31 October 2011

Hortus Conclusus

In the last month I have been thrown in the path of great literature covering architecture, landscape, art, history, and gardens (or it's been thrown in mine, however you want to look at it). Just last week, while innocently studying the gardens of the Roman Empire, I met a guy named Vitruvius. Back in the 1st century BC he had some pretty cool things to say about the education of an architect, which you can read by clicking here. I daresay that what he said then applies to today's landscape architect or designer, indeed to historians and teachers of said disciplines, as well. He sayeth thusly (and I condense thusly):

1. The architect (landscape architect, garden designer, historian, etc.) should be equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning, for it is by his judgement that all work done by the other arts is put to test.

2. Neither natural ability without instruction nor instruction without natural ability can make the perfect artist. Let him (or her, ahem) be educated, skillful with the pencil, instructed in geometry, know much history (emphasis mine), have followed the philosophers with attention, understand music, have some knowledge of medicine, know the opinions of the jurists, and be acquainted with astronomy and the theory of the heavens.

This struck a chord with me because the more I study Garden History, the more obvious it becomes that I need to be a student of all history: art, architecture, social, cultural, military - you name it - for all of these things inform garden design in any given era.

This is also why, some years ago, I sat beside myself in a class on garden history while the instructor used this image in his lecture on Medieval gardens, then proceeded to get it all wrong.
Paradiesgärtlein (Little Garden of Paradise), by Upper Rhenish Master c. 1410
Let me 'splain.

What we have here is a painting completed in the first decades of the 15th century depicting certain illustrious and heavenly personages pleasantly employed in a walled garden, or hortus conclusus, typical of the type found in castle gardens during the Middle Ages. It's not a big painting, barely larger than a standard letter-size sheet of paper. That right there should tell us something, i.e. that it wasn't intended for ostentatious display, and probably hung in someone's living room over the mantelpiece or other prominent place where the owner could gaze on it in meditative contemplation.

Don't judge a canvas by its size, because this one is bursting with symbolism and stories. If you were a person in the Middle Ages you would instantly grasp their meaning, even if you were illiterate (which most people then were). To fully understand the symbolism behind the painting and what it represents, we have to understand something of the time in which it was produced and the audience who might have been gazing on it, for this painting wasn't intended to be simply looked at, it was meant to be read.

So, for the When: the worst was (almost) over and by 1410 the sun was setting on the Dark Ages, the world poised and waiting for the dawn of a new age. The church was the unifying cultural and educational influence, with monks and priests being the scholars of the dwindling population, which was being wiped out to the tune of one-in-three by the Black Death. People were spiritually bereft, and it was the Church's job to spread the gospel message of Christianity.

"May He who Illuminated this, Illuminate me"

Which leads us to How: as I  mentioned, the average person in 1400 couldn't read. This is where all those amazing illuminated manuscripts come in. (But you just said people couldn't read? Ah! It makes me wonder...can it be argued that the Medieval Church invented the graphic novel?)

The printing press won't be invented for another 20 or so years and even then it would be at least another decade before Johannes printed only 180 copies of his Bible, so even though everyone went to church none carried Bibles the way we do today (to say nothing of having a smart phone app to fall back on). To put it simply, the message was delivered by the priest in the pulpit and illustrated by the windows and paintings in the church.

And you thought all that stained glass was just for decoration!

Detail from Little Garden of Paradise

 Art of the Middle Ages was replete with religious symbolism. The enclosed garden itself was a symbol of the Virgin Mary's purity and holiness, as the wall kept out all the diabolical things that were on the other side. Indeed, a symbol of evil can be seen in our painting in the form of a little black devil sitting obediently at the feet of the Archangel Michael, clearly vexed at not being permitted to wreak havoc on this little paradise. Nearby is a dragon at the feet of its slayer, saintly Sir George, who slew the dragon to free a virginal princess. The devil and the dragon have no power here.

Even the flowers had symbolic meanings associated with them, and were painted with such careful detail that botanists and horticultural enthusiasts have been able to identify them. The Language of Flowers was alive and well in the Middle Ages so it would have come as no surprise to you, you poor illiterate Medieval peasant farmer, that the little devil is sitting on a patch of periwinkle which, as everyone knows, is capable of warding off evil spirits.

