The Landscape Guide

Arts and crafts in England

[Four chapters of Reginald Blomfield's book on The Formal Garden in England are on the CD]

A fresh victory was gained by the architectural garden, but it did not spring from the public park, nor from the private gardens of princes: it was democratic, starting from the small town house and its garden, and extending far beyond. It was a movement from outside, like the old invasion of the landscape-garden style which came from the artists, but this time it was the architects who took action. Long in the background, they now became conscious of their rights, and seeing that the time was ripe, entered the lists. In 1892 there appeared a little book called The Formal Garden in England, by the architect Reginald Blomfield. For the first time the view was advanced, in outspoken language, that landscape gardens are in bad taste and an absurdity. Blomfield put the question whether the garden is to be considered in relation to the house or whether the house is to be ruled out when the garden is arranged. Only ill-wishers, he thought, would call the old style formal: it ought to be called architectural, for its object is to bring house and garden into harmony with each other, and to let the house grow out of its surroundings; otherwise one has to transgress the laws of architecture, the inner order of firmly fixed lines of symmetry, or at the very least of proportion.

Landscape gardeners have intentionally avoided this question, and with a half-concealed affectation are wont to speak of some sort of connection between house and garden, following a “method ” which is the systematic avoidance of all method. Blomfield attacked the chief maxims of this unsystematic method, and especially the cardinal doctrine of the imitation of Nature. [Editor's note: the derivation of this doctrine, from Plato, is traced on the CD]. He asked what nature really is, and what is “natural” in connection with a garden. In his opinion the landscape garden is just as artificial as any other. Nature in herself has nothing to do with either curved or straight lines, and it is an open question whether the natural man would prefer a straight or a crooked line. As to the realities of nature and the forces we work with, a clipped tree may be quite as natural as a woodland tree, and it is no more unnatural to clip a tree than to cut grass. The landscape gardener turns his back on architecture, that is, the house, so as to unfold natural scenes; his chief aim is to create a deception as to the size and surroundings of the garden and of its different views. Writers on the subject, Blomfield said, concern themselves as little as possible with the question of art in the garden as a whole, but hurry on to their own special interest— horticulture and hot-houses. This province he would gladly leave to gardeners. Horticulture ought to be subject to the architectural plan just as building is; and it was the intention of the book to restore to the architect the province which had been stolen from him. All Italian and French ideas were as far as possible discarded, for the style that Blomfield was anxious to get rid of had only too often attempted to make an unmethodical and worthless compromise with these.

The only feature approved of as English was the little Renaissance garden with a protecting border, which in a direct way, and with no deception about it, cuts off this plot from its unsuitable surroundings, and connects it with the house most harmoniously, by the help of brightly coloured beds and patches of green shade. But in this department also there was to be a reform, and the small town and country gardens were to be laid out in another fashion, Blomfield held that the unnaturalness of the “natural” style is shown more tiresomely and more stupidly in small gardens than elsewhere, because there the connection with the house is most obvious. The smaller the place, the more the bad taste of the gardener was apparent, with his kidney-shaped patches of grass, his paths twisted and tortured, his artificial mounds packed with trees and shrubs, and his carpet- beds with a group of foreign foliage plants in the middle. There were thousands of such designs in the smaller gardens which proved only too clearly Blomfield’s contention that architectural sense had been lost. The little book made a great impression in England; and its effect was all the surer, because the author took no separate steps to arouse men to action, but let the result follow as it might.

We have seen how interest in gardening proper had been diverted to botany, and this fact comes out very clearly in literature. Books about botany and horticulture appeared in great numbers, and the place taken in them by real garden art soon reached the vanishing point, so much so, indeed, that one of the later writers on æsthetics, Heinrich von Stein, speaks of it with the greatest surprise, saying that in former days people actually regarded gardening as one of the fine arts. The garden had so ceased to be a work of art that it had become merely a place where trees, shrubs, and flowers could develop in their individual ways and in as favourable circumstances as possible. In the eighteenth century the architectural feeling for proportion and harmony, for the sense of space, as one might put it, had gone, but in place of it there was at least sentiment, and people consciously drank in the beauty of the picturesque scenes which were unfolded to their view; but even this was lost in the course of the nineteenth century; indeed it was bound to vanish entirely, for all thoughts and all efforts were now directed to the nurture of plants.

At the end of the seventies, when a strong interest sprang up in England for arts and crafts, people turned their eyes to the treatment of houses, both outside and in, and an impetus was given to gardening also. William Morris, who did so much to revive various art industries, said that a garden, great or small, ought always to be entirely planned and be good to look at. A garden, he thought, ought to be shut off from the outside world, and should on no account imitate the caprices and wild conditions of nature, but should be a something not to be found anywhere except close to a house. Others had ex- pressed opinions, sometimes whimsically, to the same effect. As early as 1839, the architect T. James said that if he must have a system, let it be the good old system of terraces and right-angled walks, with clipped yew-hedges and splendid old-fashioned flowers shining in the sun against their dark-green background. He liked topiary work because of its confessed artificiality, and because it discarded the deceitful cowardly maxim Celare artem. The carving of trees and shrubs was a natural transition from the architecture of a house to the untouched beauty of meadow and grove. Even Blomfield could not have expressed himself more clearly than this. Again, Sedding, one of the leading architects in the sixties, made much the same protests as Blomfield.

