15 April 2012


I woke up this morning with this running around inside my head. Must be the lack of caffeine. To quote the immortal words of Steve McCroskey, "I picked the wrong week to quit drinking coffee."

Garden History: The forgotten step-child of the horticultural arts and sciences?

Garden History gets a bad rap. When I tell people I'm studying an MA in Garden History they look surprised then reply with a question that can be roughly translated as, "Are you quite sure that's a real subject?" for the word 'garden' conjures pleasant images of sun-kissed trees, sweet-smelling flowers, singing birds, lazy butterflies, and tea on the terrace while 'history' evokes tedious lessons memorizing dates, names of dead people, military deeds, and dark episodes leading to the fall of empires. They are entirely compatible, 'garden' and 'history', but there's so much more to it.

Garden History isn't just about names and dates of garden styles, or the designers, or the fantastic houses they worked on and the amazing gardens they created. It's about social commentary, philosophy, education, royal triumph, noble ambition, and political statement. It's also about natural study, experimentation, scientific inquiry and explanation. The elements of pleasure and profit come into it, too.

Garden History is about knowing more than plants and landscape design, though they play an important role. It's about knowing the histories of art, literature, and philosophy from the time the garden you're studying was made. It's getting to know who were the movers and shakers in the world of art, architecture, horticulture, science and politics because chances are they all hung out together at the pub. They organized societies to share information and talk about their passions, they wrote books and pamphlets to disseminate that information, to instruct, to promote ideas, and they exercised profound influence over each other. How else does a humble gardener end up designing the Crystal Palace, or a painter and architect design a royal barge? It's about having a sense of humour and playful adventure, it's about recognizing when a garden creator is just showing off and when there's a message hidden in the waterworks.

Designed by Joseph Paxton, gardener to the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, in 1850. The Crystal Palace was constructed for the Grand Exhibition in 1851 and stood 1,848 feet long by 456 feet wide, 135 feet high, with 772,784 square feet on the ground floor alone , and was built in Hyde Park, London, enclosing several mature living Elm trees. It was widely hailed as a remarkable feat of engineering.

The Bassin de Latone, or Latona Fountain, at Versailles wasn't just an elaborate carving spouting water, it was a warning. Depicting a scene from Ovid's Metamorphoses in which the goddess Latona is mocked by peasants whom the gods turn into frogs, Louis XIV was hinting at the fate to befall anyone who dared mock his kingship or his royal family.

Garden History is not just looking at a landscape and its features, perusing a few maps, writing down who designed it and when then calling it a day. It's about reading a landscape and asking questions: What was here before? What was its use? Who designed it and what influence did they or the owner have over this era of garden design? What other craftsmen were involved and who were they? Why did it change and when? Why are the toilets over there and not there? And why, for pete's sake, can't the café make a decent cup of tea?

Garden History is about uncovering hidden clues that lead you to facts, it's about putting on an imaginary deerstalker, ferreting out answers and leaving no stone unturned. It's about not taking what you read at face value until you've cross referenced the sources and read even more because sometimes - sometimes - you discover that 8 out of 10 authors are wrong and you are right (as I recently did in researching my current historic garden project which was very exciting but meant two chapters of my dissertation had to be rewritten). The misinterpretation of one tiny piece of information a hundred years ago can radically alter the present perceived history of a place and it often takes the determination of a detective to sort it all out.

Sometimes to understand the history of a site you have to study the history of its neighbours and its context: the surrounding neighbourhood, the county, the state, the country, the world that influenced it. And the owners and designers - what influenced them? Where did they grow up? What did they learn, experience, see, study? Who were their mentors? Did they travel? Where and for how long? Who did they meet there? And on and on...

Landscape designer Andy Cao, born in Vietnam, is well known for the glass garden he built in his suburban Los Angeles back yard in the 1990's. The design evokes the memory of salt mounds and rice fields seen in his native land.

Garden History is also about using that knowledge to champion preservation and restoration. What was there, what remains, and what can be restored? Should it be restored, why and why not? What are the constraints, what are the opportunities? With a lack of historical understanding landscapes are desecrated, bulldozed, built over, or falsely recreated. Sometimes that happens even with the knowledge of history but that history is discounted or even ignored. A garden (or landscape, if you wish) historian should be on every committee discussing the proposed fate of a piece of land about to be altered by design or development and most certainly should be involved in a restoration, especially where historical accuracy is important for purposes of authenticity and education.

John Evelyn, celebrated gardener and garden writer, designed this elaborate garden for his home at Sayes Court, Deptford, London in the 18th century. The site has since been destroyed, first by development, then enemy bombs in WW2. The contractor who has submitted proposals for redevelopment of the area has completely ignored John Evelyn's important contributions to the professions of gardening and horticulture and refuses to consider a scheme that would recreate, at least in part, Evelyn's famous garden.

The site of Sayes Court manor house today

A highly respected landscape designer once asked me what it was that made gardens so important back when, and what can he do as a professional selling his knowledge and skill to make gardens equally important now. To find the answer, one has to go back and study the history of not just gardens but the history of people, or a person. You have to find out what makes them tick or, to use a theatrical term, what is their motivation. Once you know that, you know what it is that will make the garden valuable.

(Garden) History never ends, it begins with the last minute, and even though eras in the history of the arts are neatly catalogued with words like "Medieval", "Classical", "Baroque", "Modern", or "Post-modern", as the history was taking place it was all, at the time and to the people then living, modern.

Garden History is indeed quite a real subject, and quite an important one at that. It’s not as boring as it might sound, though as Dr. Henry Jones, Jr. admonished his class of swooning archaeology students, most of it does take place in libraries, with books. I have held books on garden design that are almost 400 years old, and the thrill is no less for me than the thrill of new seedlings emerging in the greenhouse. One holds a key to understanding the past, the other a promise of the future, and they are not incompatible. One can and should be used to improve the other. That's what Garden History is about.

Leonard Meager's The NEW (emphasis mine) Art of Gardening, 1697

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