Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm
Mawson's drawings, poking fun at Art Nouveau

The response of British gardens to modern art was exceptionally slow. In the first half of the twentieth century the overwhelming popularity of the Arts and Crafts style formed a great wall which shielded garden designers from the explosion of creative energy that produced the Modern Movement in architecture and the fine arts. Since painting had been a vital influence on British garden design for two centuries it is odd that so few designers peered over the wall to see what was happening to the other applied arts. In Europe and America the response of garden designers to modern art was faster. By 1900 Gaudie had shown at the Parque Güell in Barcelona that Art Nouveau, then known in Britain as the 'modern style', was peculiarly suited to the layout of parks and gardens, and by 1910 Frank Lloyd Wright's design for the Robie house in Chicago had shown that the lines of a modern building could be extended to control the layout of outdoor space.

Return to start of section

The landowning class which commissioned the great British gardens of the period showed no taste for stylistic innovation in their twilight hour. Nor is there any reason to think that garden designers had a significant interest in modern art before 1925. The Modern Movement was assailed by the leading designers of the day when it appeared over the skies of England. In, 1916 Thomas Mawson was still laughing at the 'art nouveau craze' and lectured on 'the ridiculous ornament and the exaggerated design which this over-enthusiastic cult produced (Slides Nos. 3 and 4)'. In 1934 Sir Reginald Blomfield (he was knighted in 1919) wrote a whole book attacking the modern movement. He stated that 'our younger generation, trained exclusively in our architectural schools, are convinced that they are introducting a new era in architecture' and saw it as his loyal duty 'to do what I can to rescue a noble art from the degradation into which it seems to be sinking'.

Return to start of section

In 1953, when Peter Shepheard wrote a book on Modern Gardens, it was still necessary to look abroad for examples of private gardens which had been influenced by modern art. His foreign examples included gardens by Thomas Church and Burle Marx. The only convincingly modern British garden in the book, Bentley Wood at Halland in Sussex, was designed by an architect and a landscape architect who had both emigrated to the United States. The architect, Serge Chermyeff, was Russian by birth and also owned the house. The landscape architect, Chrisopher Tunnard, was a pioneer of modern gardens in England. The illustrations in Shepheard's book proved beyond question that it was possible to design gardens which could stand as totally modern works of art, but it would be difficult, even today, to fill a book with examples of wholly modern British gardens.

Return to start of section

Abstract diagrams, by John Brookes

The main reason for referring to an 'Abstract Style is that it draws inspiration from the abstract geometry of modern art. A subsidiary reason is that modern gardens have been divorced from the historical and literary references which were the starting point for all previous styles of British garden design. This corresponds to the early twentieth century painters' desire to produce a new art which was objective, analytical and non-figurative. Since there was a tendency to abstraction in primitive art it is tempting to name the new style of garden design after one of the four modern movements in art which have had most influence on garden designers. One could describe it as the Cubist style, the Constructivist style, the Neo-plasticist style or the Expressionist style. My reason for not using any of these names is that they would imply too close an identification with the somewhat wordy objectives of a particular group of artists.

Cubism is the parent of modern painting and also the movement which has had the most profound influence on garden design. Its starting point is generally taken to be the work of Cezanne and his intention of 'doing over Poussin entirely from nature'. Cezanne spoke of art being 'theory developed and applied in contact with nature' and of treating nature 'by the cylinder, the sphere, the cone, everything in proper perspective so that each side of an object is directed towards a central point'. It is evident that there is a close affinity between this intention and the Neoplatonic theory of art which, as was discussed in the first chapter, produced the geometrically organised paintings and gardens of the seventeenth century.