Practical results had come about from these teachings, and probably the best was Penshurst, which Blomfield praised as one of the most beautiful gardens in England, not large, but very tastefully arranged. At the side of the sunk flower-parterres, where an attempt was made to cultivate old-fashioned flowers within box borders and in simple beds, there are orchards shut in by tall hedges treated in the style of boskets, and joining on to the garden. But the most attractive feature is a long path between hedges leading to the pond-garden, a sunk basin with sloping sides of mown grass.

Landscape gardeners advanced in serried ranks against Blomfield, and in the nineties there arose a feud which was carried on with extreme bitterness. In the second edition, which was required in the same year, of Blomfield’s book, he added an argumentative preface, explaining his views on art, and even going beyond his earlier standpoint. What he started from was not a question of fashion, but of principle. It was simply the eternal question of art, how far is man the slave of Nature? Or more accurately, how far ought man to subject the expression of his ideas to an actual imitation of what one may for this purpose call (unscientifically) Nature in the rough? The answer which Blomfield would give to such questions was sharply opposed to all that the eighteenth century had won after so many battles, and all that the nineteenth century had been content for a time to accept unchallenged. It was soon evident that Blomfield and the architects, with the other artists who speedily joined them, had made a great impression. The most eminent supporter of the other side, the important landscape gardener William Robinson, sprang forward in determined opposition. He wrote two essays on garden-planning and architectural gardens, to show that the clipping and shaping of trees, with the object of bringing them into harmony with architecture, is a barbarous practice. Many people agreed with Robinson when he preferred a noble tree grown freely to any tree clipped and cut about. Addison had said much the same before him, but everything has its place. Although the landscape gardener still controlled the great parks, it looked for a little while as though in private gardens there would be a complete change.

When, eight years later, Blomfield was preparing the third edition of his book, he left out the violent preface to the second edition as no longer necessary, warning people, moreover, not to set up one artificial plan instead of another, which seemed to be the danger of the moment. In their admiration for certain old gardens, they must not attempt to repeat them in circumstances where success would be impossible. What made him most uneasy was the danger of a growing dilettantism. The interest of English people, so long leaning to the botanical side, was turned to the real art of gardening. Perhaps, however, they tried to combine two ideals. Old traditions, once broken, are not easily restored.

One result of the new movement was a study of old gardens which had survived. Old garden-houses were visited, and pictures were made of them, and were taken as models. Antique sundials and leaden statues were accorded places of honour, and were imitated and recast. But most of all was the fashion revived of clipping trees and shrubs. People once more wanted hedges, which were indispensable for creating a sense of seclusion, of being at home. There was a general hesitation and shyness about cutting trees, but many people thought that this kind of ornamentation gave an old-fashioned charm to a garden, and pilgrimages were made to such places as Levens Hall in Wesmoreland (Fig. 621) and Elvaston Castle in Derbyshire. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


At Levens a great deal of topiary work which dated from the beginning of the eighteenth century had been preserved in an old garden. Elvaston Castle is a notable example (Fig. 622) of what can be done in a short time by diligence and with the help of modern technique to adorn an entirely new garden with the most audacious kinds of topiary. 

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see


The whole of this garden, with the exception of the great conservatories and kitchen-gardens, was devoted to clipped trees. The yews, in particular, were cut into all imaginable shapes, and the owner had old specimens brought from other lands, in the wish to give his figures an appearance of: antiquity. The only colour in the place was supplied by the astonishing variety of shades in the foliage of the yew-trees, ranging from the darkest green to golden yellow.

The literature of those still-recent years was a sign of the ever-growing interest in garden art, and showed us how far it was identified with the formal style. At the end of the nineteenth century the journal Country Life published in three volumes the book Gardens Old and New, which gives a wonderful array of formal gardens with only here and there, for politeness’ sake, an illustration of a landscape garden. The tendency is perhaps most clearly to be seen in the fact that in, the many pictures given of the gardens of the middle of the nineteenth century, the relatively small piece known as the Italian garden appears, whereas the landscape park is not shown. No doubt England was herself surprised to find how many formal sites she possessed, and especially what rich fruits the new predilection for the formal garden had to choose from.

A prominent feature at this time is the return to separate small gardens; and this is easy to understand, for as the whole movement arose from the small garden, it connects itself with the English Renaissance custom of laying out large places in little divisions, and, in particular, with making use of hedges. The little pond-garden at Hampton Court became a very popular model. The pergola also, which at the time of the Italian parterre had not been much favoured, no doubt because there was a tendency for it to be nothing more than a support for plants, came again into the foreground. But with all this passionate interest in the art and the design of the garden in the architectural sense, botany was not forgotten. On the contrary, the two interests were combined, and herein lay the attraction which brought both gardeners and botanists, so long hostile, into one camp.