Category Archives: garden history

Impressive gardens: revisiting the Golden Age in America

‘The Golden Age of American Gardens’ begins “In the 1880s America’s millionaires were looking for new ways to display their new wealth, and the acquisition of a grand house with an equally grand garden became their passion.”

It is said that the style of architecture and gardens, evidenced in Lila Vanderbilt Webb’s 1886 model agricultural farm Shelburne Farm (among others) “was a mix of eclecticism and the latest advances in artistic and cultural developments as promoted in popular English style books and periodicals of the time.” The tubbed bay trees on the terraces overlooking Lake Champlain, as a consequence, were said to have been climatically challenged!

The Golden Age ended with the Jazz Age in which a distinctly American sensibility in gardens and lifestyle emerged. European influences still dominated design ideas, but new approaches were gradually emerging as is shown in the Chartes Cathedral Window Garden (photograph by Saxon Holt shown above), one of three walled gardens on the estate.

Filoli, the home of shipping heiress Lurline Roth, whose daughter debuted to jazz strains in 1939 at the property, maintains a strong jazz tradition.

Perhaps she danced to the classic‘I wish I could shimmy like my sister Kate’, said to be a charleston/belly dance fusion, and which inspired The Beatles to release a song of the same name in 1962?

Monty Don on the best garden in the world: Ninfa?

Monty Don, in a recent TV series on the gardens of Italy, remarked that his friends know he has visited a lot of gardens and often ask him ‘What is the best garden in the world?’. So, while visiting Ninfa, he told us: ‘This is it’. I too have visited a lot of gardens and, though I could not name a ‘best garden’ have ventured a list of The World’s Top Ten Gardens. My list does not include Ninfa. Nor have I been there, but I would like Monty to be questioned or psychoanalysed to discover the reasons for his choice. My theory is that Monty Don is more interested in plants and planting than art and design. I like him as a presenter but despair of his garden history and regret his being such a gusher. Critics should be critical and, to be fair, he did visit Isola Bella to say ‘it’s kitch but I love it’.


Image courtesy sunshinecity

Romantic new garden for the cafe in Chiswick Park?

New garden landscape for the cafe beside Chiswick House


Evidently, English Heritage staff have become avid followers of this blog. In August 2010, we criticised the new cafe for being in a sea of bitmac. Now it is surrounded (top photo) by an attractive surfacing with the friendly name of ‘tar and chips’. We therefore urge EH to take another step and implement the proposal in the lower photograph.
But when I visited the park today a nice man came running towards me and advised that if seen on my bike again the fine would be £8. I should not have made this comment in August 2010: ‘I have always had a soft spot for Chiswick House and Park: my Mum used to play there; it is a key project in William Kent’s design progress; it is the only park or garden in the world where a uniformed official has told me that “you can ride your bicycle here if you want to”‘.

Plans of Chiswick House in 1729 and 2010 (EH plan; NE orientation). The canal would be below the drawing and the new cafe above the drawing


Chiswick House Park as it was and as it is

Might King Will and Queen Kate restore pagan tree-worship to its rightful place in British culture?

Sacred trees entering Westminster Abbey and contemporary Britain?


The Daily Mail reports that ‘Miss Middleton, 29, who studied history of art at St Andrew’s, has devised a theme which she says ‘pays tribute to the Language of Flowers’ – an idea that is bound to have gone down well with her gardening-obsessed father-in-law, Prince Charles, who famously admitted that he talks to his plants’.
One wonders if her history of art course included what little is known of paganism in the British Isles. Prince Charles wanted to become the ‘defender of faiths’ (instead of merely the Defender of Faith (Fidei Defensor). As the AP photograph shows, she has used trees to decorate Westminster Abbey. Tree worship was common throughout Europe before the advent of Christianity. I might become a strong supporter of the monarchy if the King Will and Queen Kate restore paganism to its proper place as one of the world’s major ‘religions’. It has a kinship with Hinduism, Daoism, Shinto and the religions of pre-Islamic West Asia.
I wish the young couple well but was not pleased to hear that the Metropolitan Police would deal harshly with protestors. Why shouldn’t we protest against vicious despots being invited to Britain and protected with millions of pounds from the public purse? It made me wonder about a small protest of my own. The best I could think of was sticking a postage stamp to the pavement outside Westminster Abbey and taking a video of people treading upon it. Instead, I will remember the trees and send and send Will & Kate every good wish from Gardenvisit.com. Like them, I am an alumni if St Andrews University.

