The Landscape Guide

Garden revolutions

The following essay, which has been revised, was first published in Tom Turner's City as landscape: a post-Postmodern view of planning and design (Spons:London, 1996). After looking at the revolutionary condition of garden design in the 1690's, the 1790s and the 1890s it reflects on the state of garden design in the 1990s. The author gives a personal view of how the art of making gardens is likely to be influenced by design philosophy in the new millennium. The line of thought in this essay led to subsequent essays which are included on the CD. They are on: The flowers of garden design theory (giving an example of pattern-assisted design); Design history and theory (reviewing the Vitruvian design objectives: Commodity, Firmness and Delight); PAKILDA (recommending a Pattern-Assisted-Knowledge-Intensive-Landscape-Design-Approach). Please note that there is some overlap between these essays, because they were written for different audiences.

The revolution of the 1690s
The revolution of the 1790s
The revolution of the 1890s
The revolution of the 1990s
Portrait gardens
The structural revolution: Postmodern Gardens

The revolution of the 1690s
In England, the middle years of the seventeenth century were a time of revolution. Charles I had been executed and the country flooded with republican ideas. The restoration of a king in 1660 (Charles II) who had lived his adult life in France, brought an influx of late-Renaissance ideas. Another king (William III) was brought from Holland, in 1688, bringing the enlightened ideas of an advanced country. The stage was set, by 1690, for England to take the lead in world development. A philosophical movement, empiricism, revolutionized science and had a profound influence on garden design. Rationalists believed that human reason is the ultimate source of certainty in knowledge. Empiricists believed that observation of the external world is the ultimate test. In gardens, this led to an increasing dislike of straight lines and to a love of irregularity. Sir William Temple published his essay Upon the Gardens of Epicurus in 1692, with the following remark:

What I have said, of the best Forms of Gardens, is meant only of such as are in some Sort regular; for there may be other Forms wholly irregular, that may, for aught I know, have more Beauty than any of the others; but they must owe it to some extraordinary Dispositions of Nature in the Seat, or some great Race of Fancy or Judgement in the Contrivance...

His remark heralded a revolution. Nicholas Pevsner, exaggerating, wrote that

This passage is one of the most amazing in the English language. It started a line of thought and visual conceptions which were to dominate first England and then the World for two centuries. It is the first suggestion ever of a possible beauty fundamentally different from he formal, a beauty of irregularity and fancy. (Pevsner, 1956) 

The revolution of the 1790s  Return to top of page
By the 1790s, the Serpentine Style, initiated by Temple, had passed its zenith. Garden design had reached a logical impasse. Four generations of authors had written that gardens should imitate nature. Four generations of designers had followed their precept. Gardens had become ever wilder and ever more "natural'. So far had this process gone, that the garden had almost ceased to be a garden. It had become nature herself: wild, rude and unadorned. English garden design used the example of Barnbarroch to symbolise this state of affairs. When there was no obvious way forward, most designers turned back - to the reproduction of ancient styles. This revolution, in the exact sense of "orbital motion', dates from 1793.

In that year, while England, Holland, Spain, Portugal and the Holy Roman Empire joined forces against revolutionary France, three English country squires advanced a gardening revolution. Sir Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight and Humphry Repton were propagandists for both the picturesque and for The Picturesque. Written in upper case, The Picturesque was an aesthetic category meaning wild, rugged and shaggy, to contrast with Burke's categories of The Sublime and The Beautiful. Written in the lower case, the picturesque was a way of organizing a garden, like a landscape painting, into foreground, middleground and background.

A logical impasse faced those gardeners who followed the Picturesque way. John Claudius Loudon, a brilliant and fiercely energetic young Scot, travelled from Edinburgh to London at the age of 20. He became the leading garden writer of his day and, through Andrew Jackson Downing, a prime influence on American garden design. In 1804 Loudon declared:

I believe that I am the first who has set out as a landscape gardener, professing to follow Mr Price's principles. How far I shall succeed in executing my plans, and introducing more of The Picturesque into improved places, time alone must determine. (Loudon, 1804)

Loudon's lavish two-volume work on Country Residences, of 1806, was full of proposals for converting estates laid out in the manner of Lancelot Brown to "Mr Price's principles', which meant Picturesque wildness and irregularity (Loudon, 1806). Ill-health terminated his endeavour c. 1810. But in the 1820s Loudon returned to landscape gardening, this time as an author with a full appreciation of the logical impasse. Drawing support from Quatremère de Quincy, a French neoplatonic philosopher, Loudon proposed that gardens in the irregular, or Picturesque, style should be planted with exotic species, to make them "Recognizable' as works of art that could not be confused with wild, rude and unadorned nature.

