The Landscape Guide

Horace Walpole's essay On Modern Gardening: Ancient Gardens

Introduction Ancient gardens Roman gardens Renaissance gardens John Milton Sir William Temple William Kent Early 18th century gardens Thomas Whately Landscape Gardens Lancelot 'Capability' Brown

Ancient gardens

Gardening was probably one of the first arts that succeeded to that of building houses, and naturally attended property and individual possession. Culinary, and afterwards medicinal, herbs were the objects of every head of a family: it became convenient to have them within reach, without seeking them at random in woods, in meadows and on mountains, as often as they were wanted. When the earth ceased to furnish spontaneously all these primitive luxuries, and culture became requisite, separate enclosures for rearing herbs grew expedient. Fruits were in the same predicament, and those most in use or that demand attention must have entered into and extended the domestic enclosure. The good man Noah, we are told, planted a vineyard, drank of the wine, and was drunken, and everybody knows the consequences. Thus we acquired kitchen-gardens, orchards, and vineyards.

I am apprised that the prototype of all these sorts was the garden of Eden, but as that Paradise was a good deal larger than any we read of afterwards, being enclosed by the rivers Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel and Euphrates; as every tree that was pleasant to the sight and good for food grew in it, and as two other trees were likewise found there, of which not a slip or sucker remains, it does not belong to the present discussion. After the fall no man living was suffered to enter into the garden; and the poverty and necessities of our first ancestors hardly allowed them time to make improvements on their estates in imitation of it, supposing any plan had been preserved. A cottage and a slip of ground for a cabbage and a gooseberry-bush, such as we see by the side of a common, were in all probability the earliest seats and gardens: a well and bucket succeeded to the Pison and Euphrates. As settlements increased, the orchard and vineyard followed; and the earliest princes of tribes possessed just the necessaries of a modern farmer.

Matters, we may well believe, remained long in this situation; and though the generality of mankind form their ideas from the import of words in their own age, we have no reason to think that for many centuries the term garden implied more than a kitchen-garden or orchard. When a Frenchman reads of the garden of Eden, I do not doubt but he concludes it was something approaching that of Versailles, with clipt hedges, berceaus, and trellis-work. If his devotion humbles him so far as to allow that, considering who designed it, there might be a labyrinth full of Aesop's fables, yet he does not conceive that four of the largest rivers in the world were half so magnificent as an hundred fountains full of statues by Gibardon. It is thus that the word garden has at all times passed for whatever was understood by that term in different countries. But that it meant no more than a kitchen-garden or orchard for several centuries is evident from those few descriptions that are preserved of the most famous gardens of antiquity.

That of Alcinous, in the Odyssey, is the most renowned in heroic times. Is there an admirer of Homer who can read his description without rapture; or who does not form to his imagination a scene of delights more picturesque than the landscapes of Tinian or Juan Fernandez? Yet what was that boasted Paradise with which 'the gods ordain'd to grace Alcinous and his happy land'? (Pope). Why, divested of harmonious Greek and bewitching poetry, it was a small orchard and vineyard, with some beds of herbs and two fountains that watered them, enclosed within a quickset hedge. The whole compass of this pompous garden enclosed-four acres. The trees were apples, figs, pomegranates, pears, olives and vines. Alcinous's garden was planted by the poet, enriched by him with the fairy gift of eternal summer, and no doubt an effort of imagination surpassing anything he had ever seen. As he has bestowed on the same happy prince a palace with brazen walls and columns of silver, he certainly intended that the garden should be proportionately magnificent. We are sure therefore that as late as Homer's age an enclosure of four acres, comprehending orchard, vineyard and kitchen-garden, was a stretch of luxury the world at that time had never beheld.

The hanging gardens of Babylon were a still greater prodigy. We are not acquainted with their disposition or contents, but as they are supposed to have been formed on terraces and the walls of the palace, whither soil was conveyed on purpose, we are very certain of what they were not; I mean they must have been trifling, of no extent, and a wanton instance of expense and labour. In other words they were what sumptuous gardens have been in all ages till the present-unnatural, enriched by art, possibly with fountains, statues, balustrades and summer-houses-and were anything but verdant and rural.