So even though you couldn't read you could understand pictures and, thanks to the diligence of the church, you would have been well-versed in the stories of the Bible and would have known who Mary, Jesus, the Heavenly Host, and the Saints all were. Not only that, you would have been able to identify them by sight and would have known the stories and legends surrounding them.

So how does all this information affect garden design today? In oh, so many ways, and it sure affects how much we can decipher of garden design of the past. Most people now would look at this painting and think it shows a pretty Medieval garden with Mary reading a book while Baby Jesus plucks on a harp with the nanny, and they would be totally missing the point (perhaps this where the aforementioned garden history instructor erred in his ways which makes me want to ask the same question that Indiana Jones did: "Didn't you ever go to Sunday School!?").

On into modern times, gardens have been designed with art and architecture that convey symbolic messages to visitors either for their entertainment or as a  device to communicate the owner's wealth, prestige, or political standing (the frogs around the Latona fountain at Versailles - not just ornamental amphibians spouting water, no sireebub!). If we, as garden makers, do not endeavor to become "equipped with knowledge of many branches of study and varied kinds of learning", we will lose the ability to create, much less conserve or restore, gardens with cultural and historic significance. Even worse, we will be ill-equipped to teach those coming after us and in a few generations we'll be no better off than the ignorant provincials of the Middle Ages. At least they knew how to read pictures.

Right. That's it for tonight. Now I'm off to France, and the Baroque court of King Louis XIV (that man did have amazing taste in footwear, didn't he!?). Wonder what kinds of surprises we'll find there....

21 October 2011

More Color, Please

I just realized something. I just realized I've been a historical conservationist much longer than I thought. You see, in another life long, long ago, I was a Homeowner. The home I owned was a 1910's Craftsman bungalow with a wrap-around porch, built-in china cabinet, picture rails in every room, and an inglenook. It had been "upgraded" in the 1950's with pink and blue tile in the bathroom, French doors in the dining room were replaced with sliders, and the kitchen was remodeled, eliminating the roll-away bed that lived below the built-in china cabinet as well as blocking the door to the basement stairs (who's bright idea was that!?). The changes didn't fit, and they made me twitch, so I immediately decided to restore the house to its original character. I also had grand plans for the garden, but the road of life has its unexpected turns and now my house belongs to someone else. I hope they appreciate it as much as I did.

When I bought the house the walls had been painted white and the whole place was rather cold and lifeless. In my giddy, uneducated, new homeowner state, I bounced down to the paint store where I was introduced to a whole new world in the form of the Arts and Crafts color palette. There were actually paint chips in colors common to the Craftsman home of the 1910's and '20s, with names inspired by nature like 'Acorn Yellow', 'Bark', 'California Redwood', 'Sage'. I was like a kid in a candy store! 

Traditional Craftsman colors
I started looking through design magazines focused on Craftsman homes for ideas and decided on a few different colors: a sagey green for the living room, a warm glowing chamois for the dining room, two shades of lavender for the bedroom, and a spicy paprika-like color for the office that changed from chocolate-raspberry in dark corners to a rusty red in the light. Armed with a can of olive green paint and a brush, I started in the inglenook. That was the day the house came alive.

On either side of the fireplace were twin stained glass windows. The windows had been painted shut and the colors of the flower motif in the glass were drab. But the second I added the olive paint to the walls, they dazzled! It was as if the house was opening it's eyes after a long slumber. When the painting was finished the rooms no longer felt cold, they felt warm and homey. I have loathed the glaring starkness of bare white walls ever since.

Little did I know that the Arts & Crafts Movement began over 150 years ago in a little suburb of London called Bexleyheath. William Morris built a house here, and it is he who started the decorating and textile craze that became Arts & Crafts, almost by accident. His philosophy spilled into the garden, too, and examples of the Arts & Crafts Garden style can be seen in English gardens at Great Dixter, Sissinghurst, Hidcote, and the homes of fellow bungalow owners in California.

Imagine my curiosity when I learned I would be visiting Morris's Red House with my Historic Garden Conservation class, and envisioning the colorful interior. Imagine my dismay when I stepped inside and saw bare white walls!

