at Vaux le Vicomte (1656-1661) and Versailles (1661-1715) and popularized the French style.

The introduction of this new fashion in gardens was characterized by fountains, trees planted in containers, and the emergence of topiary art using evergreen shrubs. The forms became even more formal. Rhythm, balance, proportion, and unity were meticulously studied.

The ascent to the throne of William d’Orange further pushed the trend of the formal garden. As a Dutch prince with Dutch tastes, these new gardens owed much to André Mollet's Jardin de Plaisir. They featured long tree-lined avenues, canals, and "embroidered" parterres. Groves were planted, and hunting forests were used to provide a green backdrop to the garden. Some survivors of this style can be seen at Blickling Hall (Norfolk), Melbourne Hall (Derbyshire), and Chatsworth House (also in Derbyshire).

Chatsworth, July 2017, credit photo: Marion Leclerc

The 17th century is dominated by the prevailing French and Dutch styles. The subjugation of nature is reflected in the triumph of order and reason. It should be noted that the monarchical institution, then in its absolute form, spread the same worldview in England as observed on the continent. The regularity and rigidity that govern the garden could thus be seen as a reflection of the convergence of powers. There is also a primal fear of nature, inherently menacing and dangerous. For example, even when planted by humans, the forest embodies the wild nature, the nature that "inspires fear." It is present but remains distant from the house. This fear is expressed through the demonstration of mastery and craftsmanship that keeps nature under control. Man is stronger than nature and strives to contain it.

Sublimating Nature

The 18th century witnessed a profusion of artistic expression in garden design. The first "garden-architects" to introduce irregularity into the garden were Charles Bridgeman and William Kent.

Charles Bridgeman was the first to abandon the pruning of shrubs and the strict order of the garden. He maintained regular-shaped flower beds but introduced plantings with a wild appearance. William Kent, on the other hand, drew inspiration from picturesque natural landscapes and developed the concept of "Ha-has." The Ha-ha is a wide and deep trench that prevented animals from entering the garden. The use of Ha-has allowed for the removal of fences, which constituted a visual barrier, allowing the gaze to wander towards the horizon. The garden opened up to the countryside, appearing as its natural extension.

William Kent was also the precursor of the "serpentine line" in garden design, revolutionizing the concept of the garden. The enthusiasm for the picturesque in painting and poetry reinforced this new passion for the natural garden. An homage to nature was sought by imitating it. Gradually, the fantasized "natural" nature took shape. This bucolic composition was accompanied by focal points such as temples, obelisks, ruins, and romantic statues. Water also played a significant role, with artificial ponds adorned with bridges and bordered by rockeries where delicate streams of water gently flowed. This romantic setting was further enhanced by the inclusion of elements that once evoked fear, such as rocks, mosses, and even dead trees, brought into the garden.

Lancelot "Capability Brown," who succeeded William Kent, mastered the combination of earth, water, and vegetation. He is particularly known for the garden at Stowe and more than 200 other parks. His work is characterized by vast undulating grassy expanses, scattered plantings of trees in small, disparate spots, and curvilinear lakes. The landscape now reaches the doorstep of the house. These gardens showcase a sublime nature in which the work of man has no place and is meticulously concealed through subtle artifices. Among the most famous examples are Stowe in Buckinghamshire, Sherborne Castle in Dorset, and Trentham in Staffordshire.

Chiswick house and gardens, burlington lane, london, uk, credit photo: Unsplash

The classical ideal of a controlled Nature was succeeded by the romantic ideal of a wild and rustic landscape. This desire for proximity to Nature could be seen as a testament to the 18th-century Enlightenment's aspiration for freedom and liberation from conventions. Through their various arts, artists revealed the beauty of Nature for the first time, significantly reducing the distance that had previously been maintained. The "beautiful" Nature is now present in the garden. The concept of the "English garden," popularized on the continent, took shape during this period as a reaction to the excessive rigidity of the 17th century and the context of new political institutions. Irregular English gardens also proved to be less expensive to maintain than formal gardens.

