A few weeks ago I visited the Nichols House Museum, the 1804 townhouse on Beacon Hill in Boston that was from 1885 until 1960 the home of Rose Standish Nichols, landscape gardener, suffragist and pacifist.
That day I was fortunate enough to examine her extensive library filled with history and landscape books.
Nichols’ book English Pleasure Gardens, written in 1901, fascinated me and so I wanted to visit her home. I had read the book in the new edition published by David Godine.
Toward the end of the book she wrote: “All sorts of gardens exist in England today. To classify them is almost impossible, but broadly they may still be separated into two divisions–the naturalistic and the formal.”
That division emerged in the early 1700s in England when a rejection of the formal garden took center stage with certain members of the English aristocracy.
Garden writers like Horace Walpole (1717-1797) prefered the new more natural approach and landscape gardening in that form captured the imagination of English gardeners. Walpole wrote the first and most influential history of garden design, The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening a defense of the new taste for the picturesque or natural style of gardening.
That is the tradition that Nichols discussed in her book. In introducing William Robinson’s book The Wild Garden (first published in 1870) she wrote: “The main object of W. Robinson’s wild garden is to make the plantation look natural.”
One might argue that the division continues to this very day. We see gardens here in America more natural, and also gardens still designed in a formal style.