Neil MacGregor’s Living with the Gods episode on water does not mention gardens, but it could have done!
Beliefs have always influenced garden design styles, just as they influence contemporary gardens. And just as they will surely influence future gardens. I do not have a religion but I do believe in beliefs and in their importance for designers. Neil MacGregor’s radio series on Living with Gods is therefore of great interest to me. Taking objects and places as examples, MacGregor explains the beliefs that led to their creation. This is what I tried to do when writing histories of Asian, European and British garden design. So when I can see a connections between what MacGregor say and the history of gardens I will blog and tweet about them using the hastag #GardenBeliefs. I am hoping he will devote a programme to Nelumbo nucifera the Sacred Lotus – but doubt it. It was a celebrated garden plant long before the Buddha made it a very famous garden plant as recorded in the story of the Flower Sermon:
Toward the end of his life, the Buddha took his disciples to a quiet pond for instruction. As they had done so many times before, the Buddha’s followers sat in a small circle around him, and waited for the teaching. But this time the Buddha had no words. He reached into the muck and pulled up a lotus flower. And he held it silently before them, its roots dripping mud and water. The disciples were greatly confused. Buddha quietly displayed the lotus to each of them. In turn, the disciples did their best to expound upon the meaning of the flower: what it symbollized, and how it fit into the body of Buddha’s teaching. When at last the Buddha came to his follower Mahakasyapa, the disciple suddenly understood. He smiled and began to laugh. Buddha handed the lotus to Mahakasyapa and began to speak. “What can be said I have said to you,” smiled the Buddha, “and what cannot be said, I have given to Mahakashyapa.”
Alan Watts a great interpreter of Buddhist ideas for westerners made a wise comment on contemporary religious ideas (he uses the term ‘faith’ where I use ‘belief’):
The present phase of human thought and history … almost compels us to face reality with open minds, and you can only know God through an open mind just as you can only see the sky through a clear window. You will not see the sky if you have covered the glass with blue paint. But “religious” people who resist the scraping of the paint from the glass, who regard the scientific attitude with fear and mistrust, and confuse faith with clinging to certain ideas, are curiously ignorant of laws of the spiritual life which they might find in their own traditional records.
With regard to garden design, I’m a great believer in the importance of beliefs – and used the word in the titles a book on the history of Asian gardens. Neil MacGregor’s Radio 4 series on Living with the Gods is therefore of great interest to me.
In the first episode MacGregor discusses is the Lion Man. This 40,000 year old figurine is interpreted as a representation of man’s relationship with the natural world – which is one of the grand themes in the history of garden design. A question for me is whether the Lion Man was made by nomads or whether it was made by a holy man who settled near a cave and a place where he could live without being nomadic.
In the second episode, on Fire and State MacGregor focuses ‘on sacred fire which comes to represent the state itself’. He discusses the perpetual fire tended by the Vestal Virgins below the Palatine Hill in Rome, which is in our Garden Finder, and also the Parsi fire temple in Udvada, India, and ‘la Flamme de la Nation’ beneath the Arc de Triomphe in Paris’.
The Baroque style avenues of sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) in Greenwich Park are believed to have been planted 1660-1. So they may have been 356 years old when these video clips were taken on 28th October 2017. Greenwich was imparked in the fifteenth century is the oldest of London’s Royal Parks. Maybe ten years ago they were looking unloved. Today they are very well cared for. Instead of mowing the grass under the trees, the turf is being removed and bark chippings are being spread, as shown below.
With good care the Greenwich chestnuts might live as long as the oldest chestnut tree in Britain (571 years and at Stourhead) but the aim should for them to live as long as the Hundred-Horse Chestnut (Castagno dei Cento Cavalli) in Sicily: estimated to be 3000 years old.
The Preface to the 1986 printed edition of this book made ‘ a personal plea for some restoration projects which would be of special historical value as examples of poorly represented styles’. The plea had no influence upon events but the following update may be of interest to readers: (1) The semi-circular parterre at Hampton Court, known as the Fountain Garden, has not changed. But the nearby Privy Garden has been restored with the greatest possible care for historical accuracy. I believe this was an error of judgement: the Privy Garden is an unremarkable as a Baroque parterre but looked good in its picturesque 1986 condition. The Fountain Garden remains rather ugly but would have been very splendid – if restored in the manner of the Privy Garden. (2) The Giant Steps in Greenwich Park have not been restored. The Royal Parks Agency commissioned a design for a Baroque water cascade on the site. It was opposed by the local people. I can see a strong case for restoring the original steps which would have been like Bridgeman’s theatre at Claremont Landscape Garden. Or one could make a respectable case for a new design on the site. But ‘restoring’ a cascade which never existed would have been illogical. (3) The Leasowes is now run as a country park. (4) Nothing has been done about the parterre at Melbourne Hall or the ornamental farm at Great Tew (5) Gertrude Jekyll’s garden at Munstead Wood is, I am delighted to report, being restored.
It’s time for another update:
- The semi-circular parterre at Hampton Court has not been restored and the Privy Garden still lacks the aesthetic quality it had before it was restored
- ‘Restoration’ of the Giant Steps in Greenwich Park is under consideration and may well happen – I will do a blog post about this soon
- The Leasowes is still run as a country park and with little regard for the outstanding importance of William Shenstone’s conception
- Nothing has been done about the parterre at Melbourne Hall
- Nothing has been done about the ferme ornée at Great Tew
- Good restoration work has been done at Munstead Wood and it is open to the public by appointment
- I suggested ‘some full-scale Gertrude Jekyll borders with colour schemes based on J.M.W. Turner’s colour theory’
With regard to the 7th suggestion, I was thinking about the long border in Greenwich Park but did not mention it because the Giant Steps seemed more important. In 2013, The Royal Parks appointed Chris Beardshaw to ‘completely redesign the border’. I have often admired his work at Chelsea and am sure he did a good job for Greenwich. But there are lessons to be learned:
- The quality of the long border is poor. This may because you can’t just ask an expert to design a herbaceous border. You need to expert to have responsibility for its management and review the design very frequently. It’s best to have the expert working on the border and thinking about it all the time. Is this plant doing too well? Why is that plant suffering? Would it be better if those two plants were not side by side? do those colours go together?
- The Royal Parks Agency (as it used to be) lacked expertise in the design and the design history of parks, gardens and landscapes. So they probably did a poor job in briefing Chris Beardshaw.
- The Royal Parks are really bad at involving volunteers in the management of parks and gardens. This is a tragic wasted opportunity for bringing in resources of mind and brain and involving the community.