Russia enters into the history of gardening much later than any of the countries we have written about, and it is impossible to speak of any individual cultivation before the days of Peter the Great, in the first third of the eighteenth century.
Information is very scanty about the summer residences of the emperors at Moscow. Up to the end of the seventeenth century we find nothing but wooden buildings, very subject to danger from fire. They had gardens round them in the reign of Peter the Great. But after Petersburg was founded, there arose not only the palaces of emperor and nobles, but gardens as well. The Tsar had seen European gardens on his travels in Holland, England, and Germany. He knew far better how to protect the gardens at his own home against his barbarous troops, than how to protect those foreign gardens and homes which he had ravaged on his travels. In 1714 he made a great garden at the summer palace on the so-called Admiralty Island, which was made by the River Neva with her canalised arms, and has now disappeared. Here he and his followers adopted all the ideas that the styles of the time had to give. Parterres with their grand waters, cascades and playing streams, plantations with tall espaliers. All were adorned with works by famous Italian sculptors. Antiques were brought, for they were always to be had, while in the park there were various summer-houses, and a bosket with fountains illustrating Æsop’s Fables, as at Versailles, as well as a menagerie with valuable beasts.
For the grotto which Peter made, as also for the water-works, he engaged the great architect Schlüter of Berlin, who had left his own home, in a state of discontent, to find a new field of activity in the Tsar's service, but the very next year died in Petersburg without having done anything. The French artist Le Blond fared better, for he was at once entrusted by the Tsar with a most important piece of work. Opposite the town, at the south of the gulf, the Tsar had built a little house on the shore, before he was attracted in 1715 by a beautiful spot where he built a pleasure-castle, which he named Peterhof, This was on a natural terrace twelve metres in height, where the hilly part of it falls away somewhat towards the land (Fig. 523).
Of course it was intended to rival the French Residence, and so French artists were called in. The plans came straight from Paris, and there was nothing to hold Le Blond back from getting on with the castle and garden.
The great advantage here was that they did not have to concern themselves much with underground operations. But the planting of the vegetation was no trifling matter, and whole shiploads of trees and plants were procured. The interior of Russia supplied elm and maple, and we are told that 40,000 trees were brought. Then came beeches, limes, and fruit-trees from Western Europe. Foreign specimens were brought from the ends of the earth, and in spite of the long winters flourished and still flourish. With these the whole of the lower part, from the sea to the lofty terrace, was planted and laid out as a park, with a great variety of fountains, which marked the crossways of the main avenues.
There is one cross-road which starts from a little house called Monplaisir, built on the strand by Peter in a pretty little garden in the Dutch style. It leads to a second small building, and this is named Many—another reminiscence of France. Behind the Marly pond falls a cascade, glittering on gilded steps. The boskets contain, among many other water-devices, some weeping trees; little did Madame de Montespan know what an effect she would work with that boscage which she designed. But Peter also was very fond of fairy-tales and fantasies; in his little hermitage there was a real “ table-be-covered,” which at the sound of a bell rose out of the ground and vanished again. This park was divided in half by a sort of large waterway in the middle axis of the castle (Fig. 524).
A double cascade falls from a terrace in front of the castle down into a wide basin. There is a grotto beside it, with sets of seven steps in coloured marble, and on them a series of gilt statues. In the basin is Samson on a rock, tearing open the lion’s mouth, from which a great column of water goes up. From here a quiet canal flows seaward, and buildings at the harbour help the disembarking and landing from the royal ships. On both sides of the canal there is a walk with fountains which throw silver showers up and down upon the dark tall firs, and various masks spurt their waters into the canal. There is a cheerful open garden beside the cascade, and the terrace steps on either side are decorated with dwarf trees, while on the flat there is always a basin with beds of flowers. Above, in front of the castle, there is an incomparable view, for right over the lower garden and the water's edge, which so soon was covered with fine country houses and gardens following the king’s example, the eye sweeps right over the sea to the town with its golden domes, while far away on the right the Finnish coast appears. Behind the castle lies the upper garden (Fig. 523) with its fountains and the Neptune in the middle; here all travellers praise the lovely clear waters that the hills of Peterhof pour out in profusion. Hence proceeded wide star-shaped avenues, passing through the park above, and meeting at one point on the hill, whence it is possible to see all the views skilfully and pleasingly combined.
The French artists, using the nature of the ground, cleverly created a wonderful picture. This garden is clearly a symbol of all Petersburg culture, which at that time was the scion of a French stock. For western eyes there was too much gold and glitter and too many colours used in other castles as well as in this one, in accordance with the Russian taste and feeling. There is a story that the French ambassador, when he first saw Tsarskoje-Selo, Queen Catherine’s castle, exclaimed that there was nothing wanting but a case to protect this jewel in bad weather. The short reign of the French garden came to an end with this castle. Catherine was so modern a ruler that she laid out her garden in the new English style, the first one in Russia, and greatly admired. [See Garden History CD for further information in the landscape garden in Russia]
In all these countries of Northern Europe the art of gardening reached its highest point in the eighteenth century. We have not found any fine display of new ideas, but French art absorbed and embraced within its wide boundaries much of the individual peculiarities of the different countries, and their various changes in taste during these hundred years. Variety was the charmed word that led them to their pinnacle. All the same, this variety had to be united with a definite and abiding form in the main lines. We have seen as we went along how economic and political conditions prepared the soil for garden development in the course of this century.