Empress Josephine’s English Garden

Empress Josephine’s English Garden

The landscape garden of the early 1700s took the English garden in a new direction.

The garden assumed a less formal look, replacing it with a more natural scene, especially with the extensive lawn and curved walkways.

The reach of the new or modern English garden traveled beyond the shores of Great Britain.

Even the French enjoyed it.

France, which had given the world the grand formal look of Le Notre’s Versailles, adopted this view of the English landscape garden at Chateau Malmaison, the country estate of Empress Josephine (1763-1814).

In his book Jardin de la Malmaison H. Walter Lack writes, “[The previous owner] laid out the garden of great beauty in the English style, with a remarkable number of very rare and exotic trees and plants.”

This painting by the artist A. Garnerey captures the open grassed area at Malmaison. [below]

The open lawn at Malmaison, country estate of Empress Josephine. [Painting by  A. Garnerey]

Empress Josephine’s architect Louis-Martin Berthault (1770-1823) “created a large, slightly undulating lawn and had it planted with groups of trees; vistas were also created.”

The Malmaison Temple in the garden. [Painting by A. Garnerey]

Berthault built a little temple with six columns. [above] To include such a temple also reflected the new English garden style as seen in gardens of the 1700s like that of Stowe and Stourhead.

Josephine built her extensive botanic garden at Malmaison, introducing many exotic plants including the dahlia from Mexico.

The new trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals found a home in the perfect setting of this English garden on French soil.

Politics Influenced Modern English Garden

Politics influenced modern English garden.

One would think that politics is the farthest thing from any sort of garden style or fashion.

A garden is, after all, about the design of a piece of land with plants.

Tim Richardson in his book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden makes the point that the English garden change called the ‘landscape garden’ in the early 1700s was linked to the political environment in England.

At that time the English garden developed a ‘modern’ style that changed the English garden forever. The style included a more natural look, less tied to the precise pruning of the Dutch contribution to landscape at that time.

The poet Alexander Pope, the nurseryman Thomas Switzer, and others sought to express a new form of landscape design.

The new English landscape had the opposition between the Tories and Whigs to thank for its emergence.

Richardson says, “[In the 1680s and 1690s]  those in favor of a Protestant succession to the throne – and the businesslike ordering of national affairs that came with it – realized that the treatment of the land itself, including gardens, could be assumed as a powerful emotional and economic argument in favor of Whig ideas of progress and patriotism.”

More creative, intellectual British aristocrats considered the earlier formal, symmetrical garden design of an ‘Anglo-Dutch’ manner that preceded the early 1700s, unsuitable to a modern nation.

This group of new landscapers, led by Pope, sought to express themselves in redesigning the garden.

Richardson writes, “Pope’s ideas were to shape the form of the landscape garden in decades to come.”

“The landscape garden did not arise out of a progression of Taste, as the Whigs would have us believe, but out of an explosion of intellectual creativity,” says Richardson.

If Richardson’s argument is accepted, and in the book he presents evidence to make that point, we have much to be grateful for in the struggle between the two political factions of England in the early 1700s.

The elements of surprise and variety also became the qualities that accompanied the new landscape garden.  The artist William Kent emerged as a major force in designing properties with the new landscape garden look.

George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both preferred this new landscape garden style on their properties in Virginia.

 

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Landscape Garden Lost Appeal

Landscape garden lost appeal.

The English landscape garden, recognized by its informal, natural look of winding pathways and extensive areas of lawn, reached its peak in the mid-eighteenth century.

Shortly after that the style experienced a bit of decline.

The exotic plants arriving from the Americas and Asia caused a loss of interest.  Gardeners needed room to include these coveted plants, and so the extensive lawn areas became spotted with plants from outside the country.

David Stuart writes in his book The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, “Those who owned them [the newly imported exotic plants], perhaps growing the rarest that could be found, felt that they were as status-full as having a summer-house shaped like the Colosseum, and hankered after a mode of gardening that would allow them to show their wonderful plants to the world.”

