Nan Fairbrother (1913-1971), a writer and lecturer on landscape architecture and land use has written a book (Men and Gardens) that details the history of garden design in Britain from the Dark Ages through to the Victorian era. Her love of gardening and of writing is plainly evident in this book, especially garden writing from the early 17th century. That period’s gardens too seem to be her favourites.
It is filled with quotations and references from the various eras that provide an insight to the spirit of the times covered that help to understand the changes that gardening has undergone over the past thousand or so years. The various garden periods, and their styles, can be confusing to us and Ms. Fairbrother’s book goes a long way to clearing up some of that confusion. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to gardeners.
The book was originally published in Britain by Hogarth Press (1956), of Bloomsbury fame (founded by Leonard and Virginia Woolf): the copy that I have is published by Lyons and Burford (31 West 21st Street – New York, NY – 10010) in association with Horticulture magazine (800-234-2415).
Included here are two excerpts, one a look at the gardens of Tudor England, the other dealing with Louis XIV’s monumental garden (if that is the word) at Versailles, designed by the famous French garden designer André Le Nôtre.
For French words and phrases you might try Google Translate.
View along the Allee d’Eau by Jean-Baptiste Martin, the Elder, 1693. The Bassin de Neptune and the Bassin du Dragon are in the foreground, and the groves of the Arc de Triomphe and the Trois Fontaines are also shown.
The Sun King’s Garden, Bloomsbury (www.bloomsbury.com).
The Sun King’s Garden, Bloomsbury (www.bloomsbury.com).
Men and Gardens
Les Jardins de l’Intelligence (excerpt)
There is a pleasant story how one fine day four friends drove to Versailles in the same carriage, made a tour of the gardens (avoiding the water surprises), then sat down beneath the trees to listen to a poem in praise of the beauty of the place. The friends were Moliere, Racine, Boileau, and La Fontaine, who wrote the verses, and I dare say no other carriage has ever carried such a load of genius. For Versailles was a magnet which drew the talents of the age: Moliere wrote plays for the garden fetes, Lully composed music, Le Brun designed scenery, and Le Notre created green theatres in the bosquets. There is a painting of one of these performances, which were often the central point of the royal entertainments. It is warm night and leafy summer. The stage is brilliant under the high shadowy trees, the faces of the watchers vivid against the darkness. To English eyes the scene is unmistakably Romantic, and the play we think of in such a setting is The Tempest, with Prospero’s poetry, Ariel and the island full of noises, and the loves of Ferdinand and Miranda like a forced exotic flower.
But it is not The Tempest they are watching in their green enchanted theatre, nor Milton’s Comus nor Ben Jonson’s Sad Shepherd. Instead it is that level-headed satire to banish all dreams of summer nights, Moliere’s Le Malade lmaginaire.
Most of us nowadays have an unquestioned idea of a garden as a place for growing flowers. But it is a humble conception, and we must get rid of it before we go to Versailles or we shall certainly be disappointed. Versailles is not a garden in this sense, but rather a work of art which uses plants as its medium, as a painter uses the appearance of objects, and a poet the words of human speech. Like most other mediums of art, it is impure: gardens can be used for growing flowers in, as words are used to state facts and painting to illustrate views. But none of these functions is art. Of all the mediums of artistic expression, only music is pure in this sense that it has no other meaning, and all art, says Pater, “constantly aspires towards the condition of music. For while in all other kinds of art it is possible to distinguish the matter from the form, and the understanding can always make this distinction, yet it is the constant effort of art to obliterate it.” So that it is as perverse to go to Versailles to look at the plants as to use Cezanne’s landscapes as guide-book illustrations to Provence, or Shelley’s “Ode” as a scientific statement of the habits of the skylark. We must think of Versailles as music. The great central vista is the main theme, an untroubled progress to the horizon, simple, noble, and mysterious. Then there are variations, developments, lesser themes, smooth passages of water, gay effects of flowers, fanciful interludes in the bosquets. But all is music, calm and confident, with no doubtful effects or random charms, no chance felicities which may or may not succeed. We share the intellectual tranquility of perfection, a conviction of the inevitably right, which sways our spirits to peace, as Duns Scotus swayed Hopkins.