On the other hand, the urban development of London led to a phenomenon of rural exodus. This resulted in the gradual disappearance of orchards and gardens in the vicinity of the city. Urbanization, along with the beginnings of mechanized agriculture, may have also contributed to a sense of nostalgia for the rustic countryside.

The Era of Great Scientific and Technical Discoveries

The landscape designer Humphry Repton took over from Capability Brown and created the Red Books. These illustrated notebooks, submitted to clients, brought him success and brought about a turning point in the profession. A renewed interest in botany emerged with the establishment of the prestigious scientific society, the Royal Horticultural Society. This society, along with the Royal Navy, planned a voyage around the world. Joseph Banks, an aristocrat and amateur botanist, participated in James Cook's first voyage aboard the Endeavour as the expedition's naturalist. During the three-year journey, they explored various places, including Rio de Janeiro, the Bay of Good Success in Tierra del Fuego, Tahiti, Batavia, and the two islands of New Zealand. James Cook, who also wished to discover the great southern continent whose existence had long been believed since ancient times, sailed his ship towards Australia. The Endeavour reached the unexplored East Coast, where an extraordinary quantity of plants was discovered, and the current Sydney Bay was named Botany Bay. The voyage was a success, with thirty thousand plant specimens and thousands of animal species brought back to England. King George III entrusted Joseph Banks with the Kew Gardens in London, an immense garden for acclimatizing and showcasing colonial plants.

Kew Gardens, aout 2016, credit photo: Marion Leclerc

The 19th century was a period of major technological advancements, with the use of new materials such as iron, glass, and cement. The end of the century saw the emergence of a new movement called "Arts and Crafts," led by John Ruskin and William Morris. This movement encompassed all forms of art and aimed to provide an alternative to industrial production. This new Art movement advocated a return to traditional techniques, materials, and the rich rural vernacular repertoire.

The beginning of the century witnessed a profusion of scientific development and a desire to deepen knowledge of plant biology. Technological progress allowed for the construction of large greenhouses, showcasing discoveries brought back from voyages. Landscape designers recognized the importance of understanding plant biology in garden design. Towards the end of the century, many intellectuals and artists criticized the industrial revolution, which they believed was destroying the essence of nature and disregarding past traditions.

In response to the industrial era, the concept of "living environment" and individual "well-being" emerged, with gardens being seen as inherently soothing environments. Gradually, vibrant exotic plantings were replaced by more rustic plantings shaped by farmers wisdom and craftsmanship.

Nostalgia for a rural nature

The "Arts and Crafts" landscape style reached its pinnacle in the collaborative work of architect Edwin Lutyens and painter Gertrude Jekyll. Jekyll was among the most influential promoters of the "natural" garden. The garden and the house resonated with each other.

The gardens drew inspiration from the "Garden Cottage" tradition. The plantings were designed based on chromatic associations of plants, embodying a methodical disorder characteristic of English cottage gardens. Pastel-colored flowers, climbing plants on trellises, mixed borders, and tall herbaceous plants took the spotlight. This style of gardens can be observed at Marsh Court (Hampshire) and Hestercombe (Somerset).

The 20th century was characterized by the disappearance of vast gardens. Three factors may have contributed to this phenomenon. Firstly, agricultural depression led to the fragmentation of the landscape and gradual erosion of the grand gardens of large estates due to the need for agricultural land. Secondly, the post-war consequences played a role. Labor became scarce and more expensive, making gardens more costly to maintain, often leading to neglect. Finally, the third factor could be attributed to inheritance laws that prevented owners from passing on their properties to their children. Many country houses were sold or demolished, resulting in the loss of their gardens. In response to the decline of this cultural heritage, the National Trust played a major role in the preservation and enhancement of gardens and collectively significant sites.

This tumultuous period led to a "back to the land" movement, particularly in agricultural and gardening work. There was a return to traditional rural livelihoods. Even after the wars, the attachment to the countryside persisted. Urbanization resumed, necessitating the reconstruction of cities and the relocation of the population, often resulting in the development of social housing on the outskirts of cities at the expense of rural landscapes. The awareness of the endangerment of gardens and landscapes of the past would come a little later.