Just to grow the new plants was in itself a status symbol.

The cherished landscape garden that marked England’s greatest contribution to garden art was receding into the background to make room for new annuals and shrubs. American rhododendrons and Chinese camellias attracted more attention than the sweeping lawns of Capability Brown.

Stuart says, “Consequently, by the end of the eighteenth century, the landscape garden was clearly doomed.”

Roses too, illustrated here by landscape gardener Humphry Repton, appeared in their own garden called a rosary by 1800. [below]

Humphry Repton’s Rosarium (1813)

And so, as happens in all garden fashion and style, what was once in became no longer desirable.

The classic English natural style would always be important, even into the nineteenth century, but not with the vigor of the early and mid 1700s.

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Thomas Jefferson’s English Landscape

Thomas Jefferson’s English Landscape

Thomas Jefferson advocated for the modern, natural, picturesque landscape design at Monticello after his trip with John Adams to tour the estate gardens of England.

In his article “The Picturesque in the American Garden and Landscape Before 1800”  James D. Kornwulf says, “Little documentary, and even less visual, evidence survives to prove that American gardeners followed picturesque principles on a large scale before 1786 when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams made their well-known tour of English (and, for Jefferson, of French) picturesque gardens.”

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello featured the modern style of the English garden called the picturesque.

As his guide for what gardens to visit Jefferson used the  book by English garden writer Thomas Whatley Observations on Modern Gardening.  Some consider the book the best description of picturesque modern gardening, written before landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752 –1818) became England’s most famous landscape gardener in the final third of the century.

Whatley included the garden at Chatsworth, north of London, which became Jefferson’s favorite landscape.  Capability Brown in the mid eighteenth century had redesigned Chatsworth to include extensive lawns.

In a 1917 article in the American magazine Landscape Architecture the architect Fiske Kimball (1888 – 1955) wrote: “Landscape gardening in America as an art, even though not as a profession, may claim as its father the father of American independence itself, a worthy forerunner of Downing, Olmsted, and Eliot.”

Jefferson created his landscape with the principles of the picturesque English style that he had experienced himself.

His friend, Philadelphia seedsman Bernard McMahon, author of the most important early book on gardening American Gardener (1806), also promoted the same style of English landscape gardening.

Jefferson’s picturesque style would continue to influence the American home landscape throughout the nineteenth century, especially in the books and articles coming from the pen of New York nurseryman turned landscape gardener Andrew Jackson Downing

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Formal Garden Design Dominated Early America

Formal Garden Design Dominated Early America.

The design of the English garden during the 1600s followed a formal design which was a combination of French and Dutch elements of symmetry.

Then in the early 1700s the English took landscape to a new height in creating landscape as an art form, which they called the ‘natural’ or ‘picturesque’ landscape design.

In his article “The Picturesque in the American Garden and Landscape Before 1800”  James D.Kornwulf defines the picturesque “as the aesthetic underlying ‘le jardin anglais’ as the natural, irregular, and deliberately asymmetrical kind of planting.”

Colonial America however in the 1700s continued the formal garden design in properties along the East coast.

Though there were a couple of isolated examples of the picturesque landscape, the formal garden design dominated in eighteenth century America.

The landscape at both Middleton Place  and Drayton Hall in Charleston, South Carolina, probably dating from around 1740, represent the earliest known picturesque gardens in America, according to Kornwulf.

Richard Bushman argued in his book The Refinement of America that “In the eighteenth century informal and picturesque gardens remained subservient to the dominant influence of formal garden principles.”

The formal garden made its first monumental appearance in Colonial America at the College of William and Mary in 1694.

 

Formal garden at the Governor’s Palace at Colonial Williamsburg

Examples from the eighteenth century of formal garden design include the William Paca landscape in Annapolis, Maryland and the Governor’s Mansion at Williamsburg, Virginia [above].

Kornwulf says, “Without doubt, these gardens were the model for many created in eighteenth-century Virginia.”