They weren't always that way, I learned. The National Trust only recently acquired The Red House in 2003 and it was a previous owner who white-washed the original warmth of the walls away. The heathens!

The Red House 138
The pianoforte in the upstairs living room, with a section of the original wall color revealed.
Our visit began with a wander around the garden, which I'll write about next time, then we were treated to a tour by a knowledgeable guide who had been friends of the last owners of the house. He knew his Morris history, and really helped paint a mental picture of what the house would have looked like when the Morris family lived there and had streams of artist friends visiting and creating. I wanted to ask why he didn't stop his friends from their destructive acts and throw the white paint out? Everyone knows, friends don't let friends use 'eggshell'.

The Red House 098
Our tour guide, pointing out the portraits of family and friends painted by Morris on this settle in the front hall
The Red House was built in 1859-60 by Morris's Oxford friend Philip Webb. It takes its name from the brick exterior, not yet in fashion for domestic buildings of the 19th century. Inside, Morris and Friends set about creating wall paintings, window treatments in the form of stained and painted glass, and handmade furniture to fill the house. None of the wallpaper for which Morris is known would have been hung in the house because he had not yet started his textile company, but he began designing the patterns while living here.
The Red House 090
Painted glass window in the side hall done by Morris's friend, artist Edward Burne-Jones
Red House Windows
"Fate and Love"
Morris found inspiration in his studies of medievalism and I'm currently deep into writing a word and image study on a Medieval garden. To fully understand the message of the image I'm studying required me to look up the various saints and their associated legends, so I was quite proud of myself when I recognized Saint Catherine holding her wheel in this stained glass window!

Another sin committed by the previous owners was to cover up William Morris's wall decor in the upstairs living room with white paneling. I noticed the paint chipped edges of a section of paneling and wondered what that was about when the tour guide explained and opened the panels to reveal a colorful flower motif behind. Had they no shame!?


In an upstairs bedroom hidden behind a closet is a faded wall painting began by Elizabeth Siddal, the wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Depicting a woman in sad repose, it's a far cry from the gaily painted nymph on the closet door of the child's room at Charleston House, but you get the sense that the entire wall painting would have told a story, not to mention livening up the room, and I was curious to know what that story was or would have been (Elizabeth died before the painting was finished).

The Red House 121

Viewing the interior of the house brought to mind the same questions we face when considering the conservation of an historic garden. While the Red House is famous because of William Morris, there were other owners and occupants during the house's history, and the law of the land gave them the right to make whatever changes they wanted (grumble, grumble). So the dilemma faced by every conservationist is whether to maintain, repair, restore, or conserve. And when you're talking about historical layers, which one do you choose? 

In my own house I chose to keep the faded pink and blue bathroom tile because it was in good condition, felt retro, and was cost-prohibitive to replace. One might argue the upgrade is a good representative of the type of "updates" that were commonly made to old houses in the 1950's, and should be maintained as a sample of '50s decor. A purist would restore back to the original. In the case of the Red House, I lean toward purity and originality. The Red House is billed as the home that was designed and built for William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, yet the interior does not represent his design philosophy. I would guess that most people familiar with his designs expect to see them covering the walls of his home, not the stark whiteness that glares at you when you enter. In that respect, I would argue in favor of restoring the interior by removing the white paint. Perhaps it's too costly? Perhaps since the National Trust only recently acquired the house, it's on their to-do list?
Indeed, the only part of the place where I could approve of changes made by previous owners was in the garden, which was enlarged from Morris's day yet retains a continuity and character that is fitting with the style of the house. And there's a cat! I heartily approve of cats in the garden!

The Red House 077

On a side note, and as a demonstration of just how much life color adds to a place, here's a photo of some rather unexpected gifts bestowed upon me by my classmates for taking on a beast of an editing job for a group project. I wasn't expecting anything in return, but the flowers are doing a wonderful job of cheering my dismal little student cell, greeting me with their smiles and flirty petals when I return from a long slog in the library. Possibly my favorite thing about it is the fact that I don't have a vase and had to put the flowers in my cafetiere - look how great the colors work together! The small painting is an oil pastel of a garden conservatory by my god-brother.

