The Landscape Guide

Horace Walpole's essay On Modern Gardening: Renaissance Gardens

Introduction Ancient gardens Roman gardens Renaissance gardens John Milton Sir William Temple William Kent Early 18th century gardens  Thomas Whately Landscape Gardens Lancelot 'Capability' Brown

Renaissance gardens

When the custom of making square gardens enclosed with walls was thus established, to the exclusion of nature* [* It was not uncommon, after the circumadjacent country had been shut out, to endeavour to recover it by raising large mounts of earth to peep over the walls of the garden.] and prospect, pomp and solitude combined to call for something that might enrich and enliven the insipid and unanimated partition. Fountains, first invented for use, which grandeur loves to disguise and throw out of the question, received embellishments from costly marbles, and at last to contradict utility tossed their waste of waters into air in spouting columns. Art, in the hands of rude man, had at first been made a succedaneum to nature; in the hands of ostentatious wealth, it became the means of opposing nature; and the more it traversed the march of the latter, the more nobility thought its power was demonstrated. Canals measured by the line were introduced in lieu of meandering streams, and terraces were hoisted aloft in opposition to the facile slopes that imperceptibly unite the valley to the hill. Balustrades defended these precipitate and dangerous elevations, and flights of steps rejoined them to the subjacent flat from which the terrace had been dug. Vases and sculpture were added to these unnecessary balconies, and statues furnished the lifeless spot with mimic representations of the excluded sons of men.

Thus difficulty and expense were the constituent parts of those sumptuous and selfish solitudes; and every improvement that was made, was but a step farther from nature. The tricks of waterworks to wet the unwary, not to refresh the panting spectator, and parterres embroidered in patterns like a petticoat, were but the childish endeavours of fashion and novelty to reconcile greatness to what it had surfeited on. To crown these impotent displays of false taste, the shears were applied to the lovely wildness of form with which nature has distinguished each various species of tree and shrub. The venerable oak, the romantic beech, the useful elm, even the aspiring circuit of the lime, the regular round of the chestnut, and the almost moulded orange-tree, were corrected by such fantastic admirers of symmetry. The compass and square were of more use in plantations than the nurseryman. The measured walk, the quincunx, and the etoile imposed their unsatisfying sameness on every royal and noble garden. Trees were headed, and their sides pared away; many French groves seem green chests set upon poles. Seats of marble, arbours and summer-houses terminated every vista; and symmetry, even where the space was too large to permit its being marked at one view, was so essential that, as Pope observed, '. . . each alley has a brother, And half the garden just reflects the other'. Knots of flowers were more defensibly subjected to the same regularity. Leisure, as Milton expressed it, 'in trim gardens took his pleasure'. In the garden of Marshal de Biron at Paris, consisting of fourteen acres, every walk is buttoned on each side by lines of flower-pots, which succeed in their seasons. When I saw it, there were nine thousand pots of asters, or La Reine Marguerite.

We do not precisely know what our ancestors meant by a bower, it was probably an arbour; sometimes it meant the whole frittered enclosure, and in one instance it certainly included a labyrinth. Rosamond's bower was indisputably of that kind, though whether composed, of walls or hedges we cannot determine. A square and a round labyrinth were so capital ingredients of a garden formerly, that in Du Cerceau's architecture, who lived in the time of Charles IX and Henry III, there is scarce a ground-plot without one of each. The enchantment of antique appellation has consecrated a pleasing idea of a royal residence, of which we now regret the extinction. Havering in the Bower, the jointure of many dowager queens, conveys to us the notion of a romantic scene.

In Kip's views of the seats of our nobility 'and gentry, we see the same tiresome and returning uniformity. Every house is approached by two or three gardens, consisting perhaps of a gravel-walk and two grass-plats, or borders of flowers. Each rises above the other by two or three steps, and as many walls and terraces; and so many iron-gates, that we recollect those ancient romances, in which every entrance was guarded by nymphs or dragons. At Lady Orford's at Piddletown in Dorsetshire there was, when my brother married, a double enclosure of thirteen gardens, each I suppose not much above an hundred yards square, with an enfilade of correspondent gates; and before you arrived at these, you passed a narrow gut between two stone terraces, that rose above your head, and which were crowned by a line of pyramidal years. A bowling-green was all the lawn admitted in those times, a circular lake the extent of magnificence.

Yet though these and such preposterous inconveniences prevailed from age to age, good sense in this country had perceived the want of something at once more grand and more natural. These reflections and the bounds set to the waste made by royal spoilers, gave origin 'to parks. They were contracted forests, and extended gardens. Hentzner says that according to Rous of Warwick the first park was that at Woodstock. If so, it might be the foundation of a legend that Henry II secured his mistress in a labyrinth: it was no doubt more difficult to find her in a park than in a palace, where the intricacy of the woods and various lodges buried in covert might conceal her actual habitation.

It is more extraordinary that having so long ago stumbled on the principle of modern gardening, we should have persisted in retaining its reverse, symmetrical and unnatural gardens. That parks were rare in other countries Hentzner, who traveled over great part of Europe, leads us to suppose, by observing that they were common in England. In France they retain the name, but nothing is more different both in compass and disposition. Their parks are usually square or oblong enclosures, regularly planted with walks of chestnuts or limes, and generally every large town has one for its public recreation. They are exactly like Burton's court at Chelsea college, and rarely larger.