But I am incurably English. I do not like Versailles except to think about at a distance. I do not particularly enjoy the sensation of being what Corneille calls saoul de gloire; for me the peace too easily becomes boredom. I believe that Le Notre is the greatest of gardeners, but it is a judgement outside my personal liking.
“The basis of all artistic genius” (it is Pater again) “lies in the power of conceiving humanity in a new and striking way, of putting a happy world of its own creation in place of the meaner world of our common days.” Most modern artists seem to ignore the happy, but certainly Versailles puts a world of its own creation in place of our meaner one. But how does it create this other world? Its finished order may seem inevitable, but even an imitation of the Grand Manner is difficult for those not born to it, as we can see by considering the fussy and pretentious triteness of most public parks and formal gardens laid out in England since the early nineteenth century.
The Theory and Practice of Gardening is a large French treatise credited to Le Blond and translated into English by John James. It is a full and clear account of the principles which underlie Versailles, the rules which Le Notre formulated and followed in the famous gardens which he laid out all over France, and which were copied for the next hundred years by a Europe dazzled with their magnificence.
Le Blond leaves us in no doubt from the beginning about the exalted qualities needed in a good gardener. “A fine Garden,” he says, “is no less difficult to contrive and order well, than a good Building …. A Man should know something of Geometry and Architecture, and be able to draw well; he should understand Ornament, be acquainted with the Properties and Effects of all the Plants made use of in fine Gardens; should design readily; and with all this, have a right Judgement and natural good Taste, form’d upon the Contemplation of Things that are excellent, the Censuring of those that are ill” This is a long way from any English idea of a gardener, and he would certainly dismiss our garden literature as the work of “the very meanest Gardeners, who laying aside the Rake and Spade, take upon them to give Designs of Gardens when they know nothing of the Matter.” Yes. But it is exactly that, the smell of the earth on the spade, that we read their books for.
It is most important, says Le Blond, “to form a right Taste of what concerns the general Disposition of Gardens,” and he gives us “Four fundamental Maxims to be observ’d.”
1 “Art must give place to Nature.” This seems to be a constant claim of all styles of art, however artificial they seem to us, and we should never guess that it was the first fundamental of Versailles. But we can see what he means. Water should be in hollows, woods cover hills, and there should not be too much architecture or ornaments (statues, etc.), since this “has nothing of the Air of Nature, and falls very short of that noble Simplicity we should aim at.”
2 “Gardens should not be made dull and gloomy, by clouding them with Thickets and too much Cover. Fine Openings should be preserved about the Building, and in other places where the Prospect of the Country can be seen to advantage.”
3 “Gardens should not lay too open, so that it is needless to go into them to see them; you discover the whole at one View from the Vestibule of the House without troubling yourself to walk in them. The pleasure of a Garden is to have the View stopt in certain places, that you may be led on with Delight to see the more agreeable Parts of it, as fine Groves of Woodwork, Green-Halls adorned with Fountains and Figures etc. Those great flat Parts rob us of the Woods which make the Contrariety and Change in a Garden, and which alone make all the rest valuable.”
4 “A Garden should always look bigger than it really is.” To show it all at once makes it seem smaller: on the other hand, it is made to seem larger by “artfully stopping the Eye” with hedges, woods, etc., before it reaches the boundary. Also, Prospects should be opened into the surrounding country so that it seems part of the composition.
After these rather general rules Le Blond becomes more explicit.
The length of a garden should be one and a half times the breadth.
The principal walk should lie direct from end to end of the garden in front of the house.
A cross-walk should lie at right angles to it, and all these walks should end in Prospects with “wet ditches” replacing the walls of the garden (long before the ha-has of the eighteenth century).
