An obsession with greensward Garden history
Roy Strong applauds the publication of the long-awaited definitive book on the English formal garden
'The publication will remain the cornerstone of all future studies’
Gardens of Court and Country
David Jacques (Yale, £45)
This is the book for which serious historians of garden history in this country have been waiting. There were moments when i feared that the author, who will be 70 next year, would end up as the most knowledgeable unpublished authority on gardens in England between 1630 and 1730 in the cemetery, but, no, for, at last, here it is, the magnum opus, the fruit of some four decades of both archival and on-the-ground research brought together in one magisterial work. The result is a triumph and a publication that will remain the cornerstone of all future studies.
Yale has quite rightly not stinted either on the design or the quantity of illustrations, many—in particular, the garden plans and estate maps—seen for the first time. Overall, the book is a monument as to how far the history of gardening as an academic subject has travelled since the first serious emergence of it in the late 1960s and, more particularly, after ‘The Garden’ exhibition at the V&A in 1979.
it is a topic that has been colonised by both literary and art historians. Both have made major contributions, but, although the author takes all of that into consideration, one is struck by how important it is to grasp the political and economic factors that both drove and affected the makers of these stupendous domains, which could, in the case of a place such as Blenheim, extend to more than 70 acres.
By the close of the story, about 1730, the garden tentacles have burst out of an already enormous but geometrically confined space and begun to extend through vast tracts of an entire estate. Chatsworth, Cannons, Wanstead, Castle howard, Wrest and a litany of others are gardens about power and status as blatant in their assertion as the houses that formed their focal point. The latter emerge as dots on the estate map compared with the vast orchestration of nature made to attend upon such residences.
The true makers, as David Jacques points out, are not the architects, designers or contractors, but the owners. What was created was a reflection of predilections formed by books, travel and visits to other gardens, not to forget friendly banter on social occasions with equals in the field.
Prof Jacques takes up the story in the aftermath of the devastation of the Civil War and ends it in the reign of George i, the Augustan age. he pinpoints inborn English predilections: the love of bowls, prospect, grass and water along with a distrust of flashy in-your-face French show. There remained at the heart a Puritan love of plain good English turf. The whole story of these masterpieces can almost be written in terms of nothing but swathes of grass. how ironic that our obsession with greensward descends from turf cut into pattern as a form of parterre finally transmuted into that English garden icon, the lawn.
Through this century, one sees the garden spread ever outward so that it gradually dismembers itself. What was once the entrance gate to a courtyard in front of the house migrates to become the entrance to the whole estate, signalling another world. And that world was to be governed, by 1730, by the new pictorialism of Alexander Pope and Lord Burlington dissolving the old geometric boundaries and scattering its elements as incident across a wider domain.
it was, as Prof Jacques writes, the ‘collective reimagining of the English landscape by Classically educated owners as Greek or Roman’. The scene was set for Capability Brown.
A bird’s-eye painting of Badminton House by Thomas Smith (1710)