Between 1910 and 1930 a group of Dutch artists, who descibed themselves as Neo-Plasticists, developed Cubism into a totally non-figurative art. The leading figure in the movement was Piet Mondrian. He had painted realistic landscapes as a young man but came into contact with the Cubist paintings of Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso between 1911 and 1914. At the outbreak of war he returned to Holland and, in association with Theo van Doesburg, developed a rigorous non-figurative art. During his Cubist period Mondrian had given his paintings titles which referred to figurative subjects, such as The Sea and Horizontal Tree. After formulating the principles of Neo-Plasticism he used titles which implied no subject, such as Composition or Composition with Red Yellow and Blue. The theory which underpinned Mondrian's work was developed in conversation with M.H.J.Schoenmeakers, a Dutch philosopher who created a link between the de Stijl movement and Plato's theory of forms (viz. Chapter 1). As in the seventeenth century it was believed that art should look upwards from the world of the particulars to the universal forms. Theo van Doesburg, the editor of de Stijl magazine, explained the basis of the new art:

As contrasted with traditional painting, where particularisation was of primary importance, painting in our time considers generalisation, that is to say the uncovering of the purely aesthetic in plastic features, as its principle value'. He believed that art should concentrate on the primary colours and forms, and 'leave the interpretation of stories, tales, etc to poets and writers .

Return to start of section

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm
The front cover of the first issue of De Stijl Magazine, 1917, has a surprising resemblence to a garden plan in the Abstract Style.
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm
Henry Moore's work has had a considerable influence on the design of modern planting and landform.

The front cover which was used for the first issues of de Stijl magazine resembles an abstract garden plan. It was designed by Vilmos Huszar, a founder member of the de Stijl group, and published in October 1917. The design could be made into a garden by translating the black and white pattern into paths, steps, raised beds, pools and stepping stones. Even the title 'De Stijl', which lies above the design, could be used to make a paving pattern with dark and light slabs. No such literal translation of a graphic design into a garden plan has been attempted but the geometry of Neo-Plasticism has had a profound influence on the design of paved areas. When working with a T-square and set square it is easy to attempt Mondrian-type patterns.

The design of landform and the layout of planting areas has been more influenced by cubist sculpture. It is normal practice to execute such designs with a soft pencil or to make a maquette in clay. Both media lend themselves to the kind of shapes and patterns which are seen in the work of Jean Arp, Constantin Brancuzi, Henry Moore, and Barbera Hepworth. They make considerable use of what might be described as muscular organic curves.

Modern planting design has tended to be non-geometric and expressive. Designers have considered plants as abstract shapes and patches of colour, and have used them as a foil to the geometry of Neo-Plastic and Cubist art. The inspiration for this device is uncertain but the images which can be formed by overlaying random biological patterns on a structured geometrical background are highly characteristic of modern gardens. The two possible sources for the imagery are Japanese gardens and Abstract Expressionism. The former are known to have influenced particular designers and the latter is a movement which has educated us all in the appreciation of abstract and random patterns.

The diagram of the Abstract style shows a transition from a rectilinear paved area into a curvilinear planted area. It is intended for comparison with the previous diagrams but it must be remembered that it represents a garden of perhaps as little as 0.1 hectares while some of the earlier diagrams showed estates of 1,000 hectares and more. In many cases the modern paved area will be no more than a patio outside a French window but here the use of 600 x 600mm concrete slabs with prominent joints reminds one of the de Stijl aesthetic.

England was engaged upon the Italian phase of the Arts and Crafts style when the first modern gardens were being designed in Europe. Russell Page looks back on the British gardens which were made between 1900 and 1930 in his autobiography. He criticises them for employing 'a ragbag of styles has nothing to do with real style'. He and other designers were attracted to the classical gardens of France and Italy by their abstract spatial qualities.

Return to start of section

The beautiful pen and wash drawings in J C Shephard and G A Jellicoe's Gardens of the Renaissance(1925) reveal the spatial quality of the old gardens and the authors remark that 'The bases of abstract design, running through history like a silver thread, are independent of race and age'. A second book on Gardens and Design, by the same authors and published in 1927, illustrated a house and garden by Frank Lloyd Wright and praised him for grasping 'the colossal latent power that lies behind the subject'. A series of articles by Jellicoe appeared in Architects' Journal during 1931 and 1932 . The designs were classical but the discussion is highly analytical. In 1933 Jellicoe and Page were commissioned by Ronald Tree to design an Italian garden at Ditchley Park. The owner specifically wanted an Italian garden and Jellicoe comments:

I had certainly studied the Italian garden in detail, but except for abortive designs for a new landscape at Claremont some years previously, my experience in the actual design and execution of the classics was nil. My aesthetic inclinations, indeed, were wholly for the modern movement in art, fostered by teaching at the Architectural Association's School of Architecture........ Casting aside therefore all thoughts of twentieth-century art, of Picasso and Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, I threw myself enthusiastically into a unique study of landscape history made real .