There should be a descent of at least three steps from the house to give a “general Prospect.”
Before the house should be an open space, laid out as a parterre which can be appreciated from the windows.
The rest of the garden is to be laid out with “Designs of tall Groves, Quincunxes, Close-Walks, Galleries and Halls of Verdure, Green-Arbours, Labyrinths, Bowling-greens, Amphitheatres adorned with Fountains, Canals, Figures etc.”
In the layout there must be careful contrast of flat spaces and raised areas such as woods. To set a grass plot beside a Parterre of flowers, for instance, “would be one gap against another.”
Designs of gardens, although formal, should only be symmetrical “in open Places, where the Eye, by comparing them together, may judge of their Conformity.” Otherwise there should be variety, as groves, for instance, which have the same outward shape, must be different within. “For it would be very disagreeable to find the same thing on both sides; and when a Man has seen one, to have nothing to invite his Curiosity to see the other; which makes a Garden, so repeated, justly reckoned no more than half a Design.”
The general impression of a garden must be magnificent, and “should studiously avoid the Manner that is mean and pitiful, and always aim at that which is great and noble. ‘Twere infinitely better to have but two or three Things somewhat large, than a dozen small ones which are no more than very trifles.” (Alas for the Tudor gardeners!)
“Before the Design of a Garden be put into Execution, you should consider what it will be in twenty or thirty years to come, for very often a Design which looks handsome and of good Proportion when it is first planted, in process of Time becomes small and ridiculous.” For Le Blond is not merely gardening for pleasure, but creating a work of art for posterity.
As he goes on, we begin to understand how Versailles was made, and to realize the intellectual discipline which controls these noble garden landscapes. They should be large, he says; thirty or forty acres is the best size, but even in “so small a Garden as five or six acres” we must still aim at that “Air of Magnificence,” must forgo all fancies and “chuse a plain Regularity, not clutter’d and confus’d, which looks much more noble and great.”
The careful spacing and proportions of walks is of great importance, for “Walks in Gardens, like Streets in a Town, serve to communicate between Place and Place, they conduct us throughout a Garden, and make one of the principal Beauties. The Breadth of Walks should be proportioned to their Length, for in this lies their greatest Beauty.” Short walks must not be too broad, nor long ones too narrow, but the rules of Proportion be exactly observed.
Woods, too, are an “essential Part of a Garden,” for they provide the necessary height and mass to contrast with the flat lawns and flower beds and formal waters. “Woods and Groves make the Relievo of Gardens and serve infinitely to improve the flat Parts. Care should be taken to place them so that they may not hinder the Beauty of the Prospect.”
As for the Prospect – or view, as we should call it – “The Prospect is the most valuable Thing about a Country-Seat. I esteem nothing more agreeable in a Garden than a fine View and the Prospect of a noble Country.” For though we of the twentieth century may grow weary of such constant nobility, man has at last outgrown his garden walls, he no longer shuts himself in with his treasures safe from a hostile world outside, his garden is no longer a retreat, but an expression of the order he can now impose on chaotic nature-“ce plaisir superbe de forcer la nature.” The whole world is his intellectual province, and the vistas to the far horizon are the noblest part of these noble gardens. They imply even more than they declare; offer new realms of knowledge, of opportunity without limit. They are the use of silence and mystery and suggestion. As in the pictures of Claude, this empty space “is the one essential which we remember. We may forget the foreground, we may never have known what subject was intended, but we never forget that mysterious recession into the far distance which is the real subject of Claude’s pictures.
From the children holidaying in France we had excited letters, made even more breathlessly enthusiastic by a most sparing use of punctuation. “Dear Dardy Last night I ate the biggest supper. I ever have. I have had great fun with my butterflies I caught four clouded yellows and four pale clouded yellows another stick insect and another fritillary which is the same as the other and I think they are both heath fritillaries which in England are rare … ” and so on. Then here it is. “I enjoyed Versailles a lot we went in through an arch and saw a beautiful view to begin with there was a blaze of flowers then a long strech of grass after that a lovely lake after that it rather peatered out but there must have been something there sometime because it was so empty-looking.”
