The classical gardening ideal of George London, Henry Wise and Virgil's Georgics

Here is the explanation of the frontispiece to The Retir’d gardener by George London and Henry Wise. Though England’s greatest Baroque garden designers, London and Wise dreamed of the simple life.
I. Agriculture, represented by a country-woman; her left hand upon a fruit-tree, her right upon a Zodiac, two genii supporting it.
II. Industry, represented by a woman standing on the other side of the tree, holding a book in her right hand, and a lamp in her left, with a crane at her feet representing vigilance; to show, that besides the labour and practice abroad in the day-time, to come to a perfect knowledge, we must read and study at night by the light of the lamp.
III. One of the naides or nymphs of the water, to water the tree; water being the soul of all vegetables.
IV. Terra, or mother-earth, with a wreath of flowers upon her head, a cornucopia in her right hand, and the globe of the earth in her left.
V. A view of a plantation of trees.
VI. Spades, pruning-hooks, &c. upon the ground.

The reference is to Virgil’s Georgics: Blest too is he who knows the rural gods.
And what more could any of us want: agriculture, the industry to seek perfect knowledge, water, earth, trees and tools?

Henry Wise retired to enjoy a life of rural retreat at Warwick Priory. In 1925 his house was sold for its bricks, which were used to built Virginia House in America.
The Undersecretary of State for the Home Department knew it was to be demolished, in 1925, and said that ‘financial reasons’ prevented his doing anything. As Thomas a Kempis put it, Sic transit gloria mundi. The foundations of Warwick Priory were partially excavated in 2002-3. .

10 thoughts on “The classical gardening ideal of George London, Henry Wise and Virgil's Georgics

  1. Tom Turner Post author

    The text on the London and Wise frontispiece image comes from Virgil’s Georgic 2 (lines 132-133)

    regum aequabat opes animis, searque reuertens
    nicte domum dapibus mensas onerabat inemptis
    It translates as:
    He used to equal king’s riches with his spirit, and when he returned home late at night, he used to load his table with feasts unbought.

    Virgil describes the capacity of a ‘happy husbandsman’ or gardener to produce rich food by hard work. It is a great motto for home gardeners who produce food ‘by the sweat of thy brow’. The buyers of London and Wise’s book may be assumed to have known the Georgics from their schooldays, so that the whole quotation would not have been necessary. Most of the book is about growing food, not about garden design. They had their priorities right. But the classical allusions are also significant and, in the course of the eighteenth century, led designers to re-create scenery from the landscape of antiquity in their country estates. They also started buying food from markets – which eventually led to the demise of vegetable growing on country estates. When their distant relatives talk about ‘restoring a walled garden’ on a 21st century estate what they have in mind is turning the old walled vegetable garden into something ornamental which will bring in more visitors and more money. So they still uses gardens to produce ‘riches’. The Walled Garden at Scampston is a good example.

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  2. Thomas Mickey

    The walled garden at George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, near DC, is still a kitchen garden. It is located not too far from the house. The English garden influence is clearly there. Still herbs and veggies.

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  3. Tom Turner Post author

    To be fair, there are many more restored vegetable gardens in Britain than there were, say, 20 years ago. But there are also far too many which have been turned into dreary flower gardens – and too many which are just grassed over. I would like to see them become well-run community vegetable gardens. Osborne House (Queen Victoria’s summer retreat on the Isle of Wight) is a kind of ornamental vegetable garden. It is quite nice but rather pointless.

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  4. Christine

    Everything has its place in the ‘orbis terrarum’ of landscape: native vegetation, flower gardens, vegetables gardens, water gardens, ornamental gardens and lawn.

    Relating this back to context sensitive design if the definition of a weed is ‘the wrong plant in the wrong place’ perhaps Tom could suggest a definition for ‘the wrong garden in the wrong place’?

    The perhaps it might be possible to discuss what makes a garden right or wrong for its context, rather than a good or bad example of that type of garden.

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  5. Tom Turner Post author

    I posted a comment on Bad Garden Design in April – which recently attracted a response from a US Republican – who takes me for a probable imperialist with bad teeth.
    Good gardens should have the Vitruvian virtues, and obey the Single Agreed Law of landscape and garden design: ‘consult the Genius of the Place’. So badly designed gardens (1) lack the Vitruvian virtues (2) ignore the genius of the place. As Leo Tolstoy might have said, if switching his attention from families to gardens: ‘Happy gardens are all alike; every unhappy garden is unhappy in its own way’.

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  6. Christine

    Why do I insist on the distinction between the right and wrong place and a good and bad design?
    Because over time the context (qualities of place) will inevitably change while the design will usually (but of course not always) maintains a fundamental internal integrity.
    [ http://www.mlahanas.de/Greeks/Arts/Parthenon.htm ] What makes the Parthenon brilliant throughout history?

    Although response to context is inherent in a good design solution in the sense that you point out – genius of place – context itself is exceedingly important.

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  7. Tom Turner Post author

    There are some appealing examples of good garden design on the video and the Americans have certainly not been laggard in this field. Dan Kiley was an outstanding designer. His book has the title The Complete Works of America’s Master Landscape Architect – but many of his projects,like the Miller House, are better categorised as Garden Design.

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