The other solution to the logical impasse was the picturesque, with a small p: the organization of gardens to form a transition. The Picturesque, with a large P, became absorbed as one stage in the transition, rather than a style in its own right. When writing a book on English Garden Design: History and Styles Since 1650, I chose to describe this method of organization as the Transition Style, because the fundamental characteristic was a "transition' from a Beautiful foreground, through a Picturesque middleground to a Sublime background. (Turner, 1986). In the revised edition, Garden Design in the British Isles, I have described this as the "Landscape Style', mainly because the organization was based on landscape paintings, but also because it brought together many of the design innovations of the eighteenth century English landscape movement. The style was extremely influential from 1793 until it was squeezed out of English gardens in 1947 by the Town and Country Planning Act. The act led to small gardens because it restricted the expansion of towns.

Eclecticism, based on the reuse of ancient styles, became the leading characteristic of nineteenth century gardens. Blame for this turn of events, if that is what it merits, is too often attributed to Loudon by twentieth century historians. Loudon's later books do illustrate a variety of styles, but he always called for each of them to be consistently executed and not mixed together. It was Repton who argued that

there is no more absurdity in collecting gardens of different styles, dates, characters, and dimensions, in the same enclosure, than in placing the works of a Raphael and a Teniers in the same cabinet, or books sacred and profane in the same library. (Loudon, 1840)

Repton was the true inventor of garden eclecticism and the Mixed Style. He died in 1818, after a carriage accident, and has been praised to the skies ever since. 

The revolution of the 1890s  Return to top of page
After a century of exotic plants and eclectic styles, there was an understandable call for purism in gardens. As it came from the Arts and Crafts movement, I believe the results of this call are best described as the Arts and Crafts Style. Thomas Mawson leant support to this title with his 1901 book on The Art and Craft of Garden Making. The leading practitioners, including Gertrude Jekyll, Reginald Blomfield and William Robinson, argued with each other at the time, but from the perspective of another century can be seen to have agreed in principle. They wanted a return to Englishness, to the principles of artistic composition and to traditional building methods. They were a coherent set of principles, and produced some of the best gardens that have ever been made in Britain. Jane Brown has called them "the gardens of a golden afternoon' (Brown, 1982). For better and for worse, that afternoon lingers on, and on. The style of Jekyll, Lutyens, Sissinghurst and Hidcote became so popular that the modern "abstract' garden hardly made an appearance in England. Elizabeth Kassler could find but one English garden for inclusion in her book on Modern Gardens, and that garden was made in the 1930s (Kassler, 1964).

In continental Europe and the Americas, the Arts and Crafts style was less influential and soon developed into Modernism. The appeal to Englishness and to traditional building methods carried no weight, but the emphasis on artistic principles became very important. This produced the Abstract Style of garden design. As with Modern Art and Modern Architecture, the Modern Garden was based on the principles of abstract composition. Lines, shapes, colours and proportions were related to functions and arranged to form abstract designs, which had no stories, meanings or intentional symbolism of any kind. Concrete construction was often used in preference to traditional construction, because it was modern, value-free and meaning-free.