Fine vistas, the use of silence, it peatered out – we all mean the same thing, and it is stated with such perfect clarity that it is unmistakable even to a schoolboy preoccupied with catching butterflies and eating large suppers.
As for the details of these gardens, they were often fanciful, for although Poussin might declare that “les plaisirs de l’intelliigence sont les premiers de tous,” everyone’s taste was not so austere, and within the formal framework there were all kinds of frivolous inventions. The bosquets, especially, sheltered a wealth of delightful absurdities which have long since disappeared. “The French call a Grove Bosquet,” says Le Blond (the English spell it Boskett), “from the Italian Word Bosquetto, a little Wood of small Extent; as much as to say, a Nosegay, or Bunch of Green.” Inside these Nosegays were hidden a great variety of constantly changing fancies: mazes and labyrinths with high hedges, grottos and green theatres, and little rooms for open-air meals. There were fountains everywhere: fountains which played music, or balanced balls on their jets, or threw up co loured water; fountains in the shape of trees or rushes, raining water from their leaves; rows of fountains forming arches where one could walk unspotted; fountains which drenched the unwary visitor – the “water-surprises” we know already. “Decidedly it was an ignoble form of humour,” said Henry James later on of a similar practical joke, but, none the less, the Roi Soleil’s courtiers thoroughly enjoyed it. The Trianon de Porcelaine and its garden (they are long since gone) were decorated with plaques and seats and urns in blue and white porcelain, and the flowers which filled its beds were grown in greenhouses in pots which were buried in the soil of the garden and changed every day, so that the scene was always brilliant with flowers at their most perfect. (We cannot help shuddering now at the expense of it all.) There was a Cabinet de Parfums surrounded by sweet-smelling flowers, where one could sit and enjoy a planned harmony of fragrance; this was a fancy which particularly delighted the Eastern ambassadors.
The open walks and parterres were more decorous, and the hedges which bordered them were simply cut. The word parterre, says Le Blond, who has a liking for rather unreliable etymology, “comes from the Italian partiri – to divide.” It is used for a design not unlike the Tudor knots, though larger: a flat bed, generally square, divided into symmetrical patterns which were repeated in each quarter, and planted with low shrubs or flowers divided by narrow paths. “Formerly,” says Le Blond, “they put in the Heads of Greyhounds Griffins and other Beasts; which had a very ill Effect, and made Parterres look very heavy and clouterly.” Curious to see what clouterly translated, I looked up the French version, but there is nothing. “Tres-lourds” it says, and clouterly is James’s own addition to show his scorn of Tudor absurdities. But James often amuses himself quietly, sometimes at the expense of the over-confident Le Blond. Boulingrin is the French version of our word Bowling-green, and is a name they used for a round hollow lawn of grass, often broken up with flower beds. “The Word Bowling-Green or Boulingrin,” says Le Blond, who seems never to have heard of Drake or Plymouth Hoe, “comes to us from England, from two English Words; namely from Bowl, which signifies a round Body; and from Green, which denotes a Meadow, or Field of Grass; probably because of the Figure in which it is sunk, which is commonly round and cover’d with Grass.” James translates without comment.
What the French did admire in our English gardens-and it seems to be the only thing – were our grass lawns. “In England their Grass-plots are of so exquisite a Beauty that in France we can scarce ever come up to it.” It is still true.
