The Landscape Guide

Francis Bacon on gardens

Bacon’s essay " Of Gardens" was written in his lively conversational English style, full of his own personal ideas and fancies. His notion was to put forward a scheme in better taste for the gardens he saw about him; he was always practical, and bore in mind what it was possible to do; moreover his aim was avowedly educational. The demand of Homer, which he puts at the head of the essay, that the garden should always show something in flower, is at once followed by a list of plants, soberly and methodically allotted to each particular month. [Bacon's essay is on the CD]

The place he plans is expressly intended for a princely owner, and the thirty acres he demands for the whole is for those days a remarkably large area. We must here recall that Kenilworth had only one acre, and the large garden at Theobalds seven acres. But Bacon has only reserved twelve for his flower-garden proper, as he breaks up the whole estate into three parts : the house, as he insists in the essay, “ Of Building,” must have a way to the garden by open galleries—” The Row of Return, on the Banquet Side, let it be all Stately Galleries “—but this demand was not carried out at Bacon’s own place, and the open veranda has never played a great part in English country houses, for an Englishman likes to go straight out of a room into the open air and sit there.

Next to the house there is to be a lawn, with an avenue of trees in the middle, and covered shady walks on either side. “ Nothing is more pleasant to the Eye, than green Grass kept finely shorn.” Bacon prefers this to a parterre proper, for the knotted beds cut separately “ with divers Coloured Earths,” seem to him childish : “ they be but Toys; you may see as good Sights many Times in Tarts.”

The main garden is in the middle of the estate. It is exactly square, “ encompassed on all the four sides with a Stately Arched Hedge . . . over the Arches let there be an Entire Hedge . . . and upon the Upper Hedge, over every Arch, a little Turret with a Belly, enough to receive a Cage of Birds ; and over every Space, between the Arches, some other little Figure, with Broad Plates of Round Coloured Glass, gilt, for the Sun to play upon. But this Hedge I intend to be raised upon a Bank, not steep, but gently slope, • . . set all with Flowers . . . on either side Ground enough for diversity of Side Alleys.”

The trees are to be of different kinds, and some of them fruit-trees, The walks are enclosed by hedges, and there is a mound at each end for the sake of getting a view over the wall. In these avenues one can walk if shade is wanted, for the main garden itself must not be too full of bushes, but should be open and airy, while on both sides there ought to be rather sunny walks with fruit-trees and pretty arbours. This part should be intersected by wide dignified paths, and round the beds there may be a very low hedge and little pyramids. “ I, for my part, do not like Images cut out in Juniper; or other Garden Stuff; they be for Children.”

In the centre there is to be a large mound, with spiral paths, wide and easy of ascent, and on the top “ some fine Banqueting House with some Chimneys neatly cast.” Water is a great ornament whether as an artistic fountain or as a bath, and the chief requisite is that the water shall always be kept clean, “for Pools mar all.” Marble or gilt statues may be good, but are of secondary importance.

The third division of Bacon’s garden is what he calls “ the Heath.” This is to be half as big as the main garden, and as far as possible is to be of a natural wildness.

Trees I would have none in it, but some Thickets made only of Sweetbriar, and Honeysuckle, and some Wild Vine amongst; and the Ground set with Violets, Strawberries, and Primroses. For these are sweet, and prosper in the Shade. And these to be in the Heath, here and there, not in any Order. I like also little Heaps, in the Nature of Mole-hills (such as are in Wild Heaths) to be set, some with Wild Thyme ; some with Pinks ; some with Germander, that gives a good Flower to the Eye ; some with Periwinkle; some with Violets; some with Strawberries; some with Cowslips ; some with Daisies; some with Red Roses ; some with Lilium Convallium; some with Sweet Williams red ; some with Bears-Foot; and the like Low Flowers, being withal Sweet and Sightly. Part of which Heaps, to be with Standards, of little Bushes, pricked upon their Top, and Part without. The Standards to be Roses ; Juniper; Hollies; Bear-Berries (but here and there, because of the Smell of their Blossom) ; Red Currants ; Gooseberries; Rosemary; Bays; Sweetbriar; and such like. But these Standards, to be kept with Cutting, that they grow not out of Course.

This description must be compared with that of an important Italian renaissance garden of about the same time [the essay was published in 1625]. If one is to see how entirely the two chief factors in the south, viz. stone building and (all-important) water are kept in the background by Bacon. In a country like Italy it is stone building that keeps house and garden united, and the arrangements for water are the connecting link between architecture and the world of plants. But all that Bacon asks for as extra trimmings—mostly frames or glass—is undeniably barbaric in its character; and this is all the more evident if compared with his refined taste in the arrangement of the plants themselves, where there is always delicacy in details. Refinement, rest and peace are the secret of the ideal, but in a real garden it would have been hard to find the proportions quite satisfactory. In any case, the very high hill in the middle must have made an uncomfortable break in the great parterre, and a fountain with sculpture would have been more attractive; but the raised side-paths round the middle garden are a happy thought.

The entrance with the closely-mown lawn points the way to the English style, for in the treatment of superlatively beautiful lawns there has been, and still is, a very lovely and effective feature of English horticulture. Bacon’s idea of a heath is quite novel and very surprising. There seems to have been no living example of it, and it remained unique. For all its charm as an idea, it seems a great waste of space. Only in very recent days was this notion taken up and carried out, and then the interest in wild gardens has always been in the smaller places only.

An unusual sidelight is thrown on this design by another literary record of the period. In 1613, on the eve of the Feast of the three Kings, the lawyers of Gray’s Inn had a masque in honour of Lord Somerset’s wedding [ed: see note on marriage in gardens]. The stage directions describe a garden " of wonderful beauty"  which has more than one point in common with Bacon’s. Here are the four quarters into which the whole garden is divided, with walks all the way round, but in the centre of the crossways there is a fine Neptune fountain. The god with his trident shakes water into a shell held up by three figures which are standing on a pillar. This garden has not only a brick wall covered with fruit-trees, but also a pretty hedge inside the wall, with balustrades and lions and unicorns, serving as torch-holders. The great squares are enclosed with cypresses and junipers, and adorned with flowers and pyramids. At all the four corners there are pots full of pinks. At the end of the garden rises the mound, so steep that the steps are like seats covered with grass. Above there is a triple-arched arbour, covered with roses and honeysuckle and ornamented with turrets. Above it protrude the tops of fruit-trees.

The fact that the flowers are artificial, and lighted by concealed lamps, and the trees and walls merely painted, is only the necessary presentation of a stage garden, which is very excellently imitated from the real thing. The mound also, made with steps, at the end of the garden, was common at that time, and has been kept here and there till the present day, as for example in the Rockingham garden, which in other respects is greatly changed.