SPEAKER: The celebration of nature that was intrinsic to the landscape style did not suit all tastes or budgets. In fact, by the early 1830s, there was a reaction against this approach and an advocacy of a much more formal Italian style. Especially in park settings, such as Hyde or Regent's Park in London, this Italian style gained favor with its series of planted terraces and grand fountains all constructed around a central axis.
JC Loudon and Joseph Paxton were the leading proponents of this approach to beautifying parklands. Loudon was a journalist, encyclopedist, and garden designer. In 1842, he published the first complete record of hardy trees of the British Isles, Trees and Shrubs of Great Britain.
He is also purported to have coined the term "gardenesque," by which he meant the production of that kind of scenery which is best calculated to display the individual beauties of trees, shrubs, and plants in a state of nature. Excellent examples of his work are Birmingham Botanical Garden, Birmingham, and Derby Arboretum, which was the first specifically designed urban park in Britain.
Although Paxton advocated a careful blending of formal and informal elements, by mid-century, an even more artificial trend was taking hold. But first some background-- the Victorian era of 1837 to 1910 was a momentous one. Great technological changes took place with the invention of the steam engine, the lawnmower, the light bulb, and the telegraph. As a result of great economic changes, there arose a true British middle class, with increasing discretionary income and leisure time. This was also the great era of plant exploration and the popularization of glasshouses for displaying newfound exotic species.
The gardens of the Victorians were as flamboyant as their homes and dress. Popular garden writers and designers, such as William Nesbit, led the cry for carpet bedding-- the lining out of great masses of showy annuals, like swatches from an artist's brush. Intricate patterns, sinuous ribbons, and raised mounds were all formed with the reliable annuals. And refined Victorians loved it all. Nesbit designed the formal parterres which front the Palm House at Kew, which are filled with showy annuals to this day.
William Robinson, Irish plantsman, writer, and editor, rejected bedding out as artificial, unattractive, and too expensive to maintain. This last point was becoming especially relevant since labor was becoming more expensive in Britain and intricate landscapes more difficult to maintain. Through his magazine, The Garden, and his best-known book, The Wild Garden, Robinson advocated a greater attention to the use of natives and to more naturalistic, flowing gardens. To see an example of how Robinson translated his manifesto into reality, visit his own residence Gravetye Mannor, now lovingly restored by the hotelier Peter Herbert.
Toward the end of the 19th century, there arose a public outcry against the machine-made, uninspired products of the Industrial Revolution. This counter revolution took the form of a resurgent interest in high-quality, hand-crafted items and came to be called the Arts and Crafts movement. In England, one of its leading proponents was William Morris. The son of a London banker, Morris was a short, boisterous designer, poet, and socialist. In his writings, he rejected the ornate fussiness of the Victorians in favor of high-quality design with an attention to detail.
Robinson and Morris were two of the seminal influences on the grande dame of the late 19th century landscape design Gertrude Jekyll. Jekyll was the consummate craftswoman and artist. As the artist George Leslie said of her, "there is hardly any useful handicraft the mysteries of which she has not mastered-- carving, modeling, house painting, carpentry, smith's work, repoussé work, guilding, wood inlaying, embroidery, gardening, and all manner of herb and flower knowledge and culture." As Jekyll's eyesight began to fail in middle age, her attention turned to landscape design.
For a dowdy, overweight woman with poor eyesight, it's surprising to learn that Jekyll primarily concerned herself with the sensuous qualities of plants in her designs and writings. In both, she advocated an attention to how colors and textures work together, how sun and shade patterns influence the landscape, even how wind influences the sounds that plants make. And Jekyll really knew her plant material, allowing her to create subtle combinations and changing canvases with each season.
In her landscape designs, Jekyll often partnered with architect Sir Edward Lutyens. Together Jekyll and Lutyens rode her pony trap through the Kent countryside so that, in keeping with the Arts and Crafts ethos, they could distill all that was best of English country life. As the architect Sir Herbert Baker stated, "Miss Jekyll had the power to see as a poet the art and creation of homemaking as a whole in relation to life. The best simple English country life of her day-- frugal, yet rich in beauty and comfort-- in the buildings and its surroundings and their stately craftsmanship, its garden uniting the house with surrounding nature, all in harmony and breathing the spirit of its creator."