But what about flowers in these grand pleasure-grounds? Is there no place for this chief preoccupation of English gardeners? If I ask the children what they would like for lunch on their birthdays, they are always ready with an enthusiastic list of chocolate biscuits, cream cakes, sugar buns, jelly with fruit in, and ice-cream in three different colours. Only very half-heartedly they sometimes add at the end clear chicken soup, or stuffing out of a goose, or sauce with shrimps in it. Children plan their meals in puddings, and the English plan their gardens in flowers. We have the indiscriminate sweet-tooth of the child whose palate has not developed. Yet adults often ignore the pudding altogether, choose cheese instead of ice-cream, and the late great gardens in the French Grand Manner are almost flowerless. For the English gardeners, fine flowers make fine gardens, but for Le Blond it is not so simple. “The fine Lines and Views from one end ‘of the Garden to the other, and the Harmony of the Parts, together with what one discovers in the several Alleys . . . is sufficient to satisfy anyone in its Disposition, Variety, and Distribution of its Ornaments and Water.”
In such a composition flowers have no real place. Their prettiness is a distracting chatter. If they are used in so large a setting they must be massed as uniform blocks of colour, and if we no longer have a sweet-tooth we may prefer the more restrained and suggestive colour schemes of trees and sky and water, as Le Notre did. Parterres, he said, are only good for nursemaids, “qui, ne pouvant quitter leurs enfants, s’y promenaient des yeux et les admiraient du deuxieme etage.”
The treatment of the open space which lies in front of the main facade at Versailles shows how the taste for “noble Simplicity” rejected the fussy formality of parterres. There were at least six different designs before the present perfection was achieved: patterns of beds and borders, elaborate parterres of flowers and hedges and water, topiary, statues and fountains, until at last Le Notre swept it all away and made the two simple parallel pools which still reflect the palace, and surrounded them with reclining statues too low to disturb the clear wide sweep.
Yet some of the green parterres of box have a certain beauty when used against the high walls of the bosquets, whose lower branches are cut back to form a vertical hedge. They give a deep rich texture to the flat ground, like the pile of an elaborate carpet, and they make an interesting foil for the satin-smooth water of the basins. Le Blond warns the Reader “against the Notion some People have got, that Parterres are the most difficult things to invent. Parterres are as small Matters of Invention, compared with the Dispositions and general Distributions of Gardens. All Parterres are near alike. Perhaps the Reason why these Persons make a Mystery of designing a Parterre, is that they are not capable of anything else; and that a general Plan will presently put them to a nonplus.” Which is probably an attack on English gardening books, if he ever bothered to read them.
In his own book no plants of any kind are mentioned until he has written us one hundred and sixty-four pages of Dispositions and general Distributions. Then he begins with trees: horse chestnuts, limes, and elms are the favourites, and for hedges hornbeam is best, then beech or maple. Evergreens are valued highly, and flowering shrubs commonly grown, but any shrubs used in parterres must be clipped ruthlessly low to keep the clear contrast between horizontal parterre and vertical groves. Flowers get only twenty pages, compared with thirty on the use of water in pools and fountains. Le Blond’s garden is no home for flowers, but a strictly disciplined country where they must live by rigid rules if they are to be admitted at all. It is no place for Master Tuggie’s Princess. Even the trees are not allowed to develop their own personality, but must combine in formal avenues and bosquets. Existing woods were disciplined by the cutting of glades in a logical pattern. The goose foot was often used: a plan of avenues radiating from a focus like the toes of a bird. At Chantilly the alleys met at a central view-point, so that anyone standing there could watch an entire stag-hunt through the woods with no more effort than a turn of the head as the hunt crossed each logically radiating glade.
The species of trees chosen for planting are valued for their regularity, and because they will suffer pruning and clipping to form green walls: “These Decorations in Green compose a kind of Order of Field Architecture.” When I saw the avenues at Versailles I recognized again the trees I had seen long ago in Bramham Park, for although Versailles is pruned chestnuts and Bramham freely growing beeches, they are unmistakably of the same race of orderly beings. After the Italian Art Exhibition, so they say, all the fashionable women of London looked like the figure of Botticelli’s “Spring.” I dare say they did, for fashionable women are astonishingly versatile, but it seems even odder that after Le Notre all the fashionable trees of Europe should look like Versailles.