Food glorious food

Modern life presents numerous paradoxes. Perhaps the first is the widespread trade in food produce and the convenience of supermarket shopping, that has somehow alienated society from the concept that all food is land or sea based. And this means – land area & sea area – must be used, managed and preserved for this purpose, generally in some direct relationship with the population that must be feed.

Can all nations feed their own populations within the bounds of their own land and sea resources?

“Some countries just do not have the land to feed their year-2000 populations even at high yields. They include Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Algeria, Somalia, Lesotho, Haiti, and much of the Middle East. Some of these countries have resources they can trade for food; others do not. After the year 2000, if populations go on growing, other countries come onto the critical list, including Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Nigeria, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, Syria.”

How is sustainable agriculture and aquaculture to be understood?

John Ruskin: picturesque tourism, poverty, love, life and sex

John Ruskin was one of the most brilliant writers of the nineteenth century. We all tread in his picturesque footsteps when exploring foreign cities and taking street photographs. But take care. Ruskin wrote that “Yesterday, I came on a poor little child lying flat on the pavement in Bologna – sleeping like a corpse – possibly from too litte food. I pulled up immediately – not in pity, but in delight at the folds of its poor little ragged chemise over the thin bosom – and gave the mother money – not in charity, but to keep the flies off it while I made a sketch. I don’t see how this it to be avoided, but it is very hardening.” Or was he a hard man? The beautiful Effie Gray (right) thought him oppressive. Her marriage to Ruskin was never consumated because, it is said, he knew of female beauty only from marble statues and was horrified to discover that real girls had pubic hair. Effie divorced Ruskin and had 8 children by his friend, the Pre-Raphaelite painter, Sir John Everett Millais.

Above image of India courtesy Dey Alexander. Below drawing, by Ruskin, of Piazza Santa Maria del Pianto, Rome.


How green is my neighbourhood?

One of the unfortuneate consequences of the fight against urban sprawl, which has been largely taken up in the name of Jane Jacobs, is the loss of green space and the urban forests of many communities. They are disappearing in the manner environmentalists call ‘death by a thousand cuts’, that is (sometimes) slowly and incrementally.

Sherwood Forest is one of the old, upscale, districts of Detroit, ‘the city of Neighbourhoods’;

“Developers thought that the area should resemble an English village; thus, they selected appropriate English names and curved and winding streets. You will not find a rectangular street pattern here or in old English villages. There are about 435 homes, most of them built before the Depression terminated housing construction in the city. Many of them are Georgian Colonials or English Tudor homes in keeping with the English theme. Some of the homes are newer, having been constructed after building resumed in 1947. They are large, even by the standards of early 21st-century architecture since they average about 3,600 square feet with four to six bedrooms.”

In the adjacent suburb of Palmer Woods is the Dorothy Turkel House by Frank Lloyd Wright, which undoubtably also relies on its leafy surrounds for its ambience.

British biologist Professor Jeff Sayer in his lecture at James Cook University asked the apt conservation question, ‘Conserving the forests for whom?’

The Englishness of English policy, English gardening and English gardens


A video clip of a 71-year-old lady using her handbag to stop a gang of thieves robbing a jeweller is being shown everywhere. Ann Timson deserves to be memorialised in a park or garden. She encapsulates a strand in English foreign policy and English garden design. Instead of making a permanent alliance with any foreign power, England’s aim was always to maintain a balance of power and to support the rights of small countries. Burglars had to be fought. Bullies had to be defeated. It was self-interest. Nor was any foreign style of garden design ever adopted in its entirety. Nor is any one plant allowed to dominate a garden. Young plants are cherished like children – and then ruthlessly cut back when they begin to overwhelm their neighbours. A good place for a statue of Ann Timson bashing the burglars would be at the other end of Victoria Tower Gardens from Rodin’s Burghers of Calais.

Note: if the Youtube link does not work, the video can also be seen here and here or, with an advert and an American commentary, here.