The revolution of the 1990s  Return to top of page
The last two decades of the twentieth century saw a turning away from abstraction in many arts. Poets and painters have renewed their interest in figurative themes; musicians have recovered their interest in melody. Architects have resumed their study of the classical orders. Garden designers have drawn new inspiration from meanings, iconography and allusion. As all these developments came after the vacant period of abstract modernism, it is safe to classify them as postmodern. In garden design, the trend is most advanced in America and is identified by the title of Mark Francis' book on Meanings of the Garden. Contributors to Francis' book write about different sorts of meaning. Thayer, for example, has made fire the central feature of his garden because "sharing one's fire, although mass-marketed in such popular works as Clan of the Cave Bear, is still extremely meaningful to me'. Dawson finds meaning in the animals that inhabit his garden, and quotes Rachel Carson: "Take your child out on a still October night... presently your ears will detect tiny wisps of sound -- sharp chirps, sibilant lisps and call notes'. Grampp writes of

Mexicans with Japanese gardens; Americans with Mexican gardens; homeowners who were largely indifferent to their lavish, expensive gardens; and owners of rundown, overgrown yards who had nonetheless invested their gardens with more meaning than I would ever have imagined.

Laurie writes that the 1620 Katsura palace garden was modelled on "scenes from the 11th century tale of Genshi with which the garden prince, Toshito was reputedly obsessed'.

In Britain, where there was little scope to retreat from modernism, the ground was fertile for postmodern gardens. The leading figure has been Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe. His work may turn out to be as influential in the twenty-first century as was Repton's in the nineteenth. I trust it will be for the good, where Repton's was often for the bad. A similar comparison can be drawn between the influence of Milton and Shakespeare on the English language. Milton was a great stylist, but it was Shakespeare who "has no equal with regard to the extent and profundity of his influence on the English language' (Bradley, 1937). Repton's horizon of interest was largely within and around his chosen profession. Jellicoe brings a far wider sphere of knowledge to landscape and garden design. He is a man of ideas, and they come from many times, subjects and places.

In 1933, Jellicoe was responsible for the last great Italian garden in England, at Ditchley Park, and also for the first Modern Movement garden in England, for the Caveman Restaurant in the Cheddar Gorge. They were an astonishing pair. In 1956 he designed a magical roof garden for a department store in Guildford. The composition appeared abstract, but the design had meaning: the circular stepping stones and planters that orbited the rooftop pool were inspired by the launch of the first Russian satellite in that year. In 1964 Jellicoe was asked to design the Kennedy Memorial Garden, for President John F Kennedy. There was a classical aspect to the Kennedy story, of a young hero slain in his prime, which reminded the designer of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and of Giovanni Bellini's Allegory of the Progress of the Soul. This became the theme of what Jellicoe sees as his first allegorical garden. The granite set path that winds up the hill is an allegory for "a multitude of pilgrims on their way upwards'. The awkwardness of the journey is a preparation for the tranquillity of the sculptured stone memorial. The lettering reads as texture, as though "the stone itself speaks' (Jellicoe, 1983).

Jellicoe's Sutton Place project of 1980 became an opportunity to develop the Bunyan--Bellini allegory both physically and philosophically (Jellicoe, 1983). The house and garden, which by 1980 had been in existence for some 450 years, were an apposite locus for an allegory of Creation, Life and Aspiration. Creation is represented by a lake. From its primal depths 'all that is meant by civilization' began. Life is represented by the gardens, which, as in the Landscape Style adjoin the house. Aspiration is represented by the Nicholson Wall. When asked about the meaning of the Wall, Ben Nicholson replied "How should I know?'. This is because Nicholson was an abstract artist. 

The Moody Gardens at Galveston in Texas is the largest design project of Jellicoe's career, both in physical size and intellectual scope. As Shakespeare often chose historical themes for plays, so Jellicoe has chosen a grand historical theme for the gardens, based on his book The Landscape of Man (Jellicoe, 1975). In Hollywood, they speak of "the film of the book'. Jellicoe has designed "the garden of the book'. The visitor who progresses through the gardens will be taken through an allegory of man's life on earth, through his progress from forester to hunter to settler to voyager. It is too early to know how many postmodern designers have been inspired by his example, but the movement gathers pace and force. Tentatively, I have drawn a diagram to represent the Postmodern Style.

The term "postmodern' applies most properly to Charles Jencks. The author of The Language of Post-Modern Architecture brought the term from literature and philosophy to architecture. It is used to describe anything that comes after the analytical austerity of the Modern Movement. He has also made a notably postmodern Time Garden for his London home (Jencks, 1985). It is divided into four quadrants, representing the four seasons, and makes considerable play with the four-square window-on-the-world motif. Both house and garden have an explicit iconographic programme. Each detail contributes to the symbolic meaning of the whole. Belief, instead of arbitrary eclecticism, guides their choice. I therefore risk Jencks' wrath and classify his garden as post-Postmodern. 

