The Landscape Guide



Chinese influence on English gardens

In considering the rise of the English landscape garden, we cannot ignore Chinese influences on the art of gardening in England and in Europe generally. This influence has often been met with before, but at the beginning it did not affect essentials in the least, only ornamental details.

After Louis XIV. had set up his Porcelain Trianon, the signal was given to erect Chinese buildings of every sort and kind in gardens. As knowledge of Chinese architecture increased, certain pleasing features were adopted, but these were carelessly mingled with native work, In the early porcelain pavilions people had in mind that wonder of the world, the porcelain tower at Nanking, even if they were only putting up a baroque pavilion with Dutch tiles, and setting in the garden vases of a colour to match. Later on we even find slated roofs, as at Pilinitz, laid without a qualm of conscience over a baroque house! Then there came into fashion the Chinese parasols, later on Chinese bridges, and though such things had very little to do with genuine Chinese art, they served to remind Europeans of the eighteenth century of the wondrous land in the East. The pleasure taken in the Chinese parts of the park was so universal that it is impossible to mention any one of the larger French or German gardens of the period that had not at least a Chinese pavilion. But often, as in the case of the Swedish country estate of Drottningholm, and at Wilhelmshöhe, we find complete little Chinese villages, or (as at the Rheinsberg of Frederick the Great) a Chinese fisherman’s hut near the Chinese pleasure-house, and also a Chinese winged court.

It is difficult to say whether the number of buildings in Chinese gardens had a direct influence on the increasing number in parks, but at any rate it is a fact that the desire felt at all times to put up in a garden buildings of an unusual character did grow in the eighteenth century to an excessive height. The chief reason must be looked for in the spirit of the time, which was opposed to the pompous publicity of Louis XIV. and his age. People now only cared to find peace, and relief from their boredom, and they sought this in circles that were small and intimate; they showed more and more markedly their longing for solitude. In spite of all this, boredom was lurking in the background; indeed it is evident that the wish for variety had grown up before now, but that it was no longer sought for in showy plantations, but rather in the restful seclusion of a pavilion or some other small place. Thus Chinese art was snatched at as one sort of variety; for every type of art was welcomed, and the more the better,

This accumulation of buildings in a park had intrinsically nothing to do with the great change of style in gardening on whose threshold we now stand. We find these buildings in both styles, side by side, in the eighteenth century; and we cannot even say that the garden of the painter adopted them from the garden of the architect: there is a parallel development equally strong in both, although, as we shall see, it arose from different causes.

The straight-lined, architectural or “ formal “ garden style which, except in England, held undisputed sway over the whole of Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century, contributed no essentially new ideas (in earlier chapters this theme has been sufficiently laboured) although it was by no means fixed and rigid. It was able to adapt itself to the needs of the time, and especially to the conditions of German life. It was even flexible enough to adopt, after a time, all sorts of influences from the artist’s garden, as for example the serpentine curve, provided that these innovations did not disturb the firm unalterable outlines of the main design, and also satisfied the desire for variety.

Curious errors and misunderstandings are made by French architects, for instance, when a sketch shows a supposed English parterre (Fig. 578) laid out in front of a castle in order that the plantations may be drawn within straight lines.

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 And so we are able to speak of a transition style (Fig. 579). 

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Much the same happened as in the great battle between Romantic and Gothic; for after the former had reached the height of its charm in the transition period, it had to yield in the end to the great Gothic revolution. In the gardening art the victorious revolution destroyed so utterly the foundations and pillars of the old style that there was never any question of gaining the final victory by way of transition or concessions made by either party: there was nothing for it but the complete destruction of the old.

And now how do matters stand as to the influence of China on this new style ? It is clear enough that there is a connection between the two when we consider their common enemy, the architectural garden. We have seen that information had reached Europe in 1685 about a new style of garden without straight lines, and Sir William Temple’s tentative glance had been directed towards China, and not without sympathy; but it had been at once diverted, as from a task which, though not lacking in charm, was far too difficult. And Sir William was perfectly right; for never could a really living style have developed by way of vague imitation of the art of some utterly foreign race: it must have remained a changeling here, as indeed it was with many other Chinese imitations, architectural and artistic. 


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The Chinese bridge at Painshill