History of English Gardens – Ursula Buchan

IMG_0501eOn May 17th we welcomed Ursula Buchan to our meeting. Ursula is a garden author and journalist who has written for the Spectator, Observer and Telegraph amongst other publications, although she is currently concentrating on writing a biography of her grandfather, John Buchan.  Ursula took us on a whistle stop journey which demonstrated the extraordinary richness of English gardens throughout history.Slide4

She highlighted major trends in garden design and showed the way in which gardens in all ages have been greatly influenced by the culture and philosophy of the time.  It was particularly useful to see examples of gardens from the various periods, all of which are open to the public.

We learnt that during Saxon times gardens consisted of orchards and other food production areas. Following the Norman conquest gardens in monasteries and royal palaces included some flowers and herbs and were places for contemplation and spiritual refreshment. After the 1530s the gardens created by royalty and rich landowners reflected their wealth and influence. Lyveden, near Oundle, the mysterious garden started by Sir Thomas Thresham is an example from this time. During the Elizabethan period it was fashionable to create raised terraces so that the garden could be viewed from above as at Kenilworth Castle and Hatfield where the knot garden is a major feature.  Following the Restoration the influence of the French garden designer Le Notre could be seen in the fashion for parterres which were really an extensive version of the knot garden – Bramham Park, Melbourne Hall and Levens Hall provide good examples of this style of garden. 

During the reign of William and Mary the Dutch style of gardening with strong lines, rectilinear canals, statuary and pavilions was popular in country estates and can be seen at Wrest Park, Bedfordshire, Westbury Court in Gloucestershire and Boughton House in Northamptonshire. The landscape movement of the early eighteenth century was an extreme reaction to the formality of the seventeenth century Baroque gardens.  There was a desire to get away from the straight lines. Water features became serpentine, classically inspired temples and monuments abounded, small cascades, secret woodland walks and an emphasis on light and shade was the fashion.  Lancelot Brown, Charles Bridgeman, William Kent and Humphrey Repton dammed rivers to create lakes, moved earth to create vistas and used the ha-ha to blend the garden into the idealised landscape.  Gardens became full of allusions as at Stowe where Kent created the Elysian fields and Temple of Worthies and Brown created the Grecian Valley.  Other examples from this time can be seen at Rousham, Audley End, Petworth and Blenheim Palace.  Repton, of course, provided his Red Book for clients so that they could see a “before” and “after” view of their garden. The Picturesque movement followed whereby landscapes were designed to imitate the “fierceness” of nature with grottos and exotic rather than native trees.

In the early Victorian gardens plants from South Africa and North America, often brightly coloured, became fashionable and as labour was cheap and glasshouses could provide a suitable environment for propagation Spring and Summer bedding took off.  Examples of this type of planting can be seen at Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire and the Pond Garden at Hampton Court.  With the proliferation of the plant hunters in the nineteenth century many new and exciting shrubs and trees were introduced into Britain and thrived in the acidic soils and mild, damp climate of the South West. Camellias, magnolias, azaleas and rhododendrons can be seen in abundance at Lanhydrock, Heligan, Trebah and Exbury.   

The Arts and Crafts Movement was one of the most influential design movements of modern times; it began in Britain around 1880. It established a new set of principles for living and working and placed value on the quality of materials and design.  Edwin Lutyens was a well know architect of the time who often worked in collaboration with the garden designer Gertrude Jekyll.  They emphasised the use of local materials to create ponds and pergolas and Jekyll is remembered for her radiant colour and brush-like strokes of her plantings.  Examples of their design can be seen at Hestercombe in Somerset and Upton Grey in Hampshire.  Cottage gardens proliferated and in smaller gardens flowers and herbs were grown alongside fruit and vegetables. On a grander scale prolific planting can be seen at Vita Sackville West’s garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent and Lawrence Johnson’s garden at Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire.  The cottage gardens, where thrift and self sufficiency abounded, were the fore runners of today’s organic gardens.

Moderism arrived from the Continent – gardens were designed to be seen from different view points and there was interconnectivity between house and garden.  John Brookes developed ideas for small gardens. Designer and plantsmen Piet Oudolf used bold drifts of herbaceous perennials and grasses, examples of his designs can be seen at Pensthorpe, Norfolk and Trentham Gardens in Staffordshire. Contemporary garden designers such as Tom Stuart -Smith at Broughton Grange in Oxfordshire, Beth Chatto in Essex show respect for the environment with emphasis on sustainability and bio-diversity.  Planting now tends to be looser and there is an emphasis on native flowers, attractive to insects as demonstrated in the Olympic Park in 2012.  Alongside this is the earth sculpturing work of Kim Wilkie as seen in “Orpheus” at Boughton House, Northamptonshire. Modern technology and geotextiles have enabled gardens to move upwards onto walls and roof terraces.

Ursula concluded her talk by saying that “there is very little new under the sun” and gave as an example the ambitious garden at Alnwick Castle in Northumberland featuring the massive water fall – very like the cascade at Chatsworth in Derbyshire created in the seventeenth century. The same fundamental principles underpin all successful gardens.  This was a very informative guide to the history of gardens in this country.  Many of us had visited a number of the gardens highlighted and it is always good to learn of other exciting gardens to explore on our travels around Great Britain. 

We were delighted to welcome a large number of guests to this meeting – we hope they enjoyed the talk and the home-made cakes. Guests and new members are always welcome.  Our next meeting will be on Tuesday 21st June when Andrew Mikolajski will be talking about The Gardens at York Gate Leeds.

                                                                                                        Linda Truscott


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