A TRIBUTE TO WRITERS
Having paid one tribute to raisers, let us pay another to writers. At least three authors of force in William Robinson, Gertrude Jekyll and Reginald Farrer played a great part in changing the style of English gardening. As a writer of pure genius not less than as an intrepid collector, the ill-fated Farrer stands supreme. But Robinson was the earlier and probably on the whole the more influential writer. In such books as The English Flower Garden, Alpine Flowers for English Gardens and The Wild Garden, he attacked unsparingly the parterre, bedding-out and ribbon-border systems, with their stiffness, formality and garish colours; and he argued with great force the superiority of a more natural system, in which hardy plants (both shrubby and herbaceous), alpine flowers, and trees and shrubs naturally grown, should play the most prominent parts. [Note the chapter of Gertrude Jekyll's Wall, Water & Woodland Gardens in which she discusses design is on the CD]
The first edition of The English Flower Garden appeared in November 1883. Forty-three years later, and at the age of eighty-seven, the author produced a fourteenth edition. This is a remarkable record, testifying at once to the virility and stamina of both book and writer. There can be few, if any, such cases in the history of literature, The strength of the book lay no more in the principles of natural beauty which the author so forcibly propounded, appealing though they were, than in the thousands of cultural details which he gave relating to the many thousands of species described.
Robinson‘s theories were not in all cases new; for example, in attacking “absurd ‘knots‘ and fashions from old books” and “attempts to . . . get colour by the use of broken brick, white sand and painted stone,” he was very near to Bacon with his “As for the making of knots, or figures, with divers Coloured Earths . . . they be but toys; you may see as good Sights many Times in Tarts.” But the modern writer had even more justification than the ancient one for his onslaughts.
Miss Gertrude Jekyll, whose eighty-third birthday in 1926 made her no less than sixty-four years older than the first edition of her finest book, that on garden colour, was probably scarcely less influential than Robinson in advocating the charms of natural gardens. There are two great groups of gardeners ; one consisting of people whose main interest lies in plants as plants, with no particular regard to their place in the garden, the other of persons who think of plants in terms of gardens. Miss Jekyll is whole-heartedly a member of the second group. Observe with what cogency she supports her views:
Merely having plants or having them planted unassorted in garden spaces, is only like having a box of paints from the best colourman; or, to go one step farther, it is like having portions of these paints set Out upon a palette. This does not constitute a picture; and it seems to me that the duty we owe to our gardens and to our own bettering of our gardens is so to use the plants that they shall form beautiful pictures; and that, while delighting our eyes, they should be always training those eyes to a more exalted criticism; to a state of mind and artistic conscience that will not tolerate bad or careless combination or any sort of misuse of plants, but in which it becomes a point of honour to be always striving for the best. It is just in the way it is done that lies the whole difference between commonplace gardening and gardening that may rightly claim to rank as a fine art. Given the same space of ground and the same material, they may either be fashioned into a dream of beauty, a place of perfect rest and refreshment of mind and body—a series of soul-satisfying pictures—a treasure of well-set jewels ; or they may be so misused that everything is jarring and unpleasing.
All this, of course, is not to condemn every type of specialist. The raiser, for example, must consider the flower first. He must grow it in colonies in his nurseries, partly in order to provide it with the particular conditions which suit it best, partly for convenience of comparison and crossing; but the amateur, the garden-maker, is under no such cormpulsion, and it is to him that Miss Jekyll addresses herself.
Farrer was no less gifted and scarcely less a power than the two great horticultural writers already discussed. If a somewhat wayward genius, he was still a genius. If his literary style was sometimes flamboyant, it yet remained arresting and persuasive. And it must be remembered in his honour that he made an intensive study of Alpine plants and sought them all over the world, never shrinking from hardship and danger, and penetrating fearlessly the most distant recesses of unknown China and savage Tibet. It can scarcely be doubted that Farrer‘s books had an immense influence in spreading an interest in and love for alpine flowers, or that he was the means of inducing thousands of people to take up rock gardening, just as On the Eaves of the World and other of his travel books must have inspired many a bold spirit to go out into the wild in search of new plants.
Having paid tribute to the influence of raisers and writers in bringing about a more artistic system of flower-gardening, we, the people, may perhaps permit ourselves to believe that neither class could have been completely successful had there not been some thing responsive in ourselves—some desire, one might even say some yearning, for guidance in an art that a higher standard of education, a more widespread love of beauty, taught us had not been done justice to. It was because the seed which had been sown had fallen on fertile, receptive ground that germination was so swift and growth so strong. The new gospel spread with amazing rapidity, so that England became a land of gardens in which true ideas of Art were conspicuous.