What of this “famous Monsieur Le Nostre” himself, whose “ingenious skill gave the last perfection to Gardening” as Evelyn said? He was born of a well-known family of gardeners, but his training for Versailles was not in grafting rose-trees or layering gillyflowers. He studied first to be a painter-an enthusiasm which never left him, for he collected many fine pictures, especially by Poussin who, as we might guess, was his favourite artist. I also enjoy Poussin in my own way, but I doubt whether it is Le Notre’s way. He reminds me always of fair-grounds. For so often his pictures are constructed in a revolving movement round a central focal point, a stately and inevitable circling in space, like a most wonderfully dignified merry-go-round. And then there are his horses, so nobly posed, so magnificently monumental, the real authentic Grand Manner in the very best sort of rocking-horses.
From painting Le Notre turned to architecture, ·a training which must have suited his formal sense of balance and proportion. But neither of these arts was his proper medium, and eventually he was given a post in the royal gardens, where “la grande capacite qu’il a a dessiner” was soon noticed by Louis XIV. He reduced the haphazard landscape to three main elements: flat ground or water, walls of trees or architecture, and the open sky. With these essentials he composed, eliminating detail, keeping a clear order for the eye and the mind.
On crut qu’il avait Ie pouvoir
De commander a la nature
said La Fontaine.
The Tuileries Gardens were laid out by Le Notre, and though the details have changed since his time, the main plan is still the same. On a stretch of awkwardly sloping land he found an untidy confusion of buildings and gardens which Evelyn describes in one of his letters. There was “a building in which are kept wild beasts for the King’s pleasure, a beare, a wolfe, a wild boare, a leopard etc.” There was also “an artificial echo redoubling the words distinctly, and it is never without some fair nymph singing in it. Standing at one of the focus’s, which is under a tree or little cabinet of hedges, the voice seems to descend from the clouds; at another as if it was underground.” (I wonder if it was as hard to find a nymph to sing to the echo as it was later on to find a hermit to live in the cells in the eighteenth-century wildernesses. And I wonder what songs they sang.)
This engaging muddle of the old Tuileries, Le Notre cleared and levelled and laid out with noble avenues aligned on the palace of the Louvre. But this was not enough. “Il ne pouvait soufffrir ies vues bornees,” said one of his contemporaries, and the outlook from the Tuileries Gardens was bounded by the city wall. So in the waste-land beyond the town he planted avenues of trees which climbed the opposite hill and carried the view calmly and confidently to the horizon – an avenue we still admire as one of the great beauties of Paris, and we call it the Champs-Elysees.
Le Notre, for all his clarity, is an ambiguous figure, for with his stately grandeur of mind went a warm and spontaneous personality. He was generous and straightforward, with simple informal manners and a cheerful enthusiasm in all he did. In an audience with the Pope he was so delighted with the aged prelate that he jumped up and embraced him warmly, a story which astonished the ceremonious French courtiers, but not King Louis, for Le Notre often kisses me, he told them, when I come back from campaigns. And the King seems to have returned his affection, driving with him alone in the park, urging him to come and live at Versailles because he liked his company, giving him a princely pension when he retired, offering him a coat-of-arms. But I have one already, said Le Notre, whose head was not at all turned by his fame: “trois limacons surmontes d’une tete de chou.” But Louis was not to be gainsaid, and presented him with a crest of three silver snails.
For with Le Notre the somewhat unsympathetic figure of the Sun King shows at his most attractive. His delight in his park at Versailles is an enthusiasm every gardener will understand, and, anxious that visitors should come upon its glories in the proper order and see the layout from the view-points best suited to its display, he worked out an itinerary for “doing” the house and grounds (we are reminded of Henry VIII), writing it out in his own large awkward hand. “Maniere de Montrer Versailles: En sortant du chasteau par le vestibule de la cour de marbre. . . . Il faut aller droit sur le haut de Latonne et faire une pause …. Ayant tourne a gauche pour aller passer entre les Sfinx, on ira droit sur le haut de l’orangerie d’ou l’on verra Ie parterre des orangers et le lac des Suisses.” And so on and so on, from one famous view to the next. Yet at the heart of this formal grandeur, warming it with a humanity which can appreciate the inspired common sense of Moliere and the friendly world of La Fontaine’s fables, stands the cheerful figure of Le Notre, the simple happy man whom everyone loved-“plus agreable vieillard qui ait peut-etre jamais ete, toujours gaillard, propre, bien mis, d’un visage agreable, et toujours riant.”
