What is an “English Garden”? We all know the answer don’t we? Especially in 2016 The Year of the Garden. Even though not all of the readers of this blog are in England I’m sure the words “English Garden” conjure up familiar and comfortable images in your mind. Maybe grand herbaceous borders or expansive Capability Brown landscapes…maybe cottage gardens stuffed with roses and hollyhocks or neatly trimmed lawn with croquet hoops… box topiary, stone urns and lead statues…suburban bedding plants or workday productive allotments? Actually maybe defining an English garden isn’t quite that simple after all.
The question came to mind when I saw this garden a couple of days ago…
and read this description of it….
“Lawns, generous mixed borders planted with annuals and perennials, winding paths and scented rose-filled alleyways are just a few of the features of this new … garden, a contemporary re-interpretation of the traditional English garden.”
Since most of the garden looked nothing like my idea of a typically English garden, after a little giggling, I was left feeling rather bemused and began to wonder if actually I had any idea of what I was talking about. So then I thought best to check out what other people thought and think, so read on to find out about some possible interpretations of what makes “an English Garden”…
I should stress that this post is not meant to be, in any sense an attempt to define what the term “an English Garden” might encompass, but just some slightly random thoughts about the whole idea. What I discovered first, of course, is that “an English Garden” can mean almost all things to almost all people.
It certainly seems to mean that to Visit England our national tourist organization. As part of 2016 the Year of the English Garden it has chosen 20 gardens to represent the best. Of course they might mean gardens in England rather than using ‘English Gardens’ as a stylistic tag, but leaving that little problem aside, their selection is a pretty varied bunch – From Alnwick and Beth Chatto’s via Biddulph and Blenhheim, Dixter, Kew and Levens to Stourhead, Stowe and Tresco Abbey – which show just how diverse gardens in England can be.
The full list is at:
But can we get a bit closer to an understanding of the phrase in its stylistic sense. Lets start with the highly respected contemporary garden writer, Ursula Buchan who in 2006 wrote a book called The English Garden. In it she explained the historical trends and the work of garden makers of the past that have shaped the gardens we see in England today. She described many garden styles – formality, the landscape tradition, the Arts and Crafts style, the cottage garden and recent phenomena such as New Naturalism. And then she considered colour, water, ornament and foreign influences as well as such defining characteristics as the very English urge to grow flowers and the nation’s love of roses. After all this she summed up what defines an English garden as “informal and generous planting within a formal layout.” “Geometry” she said has been “the guiding principle… with plants undermining, ever so slightly, the purity of line.”
How does that fit in with this description in another book called The English Garden and published in 2015 by Jim Lewis, an American writer? An English garden is, he says, “like nature, only better. Nature with all the awkward bits smoothed out. And then picturesque, like a landscape painting.” Although that strikes me as much less inclusive and much more like a description of simply the English landscape garden, without taking account of the other strands of English garden history, it has the merit of being a coherent attempt at definition.
I suppose one of the problems is that we live in an age when much of our life can be classified, measured and easily pigeon-holed. That leads to a desire to classify, measure and pigeon-hole everything, including those things which naturally are more informal chaotic and unmeasurable. Maybe the English garden is something that falls into second category which makes defining what it is – or isn’t – more difficult and tortuous.
Clearly, however, not everybody feels the same way. “Nothing is easier than designing an English Garden while you enjoy your home or before selling it! If you go to your local gardening store and ask them what to buy they should be totally helpful!” Needless to say the writer isn’t English with a good traditional nursery nearby or even a B&Q or Homebase as their local gardening store, but a glitzy estate agent in southern California. While we might laugh initially, I wonder if we’d be any better at outlining the principles of a Californian garden to a British audience?
Yet more apparently serious sources also think the elements that make up an English garden can be classified. Here, for example, are some crucial points from the University of Vermont’s guide to designing an English Garden. The “natural feeling they evoke” makes them “look as if no planning was necessary” although it is. So, first choose a palette of 3 or 4 colours, then group plants together “without being symmetrical” in borders “often three feet or more wide and very curvy.” But because “An English garden is all about surprise” you don’t have to stick to that rigidly. Finally you need to add the “accessories” or “the structures” or “the whimsy.” These could be a gate, a clematis-covered trellis or a water feature, but it could also be a frog statue or some antique watering cans.
And, of course, garden designers the world over think they know what makes an “English Garden”. Here are a few examples…
“The choices are endless because the only real rule is to plant densely.”
“The large lawn and stately trees are the starting point” for an English garden. “There’s a sense of flow between every part of the garden rather than separation.” But the key feature is “lush greenery”.
“It starts with the lawn. Just think of the opening credits of the popular British television series Downton Abbey and that vast expanse of green surrounding the castle estate of the Crawley family.”
“Around here, it means a highly structured, manicured, high maintenance, landscaped yard.”
There are even advice sites telling you how to set up “an English Garden” step by step.
I’ve found Russian ideas about what it means…
and even instructions on how to make an English garden in Thailand.
Indeed Youtube is full of such delights…
But my favourite has to be :”Actually, I didn’t really know what an “English garden” was until I checked the internet on Tuesday morning.” Would that all questions could be answered that easily!
Obviously I’ve been more than a little selective but there is a serious question to answered: can an English garden be defined?