Ditchley Park was the last major British garden to be designed in the Italian style. During the 1930s Jellicoe received a number of smaller commissions which provided an opportunity to introduce elements of the Abstract style. The frontispiece to The Studio's 1932 Garden Annual shows a garden by J C Shepherd & G A Jellicoe with a distinctly modern flavour, and in 1933 Jellicoe and Page worked together on the design of the Caveman Restaurant and garden in the Cheddar Gorge. The project was widely illustrated in the 1930s as an example of modern architecture but only part of the garden was built.

Return to start of section

Christopher Tunnard was the first British author to urge a connection between modern art and garden design. He published an article on Japenese gardens in Landscape and Garden in 1935 and said that their lack of superflous ornament has 'a special appeal to the modern mind of all countries'. In 1938 he wrote a series of articles for the Architectural Review which attracted considerable attention and were republished as Gardens in the Modern Landscape. It became an important textbook which is often referred to by garden designers who trained in the 1950s as 'the only book we had'. Tunnard opens with the assertion 'A garden is a work of art' and soon reveals himself as a true disciple of the modern movement. In 1937 he had even co-authored a manifesto on garden design with an international comrade. Tunnard and Jean Canneel-Claes proclaimed:

We believe in the probity of the creative act..... the reliance of the designer on his own knowledge and experience and not on the academic symbolism of the styles or outworn systems of aesthetics, to create by experiment and invention new forms which are significant of the age from which they spring.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm
New Ways, a modern house by Peter Behrens standing on a ridiculous mock-Arts-and-Crafts rockery.

Tunnard believed that garden designers should 'return to functionalism' and he used quotations from Le Corbusier: 'The styles are a lie', and Adolf Loos: 'To find beauty in form instead of making it depend on ornament is the goal to which humanity is aspiring'. Above all he believed that 'The modern house requires modern surroundings, and in most respects the garden of today does not fulfil this need'. His point was well made by a photograph of a crisp white rectangular modern house in Northampton, by Peter Behrens, which looks most uncomfortable perched on top of a Jekyllesque dry stone wall and a semi-circular flight of steps which 'fail entirely to harmonize with the character of the house'. Many designers agreed with Tunnard but the public did not - the Behrens house was in fact the first in England to be designed in the International Style. The public seem to have looked at Tunnard's photograph and decided that the garden was delightful but the house was an abomination.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm
Christopher Tunnard's design for the garden of Bentley Wood House at Halland.

The kind of garden which ought to accompany a modern building was illustrated by a photograph of Bentley Wood at Halland, designed by Chermayeff and Tunnard. It is an austerely beautiful and entirely modern design. The garden owes nothing to 'the second stone age with its plethora of flagged paths and dry walls'. A sculpture in the garden by Henry Moore helped to make another of Tunnard's points:

The best of contemporary architecture is closely related to the best of modern sculpture and constructivist painting because architects, sculptors and constructivist painters are in written or personal contact with one another'.

This was one of the fundamental principles on which the Bauhaus School had been founded. It was stated by Walter Gropius in 1919:

Let us create a new guild of craftsmen, without the class distinctions which raise an arrogant barrier between craftsmen and artist. Together, let us conceive and create the new building of the future, which will embrace architecure "and" sculpture "and" painting in one unity and which will one day rise toward heaven from the hands of a million workers, like the crystal symbol of a new faith.

The Bentley Wood project became the crystal symbol of a new faith for British garden designers.

Return to start of section

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm
High Point, Highgate, London - a lofty modern building with a flat roof designed by Tecton, whose members also belonged to the M.A.R.S. Group. The constructivist aesthetic of the building is relieved by the caryatids and the planting. Jellicoe lived here after leaving his house in Grove Terrace.