It is an old age which every gardener must hope for.
Men and Gardens
Gardens of Tudor England (excerpt)
We must never say to ourselves that the Middle Ages ended in 1485, so Professor Trevelyan warns us. Well, I had never thought they did, nor at any other particular time for that matter, but since he suggests it, I do see what a very useful date it is, after all. The Wars of the Roses are over and England entering a period of peace under a strong monarchy, the world is suddenly exhilaratingly large and full of promise, the Renaissance has begun in Italy, the printing-press has been invented, and the English language has developed to a stage where we can still read it without difficulty.
Until now great men had felt safer if they lived in castles, or at least in houses which could be strongly defended, and their gardens with them. But when Leland travelled through England under Henry VIII, he found the castles everywhere empty and ruinous and their gardens vanished. For they were uncomfortable places to live in, cramped and cold and dark, and as the climate of peace became more settled, men began to build themselves pleasant manor houses whose only defence was against robbers, and to layout gardens whose worst enemies were small boys stealing apples, as I dare say small boys always will. (“We was scrumping,” they said, when I caught two smudgy culprits scrambling through the orchard hedge with their pockets bulging. “We was scrumping apples in your garden,” they said with disarming candour, and I let them keep their apples in exchange for my new word.)
After the Dissolution the monasteries, too, were often converted to dwelling-houses, and new gardens laid out among the old orchards and fishponds. For the English seem born with a natural love of gardening, and the four million people of Tudor England gardened with the same enthusiasm that they gave to everything else. “Every Gentleman flieth into the country,” said one observer, to hunt and hawk and plan his garden, and pleasure-grounds were laid out everywhere, even, so Stow tells us, in the middle of London. By the seventeenth century “there is scarce a cottage in most of the Southern parts of England, but has its proportionable garden, so great a delight do most of men take in it.”
But what were these gardens like, which everyone delighted in, from cottager to king? The superb gardens of Renaissance Italy still survive for our admiration, but the gardens of Renaissance England can scarcely be called even country cousins of this splendour: they belong to quite a different family.
The English mind has seldom shared the great Classical conceptions. They do not suit us. When we do understand them, it is because we are Europeans and not because we are Englishmen. We seldom feel, even with our finest, even with Gothic architecture or with Shakespeare, that we are in the mainstream of European culture. We cannot trace the current backwards and forwards from Shakespeare, as we can from a much lesser European writer like Montaigne. As Milton says, Shakespeare warbles his “native wood-notes wild.” He is “fancy’s child.” For we have had a power of vital and extravagant fantasy which has produced perhaps the greatest poetry in the world. And it is a strangely universal vitality which keeps alive for more than three centuries King Lear and Falstaff, Herrick’s light fancies and Donne’s intellectual conceits.
But in lesser minds this gift of poetic fantasy becomes merely curious and quaint. Uncontrolled by the fashions of Europe, the lesser productions of England are often merely odd. The strange clothes we designed for ourselves during the isolation of the Napoleonic Wars looked elaborately absurd set beside the French fashions when the wars were over, beside the authentic simple elegance of the Empire nightdresses. And Tudor architects, on the fringe of Europe, lavished their care on extravagantly fanciful chimneys, charmingly barbarous absurdities to build at the same time as the villas of Renaissance Italy. Henry VIII’s Nonesuch Palace was well named, a fantastic top-heavy folly smothered with decoration. I can never more than half believe it existed, even though there are detailed pictures and it was Queen Elizabeth’s favourite palace. It is like the Palace of Sheen, a name so remote and romantic that the solid bricks fade like a mirage in my mind, no more real than a painted gauze curtain, as elusive as the sheen on silk.