Looking to the English for garden inspiration, eighteenth century America followed the older tradition of the more formal English garden.

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American Seedsman Encouraged Poinsettias

American Seedsman Encouraged Poinsettias

One of my favorite plant stories is how the poinsettia became a popular Christmas flower here in America.

In the nineteenth century it was common for garden magazines or journals to include articles from other garden publications, mostly English.  The source of the orignal story would often appear at the end of the article.

Philadelphia nurseryman Thomas Meehan (1826-1901) included an article about the poinsettia in his magazine Gardener’s Monthly in May of 1876 which he took from the English weekly journal called Gardeners’ Chronicle.

The article, simply entitled Poinsettia’ said, “Passing by these old friends, not without a word of hearty welcome be it well understood, we come to another plant which has been of late years an almost indispensable adjunct of Christmas decorations, be they of church or hall–the brilliant Poinsettia pulcherrima, the bright scarlet bracts of which give the head of blossoms a flower-like appearance, and serve admirably to lighten up the somewhat somber masses of evergreen.”

Meehan continued with these words: “Its name commemorates a French traveler, M. Poinsett, by whom the plant was introduced to cultivation.

“He brought specimens to Charleston from Mexico in 1828, whence they were taken to Philadelphia; and specimens sent from the latter place to Edinburgh [Scotland] flowered in 1835, since which date it has become increasingly popular and plentiful in our stores.”

Poinsett had sent the plant to his friend Philadelphia seedsman Robert Buist (1805-1880). Buist in turn mailed a specimen of the plant to his horticulturst friend in Scotland.  Soon after that the poinsettia, native to Mexico, became available to the public.

Today during this season you can see how poinsettias still fill the Grand Hall at The Breakers mansion in Newport, Rhode Island. [below]

Poinsettias in the Grand Hall at The Breakers in Newport, RI. [courtesy]

American gardeners, just like the English, came to treasure the plant as an indispensable part of the Christmas holiday.

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Oliver Plunkett’s Garden Features Grotto

Oliver Plunkett’s garden features grotto.

During my recent visit in Ireland when I saw the early home of St. Oliver Plunkett (1629-1681) in Loughcrew, something else in the garden there surprised me.

At the end of the border of perennials you find a grotto. You can see that the grotto was made with rocks simply cemented to other rocks to form a sort of shelter of a few feet in height. A tiny pool of water appears at the base.

Such a grotto, made of rocks, formed an important part of English garden history.

David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes about the history of this garden decoration.

He says, “Rockeries were, at first, pure theater. From the middle of the eighteenth century, artificial grottos and mock ruins became fashionable adjuncts in any garden large enough to pretend to ‘landscape’.”

The Plunkett property includes this grotto or rock garden, also referred to as a folly, in that garden tradition. [below]

Grotto at Loughcrew, home of Oliver Plunkett

Elizabeth I (1533-1603) created the Loughcrew Estate, making it one of the greatest estates in Ireland. The property, originally 180,000 acres, became a classic landscape from its beginning. Over the centuries landscape designers and architects have contributed to these beautiful grounds.

Near the old stone walls of the church a line of yew trees stand tall even today, after four hundred years.

Gardens, woods, arboreta, and pleasure walks make this remarkable landscape at Loughcrew in county Meath an Irish treasure.

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Nineteenth Century Garden Catalogs Sold Lawn

Nineteenth century garden catalogs sold lawn.

Nineteenth century seed company and nursery products guided the kind of home landscape people cultivated.

Landscape designer and garden historian Jennifer Grace Hanna wrote her Cornell master’s thesis called Ornamental Garden Design. 

She discussed mostly nineteenth century Rochester seedsman James Vick (1818-1882), but also covered much garden history from that period, including discussion of the importance of the lawn for the middle class homeowner.

 

henderson-front-yard

 

Hanna writes,  “Nursery owners [in nineteenth century America], the horticultural journal editors, did not accept the wilderness aesthetic completely for it was not good for business.