The most important British design school to adopt the new faith was the Architectural Association (AA) in London. Tunnard was a member of the Modern Architecture Research Group (MARS) which was based at the AA and played an important part in introducing modern architecture to England. He was probably the author of a 1938 article in Landscape and Garden by 'A member of the Mars Group' which proclaimed that if 'lofty buildings, flat roofs, reinforced concrete and a remapping of the countryside' are 'necessary for the betterment of social conditions' then members of the Mars Group 'will not hesitate to advocate them'. For a short time in the 1930s members of the Group had made it possible to say 'that England leads the world in modern architectural activity' . Staff and students at the AA were inspired to create modern buildings with modern surroundings. Geoffrey Jellicoe, Frederick Gibberd, Peter Shepheard and Hugh Casson all trained at the AA in the 1930s and later became prominent members of the Institute of Landscape Architects (ILA). Jellicoe and Shepheard became Presidents of the AA and then of the ILA.

Return to start of section

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm
The abstract water gardens in Harlow New Town, designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd.

The future of the Abstract style after World War II lay with the professional designers who joined the ILA after its formation in 1929. Tunnard left England in 1939 to become a Professor of City Planning at Yale University but his book was republished in 1948 and had a considerable influence on post-war designers in England and America. The first major opportunity for British designers came with the Festival of Britain in 1951. Hugh Casson was the design director of the Festival and a number of landscape architects were employed on its gardens. They included Peter Shepheard, Russell Page, Peter Youngman and Frank Clark. Clark had worked with Tunnard on Gardens in the Modern Landscape and was the leader of the only full-time landscape design course in the UK. Youngman ran a part-time course at University College in London. A number of photographs of the Festival were included in Peter Shepheard's Modern Gardens. The hard detailing was clearly influenced by the de Stijl aesthetic but the way in which it was enlivened by planting and water-washed stones appears to derive from Tunnard's analysis of Japanese gardens. Crisp geometry was offset by natural shapes and patterns.

Many of the designers who joined the ILA before 1939 did so because of their interest in private gardens. After 1946 they found that few clients wished to commission garden designs. There was however a greatly increased demand for landscape designers to work in the public sector: on housing estates, new towns, reservoirs, factories and power stations. It was on these projects that the Abstract style flourished in the '50s and '60s. Such projects lie outside the scope of this book but are referred to by Tony Aldous and Brian Clouston in Landscape by Design. There are many public spaces in the new towns which illustrate the style:, in Harlow by F Gibberd and Sylvia Crowe, in Hemel Hempstead by Geoffrey Jellicoe, in Stevenage by Gordon Patterson, and in Cumbernauld by Peter Youngman and William Gillespie.

A number of books which illustrate the Abstract style in private gardens have been aimed at the general public. In 1953 Lady Allen of Hurtwood and Susan Jellicoe wrote a book on Gardens for Penguin Books. Lady Allen had worked with the New Homes For Old group which supported the cause of modern architecture in the 1930s. The book contained photographs of gardens designed by Thomas Church, Garrett Eckbo, C Th Sorensen and other foreign pioneers of the Abstract style.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm
The Four Faces Urn at Bramham, West Yorkshire, was used by Sylvia Crowe to illustrate the abstract qualities of gardens which 'are rooted in the natural laws of the universe'.

In 1958 Sylvia Crowe published a book on Garden Design which contains a masterly analysis of the abstract qualities of gardens in the chapters on the principles and materials of design. Her discussion of the Four Faces urn at Bramham illustrates the analytical nature of her approach and her belief that 'underlying all the greatest gardens are certain principles of composition which remain unchanged because they are rooted in the natural laws of the universe':

The long vista at Bramham Park, Yorkshire, looks across a pool and the end is marked by a huge urn. The two do not compete, but are complementary, forming together one composition. The dominant vertical figure is completed by the calm horizontal pool which does nothing to prevent the eye travelling easily on its way to the terminal point.