Where better to check that possibility than the OED. There an English garden is defined as “(originally) an informal garden created so as to produce the effect of natural scenery, esp. one with undulating parkland, serpentine lakes, and open vistas, such as those designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (c1716–83); (later also) an informal cottage garden, typically stocked with colourful flowering plants.” So does that bring clarity? Maybe! What the OED does is offer 2 distinct interpretations, but with the important “originally” and the “later also” to make sure the reader understand that the definition has evolved and perhaps continues to do so.
Perhaps one way forward is to consider the first specific usage of “English garden” as a stylistic descriptor, rather than just another way of saying gardens in England. We might be surprised to discover that according to the OED this does not happen until 1771 and then by a Frenchman. Horace Walpole wrote from Paris “English gardening gains ground here… There is a Monsieur Boutin, who, has tacked what he calls an English garden to a set of stone terraces.” [Walpole’s Letters, 5th Aug 1771]. That is reinforced by a similar contemporary French reference to the Parc Monceau in Paris “being laid out as long ago as 1778…as ‘an English garden’.” [William Robinson, Gleanings from French Gardens .]
This ties in with what as Alicia Amherst said in her influential A History of Gardening in England of 1896: “by the end of the 18thc landscape gardening had become the recognized National style of gardening of England and it was copied widely on the continent…’English gardens’ became the fashion and books were written abroad to extol the English taste, and invite other nations to copy it.” But she points out that “on the Continent one thing was lacking, which was the redeeming point of all these landscapes, and that was the green turf. Nowhere is the grass so green and fair as in England.” So maybe the spirit of the English garden is to do with green lushness and verdure after all? Or at least that when we use the phrase English garden we have just forgotten to add the word “landscape” in the middle. But that’s way off the American usage outlined above, which seems to be more about some imaginary formalised cottage garden – if such a thing is possible. It also seems to be far away from the garden I had just seen which fits neither of the OED definitions, even remotely.
My immediate thoughts about the contemporary take on the ‘English garden’ that I started with, was, that even if it was supposed to be typical it was only typical of a particular England. It has reminiscences of Gertrude Jekyll’s corner of England where gardens were carved out of the sandy heathland and light birch-filled woodlands of Surrey. So maybe Gertrude herself has something to say on what makes a garden specially English?
In Some English Gardens, [with illustrations by George Elgood and published in 1904. For more on Elgood see previous post at http://wp.me/p4brf0-6Gn ] she looks at a series of gardens many of which have large elements of the then fashionable neo-Italianate style. But talking of Brockenhurst, a newly completed garden, she says that while the principles of Italian gardens may be imported, “what is right and fitting in Italy is not necessarily right in England” and “they cannot be compelled or coerced, so whether or not this is the kind of gardening best suited for England maybe open to doubt.” Gardens have to fit their locations and while the geometry can be imposed, it must be adapted it to local circumstances.
A quick search through several of Jekyll’s other books did not yield any detailed indication of her views on what particularly constitutes an English garden in stylistic terms. However Since Some English Gardens also includes a selection of gardens from Scotland and Ireland perhaps Jekyll was implying that the gardens she was describing were English in style – which given the examples she chose means English versions of Italianate! Of course that’s not particularly surprising since as Robin Lane Fox wrote: “The grand old lady of English gardening had been formed by un-English travels” [Financil Times, 4th Feb 2011].
You can find Some English Gardens in full at:
Yet the idea of an English Garden having a separate identity must have been well understood in the 19thc because , for example, Paxton and/or his pupil and associate Edward Milner designed an English garden for the Crystal Palace when it moved to Sydenham. This acted as a counterweight to the much better known Italian Garden. Now long gone Illustrated London News was delighted to discover that Leaving the “stately luxury” of the Italian gardens behind the visitor encountered “an old English green, a coppice or a wild dell” just down the path. An ‘informal’ “English Garden” was also laid out – again next to a ‘formal’ Italian one – in Regents Park in the 1860s.
The idea of the English garden as a separate entity received another significant boost in the public mind when it was taken up by Col JJ Sexby, the pioneering head of Parks for the London County Council. He modified it somewhat but laid out a series of what he called Old English Gardens in the new wave of public parks that were being opened across the capital. Others followed in this tradition in suburban areas as local authorities created new public green spaces, often in the walled gardens associated with mansions and small estates that were being taken over and adapted. [More on Sexby and his work in another post soon]
BUT and its a big BUT none of the examples I’ve looked at really much resemblance to the garden that sparked the question in the first place. Of course, Now is the time that I should confess that it wasn’t designed by anyone English. Indeed it isn’t even in England but in the new permanent show grounds of the contemporary Garden festival at the Chateau of Chaumont-sur-Loire. These are laid out in the remnants of a beautiful 19thc cedar-filled parc anglais – another interestingstylitsic appropriation.
The new garden was designed by the staff at the horticultural college that’s based at the château and that run the festival there. Its sits across the way from a contemporary Chinese garden designed by Yu Kongjiang, head of the Landscape Department at Beijing University and not far from several contemporary Japanese gardens designed by three prominent Japanese landscape architects.
Maybe that says a lot. I can’t imagine there would be many Europeans confident enough to try and lay out an authentic Chinese, or Japanese garden, but for some reason everyone thinks they know what an English garden is…even if, like me, they probably don’t!
Final thought: maybe the simple answer is one designer’s much more pragmatic and straightforward definition: “An English garden is simply a garden that is designed to look like it grows in the British Isles.”