Please protect the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities


This is not a railway station: it is the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities – and a nearby building is on fire today. The thought of the antiquities being damaged is horrific and it makes me think they should be copied for public view and placed in secure underground bunkers. In fact they should make two copies. In the case of statues, one should go on display in a museum and the other should go in the place where it was found. This should be the normal procedure. For example, large numbers of statues were found at Hadrian’s Villa. Copies should be sited in their original locations.
I would love to see the Egyptians changing their government. But waiting till the old devil dies would be better than damaging the fabulous antiquities. Dr. Zahi Hawass, Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA), said two mummies were damaged by demonstrators. But his job came from Mubarak – so can he trusted?
It seems a petty point to add, but the Egyptian Museum also has material of the first importance to the study of garden history.

Image courtesy jkannenberg

Parterre with plate-bande in compartment garden, shown in Stoke Edith Wall Hanging – and landscape urbanism

This tapestry (dated 1710-20)  was rescued from a fire at Stoke Edith Park  in 1927 (see aerial photo of Stoke Edith today). It shows a garden which may have belonged to Stoke Edith House and which may have been designed by George London. It is the principal section of a compartment garden, designed for walking and for displaying the owners valuable statues and valuable flowers. The planted ribbons (plate-bandes) and the nature of their planting are clearly shown, as are the citrus fruits in tubs, placed outside for the summer to scent the air and provide fresh fruits which were otherwise unobtainable. The building at the far end of the parterre is an orangery.The design style is that of the Late Renaissance.
The use and the layout remind one of the squares of eighteenth century London and Paris (eg the Place des Vosges) – which were, in effect communal parterres. I see the urban examples as landscape urbanism in the sense of city plans inspired by garden and landscape plans.
When the Stoke Edith parterre was made the surrounding settlements (eg Hereford) were, presumably, densely packed and grubby almost-medieval towns. Their ‘shared space’ would have been roads for riding: unpaved and strewn with animal dung. For fine ladies in fine clothes they were not suitable places to take the air – so they needed gardens with gravel walks, statues and flowers to admire. The social use of the garden space is evident.

A Stoke Edith gate lodge (built in 1792) survives on a bend in the road between Ledbury and Hereford.

Images courtesy Wikipedia. See photograph of Stoke Edith garden and parterre before 1927

Tirtagangga water garden: the garden that time forgot

The Tirta (Holy Water) gangga (Ganges) water gardens in Bali are composed of three main elements: water, sculpture and gardens. They were originally built by the
late King of the Karangasem in 1948. However in 1963 with the eruption of the volcano Gunung Agung much of the palace was destroyed leaving only the bathing pools. The garden is said to be designed in a mixture of Balinese, European and Chinese styles and have undergone reconstruction.

Charles Platt: Pools of inspiration and transformation

The swimming pool and bathhouse at Manhassat Long Island by architect and landscape architect Charles Platt demonstrates the transformation in design thinking from European ideas that slowly began to characterise the design approach in the United States. The Manor House garden is remarkable for illustrating the genesis of this transformation in thinking with the ‘before’ garden centred on a fountain and the ‘after’ garden centred on the pool.

Gwinn, for which Platt contributed the architecture and collaborated with Ellen Biddle Shipman Warren Manning on the landscape contributes to the transformation of the Italian villa as inspiration to an American sensibility. There are particular elements of the garden design on the shores of lake Erie which introduce a genius for place into the American oeuvre, and are more suggestive of the quintessentially casual out-of-doors leisure lifestyle.

Style Conscious

In 1730 Queen Charlotte ordered the damming of the Westbourne River as part of a general redevelopment of Hyde Park and Kennsington Gardens by Charles Bridgeman. The Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park is the remnant of the Westbourne River which since 1850 has been diverted into a culvert and runs into the Thames near Chelsea. “The Serpentine Lake was one of the earliest artificial lakes designed to appear natural” and was widely imitated. The Long Water because of its relatively undisturbed nature is a significant wildlife habitat.

Hyde Park and its surrounds has changed considerably since its inception. Contextualising the statute of Achilles by Richard Westmacott which was said to have originated in the classical taste of the Countess Spencer, demonstrates the remarkable changes that have taken place both in the use of the park and in the urban environment which surrounds it. The Queen and Prince Albert are drawn taking air in their carriage as they pass by the statute c1840.

Achilles meanwhile remains a most admired archetypical hero.

