Plotting the course of history
Most modern politicians have fought shy of gardening – although many historic decision-makers were notable garden-makers. By Tim Richardson
Gardening, so the adage goes, is what people do when they have failed in politics. A version of this hoary idea was liberally sprayed around by the press at the time of the Labour leadership election last month – if Jeremy Corbyn lost, pundits said, he can always go back to tending his allotment, just as Ken Livingstone apparently found solace in his garden after he lost the mayoral election for the second time in 2012.
Mr Corbyn won, of course – but there is no sign, yet, of him giving up on the gardening.
The origin of this little aperçu about gardening and political failure is obscure, but I suspect it can be traced back to 1759 and Candide, a satirical novella by the French philosopher (and keen gardener) Voltaire. In this fable, after witnessing numerous instances of human cruelty, Candide and his companions decide that a simple life with no involvement in the wider world is the best option, with Candide insisting at the close: “It is necessary that we cultivate our garden.”
Candide’s decision represents a retirement of sorts and a curtailment of worldly ambition – but it’s not necessarily an admission of defeat.
Voltaire’s satiric barb was firmly directed at the contemporary political and military establishment. The idea of “rural retreat” was promoted as admirable and honourable by ancient writers such as Cicero and Horace, and accepted thereafter by anyone with a classical education.
In the 1720s the great landscape garden of Studley Royal, in Yorkshire, was created by John Aislabie after he was cashiered and briefly imprisoned for his role (as Chancellor of the Exchequer) in the South Sea Bubble stock market crash. The symbolism in his garden reflected the original ideals of the Whig party and the Glorious Revolution – a riposte to the corruption he had seen (and been involved with).
After 1733 Lord Cobham of Stowe vented his rage at Prime Minister Robert Walpole’s taxation plans by transforming his garden into a sustained symbolic satirical attack. He had been sacked from the government for his off-message views and found that the only safe way he could express himself was through the ornamentation of his estate.
These were not the pathetic gestures of deranged hobbyists, but the actions of honourable statesmen wishing to make their views known.
For centuries, garden-making had been an established political tactic for the powerful as well as the powerless. Henry VIII advertised his lineage by means of gilded heraldic beasts atop striped poles in gardens at Hampton Court, while in France Louis XIV instructed André Le Nôtre to fashion the gardens of Versailles as a paean to his own glory. The fact that the French Army was deployed to create