“Instead they merged this romantic wilderness appreciation with the aesthetic picturesque and developed a form of English landscape garden design that was reliant upon the communal landscape.

“In other words, the new transportation systems of the roads and rail lines and land division of the suburban tracts set up shared views.”

In the cover image [above] from New York seedsman Peter Henderson’s 1899 catalog notice how in the back one property adjoins another with a lawn as their common bond.

No fence separates the properties because the continuity of the lawn was an important landscape principle called ‘shared view.’

The nursery owners encouraged the lawn because it was part of the English landscape garden design aesthetic, but also because it was good for business. That landscape style sold lawn seed and lawn mowers.

And so it was no surprise, according to Hanna, that the English garden with its lawn became the model for the suburban, middle class American home landscape of the nineteenth century.

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Ireland’s Powerscourt Features Perennial Borders

Ireland’s Powerscourt features perennial borders.

My recent trip to Ireland included a visit to Powerscourt, the estate in Enniskerry, County Wicklow, whose long history dates back to the twelve century.

The extensive garden at Powerscourt contains many wonders, including two long perennial borders, that have made it one of Ireland’s treasures.

During the nineteenth century the walled garden’s perennial borders were installed.  They reflect the gardening world’s interest at that time in perennials rather than annuals.

Powerscourt border [courtesy photo]

Perennial borders at Powerscourt in Ireland [courtesy photo]

In the nineteenth century Viscount Powerscourt said,”The planting of the choice plants and shrubs, and seeing them increase year by year in size and beauty has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life.”

When garden writer William Robinson (1838-1935) and later garden designer Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) both encouraged gardening with perennials, borders of perennials became popular in the English garden.

Powerscourt includes other areas of nineteenth century garden style like an Italian garden in the terraces that link the house to the lake below. The terraces were constructed between 1843 and 1867.

The design of the garden reflects the desire to create a garden that is part of the wider landscape.  You can view the garden from the upper terrace where you can enjoy the harmony among garden slops, terraces, flower beds, trees, and the lake.

What caught my attention was the extraordinary collection of plants in the walled garden of perennials.

The fact that they are of mature size, well maintained, and number in the hundreds certainly contributes to the spender of the present-day Powerscourt garden.

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Flower Beds Revolutionized English Garden

Flower beds revolutionized English garden.

We take flower beds for granted, but at one time they became revolutionary, making a statement against the current garden fashion.

The story began in early nineteenth century England when gardeners needed room for the unusual plants coming into the country from Asia, Africa, and America.

Plant collectors risked dangers and even death to provide the unusual and unknown flora from around the world.  English gardeners could not get enough of such plants.

The question became ‘Where do I plant them?’ for many gardeners.  After decades of stately lawns in front of and behind the house, there seemed little space to showcase these latest garden novelties.

stuart-plants-and-gardens-2David Stuart in his book The Plants that Shaped our Gardens writes, “When Lady Grenville, in exasperation [about where she would plant the new flowers coming into England from around the world], cut some large circles of the lawn in front of her drawing-room windows, and filled them with scarlet bergamots, blue salvias or yellow cosmos, she broke a century’s taboo, and started a colossal new movement.”

That was 1825. The garden has not been its old eighteenth century version since.

Here a simple act by Lady Grenville, or rather by her gardener, changed gardening.

Late eighteenth century landscape gardener Humpry Repton (1752-1818) had encouraged flowers in the landscape, even suggesting a rosarium for a rose collection. Flowers were not new. What was new was where they were planted in the landscape.

Flower beds on the lawn then became common practice both in England and America.

By 1880 Rochester, New York seedsman James Vick (1818-1882)  took flower beds for granted. The beds on the lawn, he advised, needed to include annuals that bloom for the entire season. 

He wrote, “A few flower beds may be made, and usually near the borders, or opposite windows, and they should be of simple, graceful forms, and look well the whole summer, and every day and all day.”

Lady Grenville’s example illustrates how sometimes what we take for granted in gardening has a history.

Why we garden in a particular way and with certain plants expresses the culture of a particular time and place.

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