The Red House 155

It just goes to prove what Morris said:

All rooms ought to look as if they were lived in, and to have so to say, a friendly welcome ready for the incomer. ~William Morris

08 October 2011

A Stroll Around Knole

What has 365 rooms, 52 staircases, 12 entrances, and 7 courtyards? Answer: A Calendar House. A handful of notable examples can be found in Britain and I get to study one of them (I love my job! And whoever says being a postgraduate student isn't a job was obviously never a postgraduate student!). 

The Green Court at Knole

One of the largest country houses in England, Knole sits in the middle of a 1,000 acre Medieval deer park, the only one of its kind remaining in Kent. It takes its name from the grassy knoll on which it has been sitting for over 500 years.

Knowl illustrated by Kip and Knyff circa 1709
Knole is perhaps best known in gardening circles as the birthplace of Vita Sackville-West, who created the famous gardens at Sissinghurst Castle. The only child of the 3rd Lord Sackville, Vita was prevented from inheriting her beloved home thanks to the laws of primogeniture. The house, land, and title were passed to her uncle. Upon his death, the title, etc. went to a cousin, from whom the incumbent Lord Sackville is descended. The National Trust now owns the house and 43-acres of deer park, the rest is still owned by the Sackville-West family who have a 200 year lease and currently inhabit half the house. I wouldn't feel too bad for Vita, though; she did get Sissinghurst, after all!

One has to wonder, then, how different Knole would be had Vita inherited, being the keen gardener that she was. As it is, the 26-acre private family garden is only open to the public one day a week, at the discretion of the current tenant, the 7th Lord Sackville.

Amazingly, there are only 2 full-time, 2 seasonal, and 2 student trainee gardeners to care for the family gardens which feature formal planting and wilderness areas. Without a map, and with only an hour to roam, I was afraid of becoming hopelessly lost and so didn't see everything I would have liked to see. As I wandered, I kept fighting off the voice in my head of Maintenance Manager that kept pointing out issues: weeds here, grass that needed mowing there, trees that needed tending, ponds that needed cleaning, etc. No volunteers are used to help with the gardens and while there can be no question as to their enthusiasm, I sometimes have considerable hesitations about a volunteer's level of knowledge and ability. The bottom line is, many world famous gardens simply wouldn't exist today if weren't for their help, and surely a few extra hands to deadhead and pull weeds would make a big difference in the feel of the garden at Knole.

This Google map shows the gardens in relation to the house, surrounded by the deer park and ancient golf course.
Kidding. The golf course is a modern amendment, dating to the early 1920's. It proved challenging during the second World War as the club members sought new and ingenious methods of obstructing the fairways to prevent enemy planes or gliders from landing. Being that Knole is located so close to 'Bomb Alley', the flight path the Luftwaffe took to and from their bombing raids of London, there are still some bomb craters evident in the park as the Germans ditched any bombs they had left on their way back to the Vaterland.

But I digress. We were talking about the garden, weren't we? It was originally laid out 300 years ago as series of geometric squares and rectangles planted as orchard and managed to escape the ravages of fashion during the English Landscape Movement. Considerable change can be seen in this image, drawn by Thomas Badeslade in the 1719.
Today most of the orchard has been replaced with a wilderness of beech, oak, Liriodendron, one truly amazing Cedrus, and a number of rhododendrons. Mossy paths curve out of sight, inviting you to enter and wander. As someone in my class group said, it's a good place to run around naked! A rose garden has been replaced with veg contained within a knotted boxwood hedge and a sunken pond has been turned into a swimming pool.
veggie garden
Behind the enclosed herb garden is a tennis court, itself enclosed by a decidedly un-ornamental and decidedly not 17th century black chain-link fence. The herb garden was probably one of my favorite spots but it suffers from a lack of seating. It's a tease, this garden, because once inside you want to linger but aside from displacing the little cherubim from his seat on the dolphin, there is no place to sit and enjoy the herb's perfume.
Walled herb garden
The garden and park at Knole are this term's case study for the Historic Garden Conservation course I'm taking. We have been invited by the present Lord Sackville to study Knole and develop a conservation management plan so you will hear more about the challenges of conserving and restoring an historical family home right here. So far my favorite part of research is the literary aspect, and for homework I have to read Vita's novel The Edwardians, which she based on life at Knole.

Did I mention I love my job!?

The newly opened Orangery