Jekyll did not allow her poor sight to interfere with her productivity. She completed over 250 garden designs, either singly or in partnership with Lutyens, wrote 13 books on gardening, and published over 1,000 articles. Most of those articles first appeared in Robinson's The Garden. Some of her best-known books are still in print today-- Home and Garden, Wood and Garden, and Colour Schemes for the Flower Garden. Among the few extant Jekyll-desiged gardens are the Manor House in Upton Grey and her own residence Munstead Wood.
One of the greatest English gardens of the 20th century was created by a man with no formal horticultural training and little record of his life other than this garden. Ironically, he was not even a native of Britain. Major Lawrence Johnston spent 40 years creating Hidcote in Gloucestershire-- a magnificent multi-roomed landscape that has inspired countless others in this century. Yet Johnston left no designs or planting lists or diaries relative to this garden. As Anna Pavord, the author of the National Trust booklet on Hidcote states, "the few photographs that survive show a fair, sad-eyed little man, usually accompanied by dogs." But the gardens at Hidcote give evidence of a highly creative, meticulous, and passionate individual.
Individual gardens are separated by hedges made up of intertwining shrubs. The White Garden, Mrs. Winthrop's garden, The Red Border, and The Long Walk are particularly outstanding designs. In 1948, this became the first property of the National Trust acquired specifically for its garden.
The other great English landscape of the 20th century is certainly Sissinghurst, described in one garden guide as "the shrine to which all true garden lovers make a pilgrimage some time in their lives." Sissinghurst takes the design concept of garden rooms that was introduced at Hidcote and brings it to its highest level of architectural and horticultural development. It also represents the lifelong love of two larger-than-life writers, gardeners, and personalities-- the poet and essayist Vita Sackville-West and diplomat Harold Nicolson.
Harold was the primary designer. It was he who took the illogical assemblage of Tudor buildings and other structures and turned it into the integrated landscape that is celebrated today. Vita's primary contribution was to fill each of the rooms that Harold created with wonderful arrangements of formal and informal plantings. Harold was the engineer, Vita was the romantic-- an emotional horticulturist. Despite all of their well-documented problems, it was a remarkable marriage. Major Johnston, Vita and Harold, and, to a lesser degree, Heather Muir at Kiftsgate and Phyllis Reiss at Tintinhull were leading what John Cornforth has called "the manor house cult."
These unique individuals had the knowledge, the creativity, and the financial resources to create fabulous gardens on the grounds of centuries-old manor houses. As such, they brought these venerable residences into a 20th-century context. But in the decades since the end of the Second World War, landscape design in England has become much more eclectic. As labor has become increasingly expensive and the average size of private residences has shrunk, there has been an increased interest in small-scale, low-maintenance landscapes. This has led to a much greater emphasis on the careful analysis of prevailing site conditions and the selection of plants that best fit a particular site.
While this is a far cry from the genius-of-the-place stance of Alexander Pope, it reflects a greater appreciation for the interaction of plants with their natural environment. At the dawn of this new millennium, it's clear that the English are as passionate about gardens as they have ever been. It's difficult to predict the new directions that gardening and landscape design will head over the next 100 years. But clearly, among the major influences will be our greater sensitivity to the environment, to our position on the planet, and to the role of plans to delight, heal, soothe, and enlighten.
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Americans have traditionally looked to the British for direction on landscape design and plant selection. Notable British landscape designers such as Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, William Gilpin, and Gertrude Jekyll have left a legacy not only in England but across the ocean also. If these people and subjects intrigue you, I invite you to accompany me on a virtual tour of English garden design that starts back in the days of the Roman occupation and progresses to the eclectic gardens of today. Throughout, you will learn about how people, wars, inventions, and global exploration affected changing tastes and styles over the past millenium.
This video is part 5 of 5 in the A Brief History of English Garden Design series.