An ob­ses­sion with greensward Gar­den history

Roy Strong ap­plauds the pub­li­ca­tion of the long-awaited de­fin­i­tive book on the English for­mal gar­den

Country Life Every Week - - Books -

'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)

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