Garden history as a word-and-image subject

John Dixon Hunt has edited journals on Word and Image and Studies in the History of Gardens and Designed Landscapes. I am an enthusiastic supporter of the link between the two disciplines, both of which are comparatively modern. As a practitioner, Ian Hamilton Finlay is notable for combining words with garden images. But the subject is very much larger than this and I would like to see schools and universities introducing courses in word and image communication. The Ancient Egyptians scarcely distinguished between the words and images and advent of electronic publishing will re-establish these links. The adage that ‘A picture is worth a thousand words’ is thought to come from an article about the use of images in advertisements (in a 1921 issue of Printers’ Ink). There is a particular need for word-and-image specialists in publishing and in garden history but they would surely would find jobs in many industries. I am puzzled by the limited graphic skills of most book editors and most garden historians. They need to be able to draw, both by hand and with graphic software, and they need to be able to use words to explain and analyze visual designs. And they need practical experience of photography and picture research. Our multi-media world requires multi-media skills. Courses in ‘media studies’ are too much like courses in ‘English literature’. They deal with criticism more than with creativity and technology. Graphic designers are interested in the topic but tend to have more skill with images than with words.
This post was prompted by reading a book on Baroque garden cultures: emulation, sublimation, subversion ed Michel Conan (Dumbarton Oaks, 2005). I enjoyed it. Conan is an erudite and interesting man but his skills are more with words than with images, while few periods in the history of art are as much in need of a word-and-image approach as the Baroque. There is good explanation of images in the accompanying text but the links between words and images are difficult to follow. For example, an old plan of Chantilly (Conan’s Fig 1) is used to make the points that ‘the garden was not subordinated to the house, that it was off the house’s axis, that its design had not been made to be seen from a particular room in the house, nor the basons to mirror it’. A specially drawn plan could have highlighted the house, the axis, the rooms and the basons.
The BBC has been broadcasting some brilliant word and images studies, but without the images. They should convert the History of the World in 100 Objects to a multi-media format.

6 thoughts on “Garden history as a word-and-image subject

  1. Tian Yuan

    I agree with you that ” A picture is worth a thousand words”. My personal view is that if Garden History could be a image and word subject then more people become interested, particularly people who do not have a landscape and garden study background. Therefore, it could play a role as a culture and would be more easily transmited.

  2. Tom Turner Post author

    There is a particular need for Chinese gardens to be treated in a word-and-image manner. First, because Chinese garden design combined words with images to a greater extent than European gardens. Second, because use of a brush instead of a pen resulted in China being more of a word-and-image culture, at least until the pen was introduced (when?). Third, because almost all the physical evidence of China’s ancient gardens has disappeared. Could you find an early (eg pre-1500) image of a Chinese garden containing text which tells us something about it?

  3. Thomas Mickey

    I have been reading Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan’s 1800 magazine Gardener’s Monthly, all twelve issues. In one article Meehan writes about his visit to a country estate in New Jersey called Hollywood Park, owned by John Hoey, the President of New York’s Adams Express. The property features 2.3 million plants, 33 green houses, and a staff of 6 gardeners. The details of Meehan’s viist shocked me, the flowerbeds, the vases, the evergreens, the driveway, the fencing, the lawn. I am now drawing the property, or at least part of it, to get a visual sense of Hollywood Park. Thought of this when I read your post. A visual sense of garden history helps enormously.

  4. Tom Turner Post author

    It is a pity that so many of America’s nineteenth century gardens were lost – perhaps because aristocratic societies find it easier than democratic societies to preserve estates.
    Re Word & Image in relation to gardens, do you agree that it is important for designers to trade in (deal with) words as well as images?

  5. Thomas Mickey

    yes, images of design create another layer of meaning, impossible to do without. my challenge is to free myself up from persistent ideas to express the image, to create something new.


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