Museum Quality Gardens

A interesting garden typology which seems to be given more attention in recent times is the museum garden, such as the garden at Giverny ‘The Museum of Impressions’. The garden museum was conceived to give visitors an experience of the Seine valley on the impressionists trail and to complement the art gallery experience of viewing impressionist paintings. The museum building is described as “topped by roofs landscaped in heather…inscribed into the natural slope of the land, allowing the minimum of opague walls.”

For the garden traditionalist there is the Musee Rodin in Paris which captures something of the atmosphere of the outdoors indoors and has a an inspiring sculpture garden.

Perhaps an even more interesting possibility with this trend is the potential for the museum-in-the-garden. The museum of life and science in North Carolina demonstrates the potential of the museum outdoors.

Where better to experience and learn about art, physics and the natural world?

Hypnerotomachia Poliphili and renaissance garden design history

An original copy of Hypnerotomachia Poliphili by Francesco Colonna (1499) is available on the web. It is a fabulous book and has been translated into English by Joscelyn Godwin. Colonna’s dreaming imagination embraces architecture, landscapes and gardens in a tale of passionate love – and eroticism.

'comely and beautiful maidens, taking their ease on the flowery grass and in the cool pleasant shade'

Polyphili meets a group of ‘friendly nymphs’ who invite him to join their bath – in a scene which might have inspired the much smuttier Hugh Hefner Playboy grotto: ‘Now that we had happily entered into such fragrance as could never have grown in Arabia, they spread out their silken garments neatly on the stone seats that served as dressing room… and unconcernedly let their shapely and delicious bodies be seen naked in every particular… I certainly could not prevent the ardent fires from leaping up to assault me in my furnace of a heart… but the nymphs, noticing it, found girlish amusement in laughing at my bashful demeanour’. Colonna was a Dominican monk but, as Godwin observes ‘we can surmise that Brother Francesco’s experience of women’s love was not limited to his dreams’.
The design dreams of the Hypnerotomachia are so rich that some scholars have attributed its authorship to Alberti. The word Hypnerotomachia is a compound of hypnos (sleep), eros (love) and mache (strife). Godwin, whom design historians must thank for his translation, renders this as The Strife of Love in a Dream and one wonders if the visions, both erotic and architectural, came to Colonna in a dream. I have not experienced such a combination but the best landscape design ideas I have had have all been when asleep. They have all been forgotten but Colonna may have put his dreams in words and images.

The graphic design of the Hypnerotomachia is admired as a masterwork from the printer, Aldus Pius Manutius (1450-1515), who devised the italic type and established the semicolon. This is the only illustrated book Aldus published and it is a brilliant example of the way in which words and images can be combined. I think garden design works best as a ‘word and image’ discipline (and regret that architecture seems to have lost much of this interest). Colonna had a far-reaching influence on gardens with his detailed descriptions of images, planting and construction ideas. He must be telling us something about the gardens he knew and he had a profound influence on the imagery used in renaissance, baroque and romantic gardens. Colonna influenced the Villa d’Este, Bomarzo, Versailles and Chiswick House. He also drew the earliest known image of what is called a knot garden in English. In Italian they were called compartmenti (compartments).

Nonsuch Tudor Palace Garden in Ewell, Surrey

The autumn weather was beautiful and I went to see the Nonsuch garden today. Little survives and I agree with the local Nonsuch historians that it represents ‘both a responsibility and a challenge.. [regarding] the proper management, preservation, and presentation of the site of one of the great houses and gardens of England’. A simple first step would be to attempt a re-creation of one of the Knot gardens shown on John Speed’s plan of Nonsuch. The plan was drawn in 1610 and a re-created knot would make a great contribution to garden history, for a small outlay. Since various interpretations of Speed’s drawing are possible, a different knot could be produced each year and they could become famous.

The photograph of Nonsuch (and the painting on the board) are approximately from the bottom of the palace plan

The photograph of Nonsuch (and the painting on the board) are approximately from the bottom of the palace plan

The view that changed the world and its gardens: what Petrarch saw from Mount Ventoux

