Plot­ting the course of history

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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

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