The most intriguing postmodern garden in Britain is Little Sparta, the work of "Scotland's leading concrete poet', Ian Hamilton Finlay. Concrete poetry is a genre that uses visual effects to enhance the meaning of a poem. Originally, the visual effects were typographical. The idea carries echoes from the pattern poems of the Babylonians; from Islamic calligraphy; from sundial inscriptions; and from the poetic quotations that eighteenth century landscape designers inscribed on grottos, temples, and urns. A modern revival of the idea began with the work of a Bolivian-born Swiss poet, Eugen Gomringer, in 1951. The Manifesto for Concrete Poetry was published in 1953, in Stockholm (Williams, 1967). A 1970 anthology of Concrete Poetry contained a quotation from Finlay:

My point about poems in glass, actual concrete, stone or whatever is -- simply -- that new means of constructing a poem aesthetically, ought to lead to consideration of new materials. If these poems are for "contemplating', let them be sited where they can be contemplated. (Solt, 1970)

The anthology contained a sculpture, Fisherman's Cross (by Henry Clyne), which contained the words "ease' and "seas'. The sculpture was designed for a place of contemplation, a church, and a sizeable effort of contemplation is required to arrive at the meaning. "Ease' and "seas' are anagrams. "Seas', symbolizing man's life, rhymes with "ease', symbolizing man's death. The hard, rugged mould of the cast concrete suits with the hard, rugged mould of the fisherman's life. The words are arranged to form a cross, and the eight-sided shape has a Celtic origin. From this type of poetry, it was a natural progression to think of gardens as places of contemplation, in which words could be sited on stones, sculptures, buildings and other objects. Concrete poetry works as code, to lead the reader from surface structures to deep structures.

Portrait gardens  Return to top of page
How then should designers give meaning to gardens? It is much easier to answer the question for private gardens than for public gardens, because one knows the users. The design process, for private gardens, is akin to portrait painting. The completed work should be an outward manifestation of the owner's interests and character. Functionally, this principle has become a staple of garden design books. One reads with pleasure of the plantswoman's garden, the conservationist's garden, and the sculptor's garden. As this is a simple and obvious policy, it need detain us no longer. Aesthetically, the challenge is greater. Some people can paint self-portraits. Others need professional help.

Let me begin with my own gardening activities, which are few. As a country-loving person, it was with some reluctance that I moved into London. The view from my study did not improve my spirits. It was over a dull flat roof to a varied roofscape beyond. To make a mountainesque roof garden, a thin layer of peat and sand was spread on the flat roof and sown with grass seed collected from mountain and shore. It has grown into a soft carpet of fescues, which is never cut. In early spring, it is a flower meadow. In summer, it bakes to golden brown. Fresh shoots come in the autumn. To my eyes, it is always a mountain, taking me to where I would like to be.

The other garden I have made in recent years is in the country. As the place is lovely, it would have seemed wrong to bring in hard materials from afar. All were collected in the local area. Red sandstone and grey cobbles were found in and around the garden. A very suitable red building sand, of similar geological age to the sandstone, came from a quarry 5 km away. Most of the effort went into laying cobbles. There is a local tradition for this, which has died out but which I admire. Progress is slow, but, as with knitting, the pleasure is more in the doing than in the completion. The children contributed a story, which helped to interest them in the project. It centred on a stone they found, with a remarkable swirling pattern. They called it The Moonstone:  

One night when the moon was new, a boulder whizzed out of a crater. After circling the moon, twice, it noticed a green and blue planet shimmering in the distance. "Ha Ha,' thought the Moonboulder, "there's a pretty sight.' On its way to Earth, the boulder spun round and round. Its colours swirled, ran together, and set. After six days it reached the Earth's atmosphere. Suddenly it met a fearful pressure and burst. Four million coloured stones fell into the sea. Fish took them as jewels. Moonstones were carried far and wide across the ocean. Some washed ashore, to become beautifully smooth as the waves rolled them back and forth. One stone, shaped like a heart, was carried up the hill by some children. It was called The Moonstone and placed at the centre of a path. Neat grey stones took their place in serried ranks. A troll came from Norway, made his home in the garden, and smiled every time he saw the Moonstone.