View from the summit of Mount Ventoux

View from the summit of Mount Ventoux

Francesco Petrarca (1304-1374), known Petrarch is said to be the first man since antiquity to have climbed a mountain for pleasure alone. His ascent of Mount Ventoux, on April 26 1336, is described in his letter, below, and the view is shown in the photograph above (image courtesy Mark Madsen). The results of this famous climb include (1) humanism (2) renaissance literature and science (3) a re-birth of mimesis as the dominant theory of art and as a zest to ‘imitate nature’ (4) the change from inward-looking medieval gardens to outward-looming renaissance, baroque and romantic gardens (5) the tourist industry – Petrarch is known as the first tourist, in the sense of a man who travels for the pleasure of study, learning and views.
“To-day I made the ascent of the highest mountain in this region, which is not improperly called Ventosum [Mount Ventoux]. My only motive was the wish to see what so great an elevation had to offer. I have had the expedition in mind for many years; for, as you know, I have lived in this region from infancy, having been cast here by that fate which determines the affairs of men. Consequently the mountain, which is visible from a great distance, was ever before my eyes, and I conceived the plan of some time doing what I have at last accomplished to-day. The idea took hold upon me with especial force when, in re-reading Livy’s History of Rome, yesterday, I happened upon the place where Philip of Macedon, the same who waged war against the Romans, ascended Mount Haemus in Thessaly, from whose summit he was able, it is said, to see two seas, the Adriatic and the Euxine…. At first, owing to the unaccustomed quality of the air and the effect of the great sweep of view spread out before me, I stood like one dazed. I beheld the clouds under our feet, and what I had read of Athos and Olympus seemed less incredible as I myself witnessed the same things from a mountain of less fame. I turned my eyes toward Italy, whither my heart most inclined. The Alps, rugged and snow-capped, seemed to rise close by, although they were really at a great distance; the very same Alps through which that fierce enemy of the Roman name once made his way, bursting the rocks, if we may believe the report, by the application of vinegar. I sighed, I must confess, for the skies of Italy, which I beheld rather with my mind than with my eyes. An inexpressible longing came over rne to see once more my friend and my country.
Happy the man who is skilled to understand
Nature’s hid causes; who beneath his feet
All terrors casts, and death’s relentless doom,
And the loud roar of greedy Acheron.

PS apologies for using the hackneyed ‘changed the world’ header for this post.

Romantic new cafe garden and elegant architecture in London's Chiswick Park?

Chiswick Park gets a romantic new garden cafe

Chiswick Park gets a romantic new garden cafe!

I have always had a soft spot for Chiswick House and Park: my Mum used to play there; it is a key project in William Kent’s design progress; it is the only park or garden in the world where a uniformed official has told me that ‘you can ride your bicycle here if you want to’. So it was a pleasure to find that the current refurbishment of the park by English Heritage and the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust includes what may have been intended as a romantic new ‘Garden of the Mind’. The gravel was dredged from the North Sea. The bitumen binder was sourced far beneath the region in which the world’s first gardener worked. The garden furniture comes from far-away China. The manhole covers are tastefully handled. The architecture reminds me of Mies’ Barcelona Pavilion. We must congratulate the dashing young boss of English Heritage (Simon Thurley) and wonder if his own fair hand was behind this garden. Conveniently, it has good toilets and is within spitting distance for visitors to Lord Burlington’s Chiswick Villa. But, for me, the Garden of the Mind is nothing but a sea of bitmac (though a layer of gravel has been applied since the photo was taken). Chiswick Park is a key project in the architecture and landscape architecture of the eighteenth century world. Its sparkling new cafe deserves a sparkling new cafe garden – and Mies showed the way at Barcelona. English Heritage once ran a highly unsuccessful Contemporary Heritage Gardens project, because it was applied on inappropriate sites. The cafe in Chiswick Park could still be a great site for a great project.

Gardening on the roof, don't pass on the past….

What can the past teach us about gardening in the present?

Undoubtably our ancestors were more agriculturally minded and more in tune with the rythmn of nature than we are today. The urban environments in which many of us live are climate modified, we buy our food from the supermarket and we heat and cool our living spaces. 

Perhaps by revisiting previous garden traditions – such as the zen tradition in Japanese gardens – we can begin to imagine a variety of ways of utilising our urban roof spaces for a variety of purposes.

The project to document Middle Eastern garden traditions is likely to provide a valuable source of inspiration for the future as well as potentially preserving and enhancing our knowledge of the past. Don’t skip the drawings.

The art of sketching and drawing can itself through film and projection techniques transform the urban landscape and create a virtual landscape….and a new way of thinking about ‘green’ surfaces.

A book for the landscape architect to die for is Sketch Landscape. There are many ways of communicating ideas, and this book  has 500 sketches and scribbles by some of the best.