This analysis contrasts with the eighteenth century associationist approach of Archibald Alison, who valued the urn at Hagley because it was 'chosen by Mr Pope for the spot and now inscribed to his memory', and also with the nineteenth century stylistic approach of Loudon and Kemp. Loudon advised that urns and statues should only be placed where they can be 'viewed in connection with some architectural production' and Kemp that 'statuary, vases, and similar architectural ornaments, are the fitting associates of Grecian and Italian houses, and appear less suitable in relation to every other style'.. Examples of abstract designs by Sylvia Crowe can be seen at Fulmar Grange in Buckinghamshire and the Commonwealth Institute in London.

Return to start of section

John Brookes, who worked for a time in the office of Sylvia Crowe and Brenda Colvin, is the best known British designer to have applied abstract principles to gardens. His books have achieved an unusually wide readership and proved that gardens can be modern without resorting to the austerity of the house at Halland. The photographs in his books show warm, friendly, useful spaces, while his plans and diagrams reveal the abstract geometrical patterns which have led to their spatial organisation. Brookes is a very successful garden designer. His own design for the Penguin Books courtyard at Heathrow is used in Room Outside to illustrate the point that 'looking at modern paintings can also help one to see how areas of colour and texture can be counter-positioned to form a balanced whole'. The design was generated by a Mondrian-type drawing which was geared to the modular pattern of the building and then translated into areas of paving, grass, water and planting. His garden at Denmans is less strikingly modern, but more charming. Return to start of section


The Penguin Books Courtyard.  
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see www.gardenvisit.com/order_form.htm The abstract pattern (left) and (right) the plan for Penguin Books' courtyard. Courtesy John Brookes.

In 1960 G A Jellicoe published the first of his three Studies in Landscape Design. They are inspiring books and give examples of the way in which his own design projects have been influenced by modern artists, including Paul Klee, Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth. The Studies were concerned with public sector projects but in 1968 Susan and Geoffrey Jellicoe published a book which examines modern gardens from a similar standpoint. Jellicoe comments: 'Just as the mind is responding, in abstract art, to shapes which it appears to seek and even to crave, so it responds to shapes in landscapes'. A major opportunity to apply this idea came with an invitation to prepare designs for the most significant private garden to have been made in England since the war. Jellicoe describes his meeting with the client as follows:

My first visit was on 22 July 1980. I remember nearly stumbling over a Henry Moore sculpture on the floor and observing a Ben Nicholson over the mantelpiece, with a huge Monet close by and a Graham Sutherland in the offing. I realised within a few minutes that Stanley Seeger and I were on the same wave-length in thinking that landscape art should be a continuum of past, present and future, and should contain within it the seeds of abstract ideas as well as having figurative meaning.

This conjunction of a designer and a client sharing a passion for modern art has produced the magnum opus of British garden designin the second half of the twentieth century: Sutton Place in Surrey. It contains a Paradise garden based on a serpentine grid with fountains at the nodes, a secret Moss Garden with two hidden circles, a Magritte Walk (with urns from Mentmore), a Miro swimming pool, a lake designed as the setting for a Henry Moore sculpture and a marble wall by Ben Nicholson. The latter is a work of great beauty and represents an artistic ideal which has had an overwhelming influence on the Abstract style of garden design.

The last word on the Abstract style should come from Tunnard, though he speaks of 'structure' and a 'grand conception' instead of 'style' - because of his functionalist belief that the styles had been rendered obsolete. It can be set alongside the descriptions of the landscape ideal which were quoted in the first chapter and is expressed with admirable directness:

The author's personal approach to landscape gardening and planning has not changed. First, an eighteenth century understanding of "the genius of the place" is necessary. Then the structure - in which usefulness and aesthetic pleasure must both be considered. Then materials of only the best quality (when they are available!) - this is very important, and it will be noticed that they are put in their proper place, after the grand conception, not before it. Finally, understanding the wishes of the client, whether it is a private citizen or a public committee in New York or London.

Since a dislike of raw concrete is one of the main reasons for the unpopularity of modern construction it is instructive to note Tunnard's insistance on the use of 'only the best' materials

Go to next Section

Write a Comment »