The gardens I have helped to make portray aspects of my life. How could a comparable procedure be used to design a garden for someone else?

Take the case of a woman who wants a garden as a like-minded companion. She goes to pottery classes, loves terracotta, admires the Art Nouveau period and lives in Barcelona. A design could build upon these interests, and Barcelona would be the best place for it to happen. Despite the wonderful example of Parc Guel, few Art Nouveau gardens have been made. Yet the idea was rooted in plant forms and used flowing lines, which are rich veins for the design imagination, deserving to become one of the classical orders in garden design, as the Doric and Corinthian have been for architecture. One can imagine a Catalonian garden with lines flowing out from the dwelling to entwine the garden. Glazed ceramic tiles would define the garden's structure, as paving, walling and fencing. Decorative motifs would record incidents from the family's history. Flowers would complement the tiled colours and patterns of the layout. The garden would be full of meaning and a work of art.

Iceland is also an interesting place to make gardens. It was once very poor and is now very rich. As with many countries that gain new wealth, the first idea, especially under the influence of the Modern Movement, was to imitate other rich countries. In gardens, this led to the use of European plants and relatively meaningless abstract forms. The idea now gaining ground is to look to indigenous traditions. The most dynamic and dramatic local characteristics come from the landscape itself. This is the land of ice and fire, of black basalt, mosses and lichens (Axelsson, 1994). Cold winters produce ice. Volcanic activity provides warm water and cheap electricity. The cultural tradition is Nordic, but unique to the island. Taking these factors together, one can think about making very special gardens. In summer, they should provide for sheltered outdoor living with warm water pools. In winter they could be spectacular illuminated dioramas to view from within. Aesthetically, the gardens should respond to their owners' tastes and preferences, remembering that if Icelandic design traditions are not to die, they must be carried forward. 

The structural revolution  Return to top of page
Even more than individual ideas and local ideas, structuralism is the force that will guide the garden revolution of the 1990s. Structuralism is a broad term for a movement that identifies common structures in different fields of experience. Roland Barthes uses wine as an example (Barthes, 1972). Advertisers show us that wine is not merely a drink. It is a powerful symbol, which speaks of sunshine, glamour, pleasure, relaxation and a way of life. Gold, candlelight and beautiful women convey some parts of the same message, which is why advertisers use them in combination. Men offer wine as a meaningful symbol to women. Structural analysts find codes that are common to:

style (e.g. cars, clothes, furniture, buildings);
visual imagery (e.g. advertisements, paintings, films);
behaviour (e.g. etiquette, ritual, body language);
ideology (e.g. religions, schools, families, games);
narrative (e.g. myths, fairy tales, comic strips, novels).

Analysts are interested in taking things apart; designers in putting them together. Structuralist procedures can be used in borrowing ideas from one field and deploying them to make new places. Styles, images, behaviour patterns, ideology and narrative can find their place in gardens. This approach opens up a host of inviting prospects. Instead of saying it with words or flowers, you can say it with whole gardens.

Music provides an example of a type of structure that can be used to organize designs. Patricia Sheares describes a project where

Design criteria were elaborated from the score itself [of Britten's Peter Grimes], using its "mathematical' form to impose an order on the design, especially the planting details. (Sheares, 1994)

The instrumentation and the melodic lines thereby provided a direct design structure, which was then linked to external factors of the journey. The aim was to turn the music, which had found its inspiration in the landscape, back into that same landscape without losing it.

Structuralism can infuse gardens with post-Postmodern ideas and beliefs. It is a layered approach to garden making. One might, for example, conceive layers to reflect:

  • The external patterns of sun, wind, rain and views which impinge on the space
  • The internal patterns of use generated by the garden's users (places to walk, places to sit, places to grow favoured plants etc)
  • Aesthetic patterns, deriving from artistic ideas

Each group of patterns subdivides into sub-patterns. Some of the relationships between patterns will be deliberate. Others will result from interactions, comparable to the way in which natural processes interact in evolutionary time to produce natural landscapes.

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