This nostalgia for the countryside of yesteryear is reflected in the landscape designs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It can be interpreted as an association of memory, assimilating the rural and wild countryside with a period of tranquility and peace. This sentiment is expressed in gardens through the presence of themes from the past, including yew and boxwood hedges, views of the countryside (Ha-has), wildflowers, and the use of focal points such as sculptures and potteries.

The English Garden Today

We have seen that there is a logical progression that has guided English landscape styles. The landscape of the 21st century is therefore connected to the previous one through its concern for conservation. In recent years, there has been a profound change in human perception of nature, with a focus on nature preservation and biodiversity. Additionally, the concept of living environment has developed further. During periods of political and economic stability, interests are more inclined towards gardens and personal well-being. The sentiment of nostalgia can still be perceived, particularly in the use of evergreen hedges, which are quite prominent. There is now a certain balance between the classical and the romantic, a fusion of tradition and contemporary elements.

Themes from the past

  • Focal points (popularized in the 18th century):

Focal points are widely used in gardens and contribute to the spatial organization. Placed in front of windows or visual openings, they enhance the space. In English gardens, the gaze is guided by sculptures that act as "vanishing points". Among these focal points are obelisks, larges pots, or romantic statues. However, in some contemporary gardens, romantic statues are replaced by more modern artworks with abstract forms.

  • Topiary Art (popularized in the 17th century):

The pruning of evergreen shrubs, particularly boxwood (buxus), honeysuckle (lonicera), and yew (Taxus baccata), is highly popular in England and continues to characterize many gardens today. Whether in cone shapes, pyramids, or low hedges, these pruned forms are appreciated for the structured and orderly effect they bring to the garden. Topiary art can serve to delineate spaces but can also be purely ornamental.

  • Lawn (popularized in the 19th century):

The closely mowed lawn occupies a central place in English gardens. This well-maintained, open expanse provides a sense of order and space. The uniformity of this monochromatic area is also used to highlight the colors of the surrounding flower beds. This streamlined space plays a vital role in the harmony of the English garden. Emptiness emphasizes fullness.

Contemporary Themes

  • Outdoor cooking and entertaining:

Outdoor kitchens equipped with grills and refrigerators are popular during the warm season. Located near the house, they serve as an extension of the home. Inspired by the American model, although not widely used throughout the year, they are appreciated for the enjoyable moments they provide during social gatherings.

  • Evening garden:

Outdoor fireplaces and firepits are increasingly being incorporated into garden spaces. A fire adds undeniable charm during cool summer evenings. This space brings together friends and family around its central hearth. It represents a new way of enjoying the garden, turning it into a nighttime sanctuary.

Additionally, carefully placed lighting installations illuminate the garden, highlighting trees, focal points, and living areas. This not only extends the usability of the garden into the evening but also unveils it in a captivating new light.

  • Relaxation areas:

Garden seating areas, comprising sofas, armchairs, loungers, and small tables, are typically arranged to benefit from sunlight at different times of the day. Depending on the arrangement of these spaces, they can evoke different atmospheres: organized to host friends and family or, conversely, more intimate and individual for quiet reading time in the shade of a tree.

English gardens retain their traditional character while embracing the current aspirations to create spaces for exchange, conviviality, and sharing. What sets them apart from continental gardens, however, is the emphasis on contemplation. A garden is meant to be seen, soothing the mind and calling for calm and tranquility. Therefore, certain parts of the garden are dedicated to strolling or simply observing from a distance.

In summary

The History of the English Garden illustrates the crucial role of landscape architects in the evolution of the meaning of the word "Nature." Initially feared and then idealized, its connotations have ultimately found balance in the "Cottage" style.

Regardless of the eras and landscape trends, the English garden is meticulously structured and designed. Formerly more assertive, order and rigor are also found in irregular gardens. The effort exerted to conceal the human touch requires more method and rigor than designing a regular garden. However, it is the meticulousness that characterizes all these landscape styles. Refinement and elegance are fundamental principles of the prestigious English garden, which is, above all, a thoughtfully designed garden.

Marion Leclerc


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