Gardens down the Centuries - at Home and Abroad

Our speaker on 8th March was the local historian Anna Hallett and she opened her talk by asking "What is a Garden"? Dictionary descriptions vary - perhaps: "A piece of land screened off, whether controlled or natural". For example, a verge in Framingham town centre is a sort of garden.

Gardens through time

Changing fashions have always dictated garden design. The gardens of Classical Rome and Pompeii were usually designed around seating, sheltered by pillars, with water in basins and with an open roof. There are examples at Herculaneum and at Tivoli, near Rome where Hadrian retired to his villa, and at Fishbourne in Sussex where excavations revealed the roots of plants left by a hedge. There was often also very formal hedging with bowers and mosaics.

Medieval gardens can be seen in artwork. Privacy was considered desirable, with walled gardens and raised beds, 'estradas' and trellis work. Queen Elanor's garden, in Winchester, is a good example. Grass covered seats were also popular. At Mulchelney, in Somerset, the Monk's garden contains herbs and plants for cooking, dying and medicinal uses. Other examples include gardens in Bologna and Leiden.

The Clock court at Hampton Court is a good exaple of a Tudor garden. Cardinal Wolsey put the images of the Royal Beasts on poles, making ten statues of royal heraldic supporters: the Golden Lion of England, the Red Dragon of Wales, the Black Bull of Clarence and seven others.

Areas of grass that had been left uncut were sprinkled with flowers to create a 'jewel' effect, although the grass might occasionally be cut with scythes. At Kenilworth Castle, the gardens were formal and included statues and a water feature. This garden is best seen from the castle walls to appreciate its pattern. The re-creation of this Tudor garden was controversial. It had been lost for 400 years until English Heritage commissioned experts from the on-line block-building game 'Minecraft' to re-create it. Kenilworth also had an aviary; described by Robert Langham, an official who sneaked in whilst the queen was hunting!

The garden at Kew Palace, in London, behind where George III lived in later life is very controlled, exemplifying a formal style of the 17th century with hedges around areas of planting. Very labour intensive. Anna said that a friend of hers attempted to create a Knot Garden but found it very hard to keep up. The vista is low and the plan is better appreciated from the 1st floor of a house.

An 18th century concept was that of a 'controlled wilderness', such as at Ham House, near Kew Gardens. These incorporated hard and soft features, often with water, highlighting the importance of reflections and the playful use of light, rather than static displays. An example is the pond at Rousham House in Oxfordshire. The Egyptians and Romans made use of such 'rills' where water goes round and enables irrigation.

Hard features included fountains and the sound of running water was also important. In the 18th century garden at Hafod, near Aberystwyth, there is tumbling water. At that time the word 'awesome' was often used to describe such features: in the sense of being in awe of nature. Other hard features might include statues; of gods, goddesses, shepherds, Pomona (Roman goddess of harvest), Venus and the nymph Daphne. The National Trust property at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire, has the statue of a Shepherd Boy.

Classical temples were popular. Aristocratic young men on the 'Grand Tour' brought back artefacts and ideas. Sometimes those items sent on home would be lost in a shipreck or robbed at sea. Not all arrived safely home (see Stowe, Buckinghamshire). The current political scene might be reflected by the owners who, whether Tories or Whigs, were often competitive. Hard features might be of iron work; for example at Melbourne Hall, in Derbyshire, the Palace of Versailles (which is very grand), Kensington Palace, Hampton Court and many others.

Boscobel, in Shropshire, contains areas for privacy. In Holland, the Royal Garden contains infills of red grit to contrast with the greenery. Plants were separated from each other to demonstrate their singularity; rather than all bunched together (which was a later fashion). The Tradescants and other travellers such as Captain James Cook brought back plants from overseas. King William and Queen Mary had many plants. William was asthmatic and disliked London, he preferred to live at Hampton Court.

The 'Clairevoyer' was another landscaping feature, opening the garden to the sky and revealing the countryside beyond the boundary. Derived from the great classical gardens of Europe, this device was also used in Renaissance paintings - for example the Mona Lisa and some Madonnas. In the 18th century, the Capitol at Rome gave views over the ruins.

In Tivoli, the tempietto inspired the Adam brothers. The grounds at the National Trust's property of Stourhead, in Wiltshire, include several structures inspired by the Grand Tour; including an obelisk of 1839 and a temple of Apollo based on a circular temple at Baalbec. Shugborough also has a 'follies' trail where, amongst others, one can see Hadrian's Arch, the Shepherds Monument and the Tower of the Winds. Bridges were popular, as seen at Wilton near Salisbury, the house inspired by Palladio; this was copied at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Prior Park in Bath. Chatsworth House has many water features, with three artificial lakes and fountains, including 'The Emporer'. There is also a 'weeping tree' of brass and a 'willow' which rains from leaf and branch. All of these demonstrate the ingenuity of the water engineers.

Unsurprisingly, Dutch gardens featured much water and Westbury Court in Gloucestershire has a Dutch-style water garden, a pavillion dating from 1700 and magnificent canals; one of which is 450 ft long. There are also grottos, made from shells at Painshill in Surrey, while the one at Hawkestone Park in Shropshire is carved from sandstone and was once encrusted with shells and fossils. Another influence came from China, for example a house and a bridge at Shugborough and at Stowe.

The next fashion trends were in the herbaceous border; with auricular alpine plants, related to the common primular, and with ferns. There is also an auricular theatre at Caulke Abbey. In the late 19th and early 20th centures the architect Edwin Lutyens and the garden designer Gerturde Jekyll worked together on several projects. Anna showed illustrations of the Gerturde Jekyll gardens at Lindisfarne Castle in Northumberland, and at Hidcote in Gloucestershire.

At Trentham in Staffordshire, a modern planting scheme by the Dutch garden designer Piet Oudolf is set against the historic parkland. He uses herbaceous perennials and grasses, chosen for structure in addition to colour. The Eden Project in Cornwall is another place to visit and discover a contemporary evocation of a garden.

Anna's presentation was impressive, clearly showing her extensive knowledge of gardens and their history. The illustrations which she showed us of gardens, both here and in Europe, reinforced her talk; which was both inspiring and informative, detailing some of the local and National Trust properties that can be enjoyed by all of us.

Lorna Bushell
March 2023