Nor were the insides of these mansions any less curious. Aubrey describes the strange house Bacon built at Verulam, with its awkward central chimney, its trick doors of mirror-glass, and its extraordinary decoration of pagan gods and local curiosities. Aubrey is the perfect person to describe it. “There was a very large picture: thus,” he says. “In the middle on a Rock in the Sea stands King James in armour; on his right hand stands (but whether or no on a Rock I have forgot) King Henry IV of France in armour.” We can only hope that poor King Henry did have his rocky pedestal, and we are not surprised that the whole place was “sold to two Carpenters for fower hundred poundes” and that they pulled it down “for the sale of the Materials.”
The houses which have survived are almost equally fantastic and insular. Their planning is mostly haphazard, with no controlling logical conception; they are rich in curious incidental felicities, and, at its best, their decoration is wildly fanciful. At Audley End in Horace Walpole’s time there was still a “Fish room, a spacious brave chamber, the ceiling and deep frieze adorned with sea monsters swimming. There are many grotesque friezes,” and they, just as much as Shakespeare, are our native wood-notes wild. The delightful grotesque carvings at houses like Knole and Audley End owe very little to Europe, with their strange figures, clothed in leaves perhaps, or tailed like a mermaid, and topped by round English faces copied from the village cricket team or the bar parlour. They are a charming mixture of country bumpkin and poetic fantasy, of Bottom and the fairies.
The Tradescants were a family of explorers and collectors well known in the early seventeenth century. “That industrious searcher after rarities” one writer calls the father, and the rarities they “Preserved at South-Lambeth neer London” were the beginning of the Ashmolean Collection now at Oxford. But although they lived in the dawn of modern science, their curiosity was completely unscientific. They had no interest in classification or ordered knowledge, but collected their rarities from a simple childish delight in the quaint and curious; they were attracted by the fantastic as a jackdaw by bright scraps.
Divers sorts of Egges from Turkie: one given for a Dragons egge.
Easter Egges of the Patriarchs of Jerusalem. Two feathers of the Phoenix tayle.
The claw of the bird Rock: who, as Authors report, is able to trusse an Elephant.
Penguin, which never flies for want of wings. Dodar, it is not able to flie being so big. Cat-a-mountaine.
Elephants head and tayle only. Divers things cut on Plum-stones.
A Little Box with the /2 Apostles in it.
Jupiter /0 and Mercury wrought in Tent-stitch.
A nest of fifty-two wooden cups turned within each other as thin as paper.
A Cherry-stone, upon one side S. Geo: and the Dragon perrfectly cut: and on the other side eighty-eight Emperors faces.
Stories cut in paper by some of the Emperors.
Gardens of Tudor England
Flea chains of silver and gold, with three hundred links a piece and yet but an inch long.
Old Parre’s picture.
(I wonder how many of these treasures still survive in the Ashmolean. I would like to see Old Parre’s picture.)
Then follows a Variety of Rarities which, even by John Tradescant’s catholic standards, are difficult to classify.
Instrument which the Indians found at Sun-rising.
A piece of the Stone of Sarrigo-Castle where Hellen of Greece was born.
A Brazen-ball to warme the Nunnes hands. A glasse-horne for annointing kings.
Blood that rained on the Isle of Wight, attested by Sir Jo: Oglander.
Anne of Bullens silke knit-gloves.
Henry 8 hawking-glove, hawks-hood, dogs-collar. A hat-band made of the sting-ray.
Black Indian girdles made of Wampam peek, the best sort. Turkish tooth-brush.
A steel-glasse that shows a long face on one side and a broad on the other.
A copper-Letter-case an inch long, taken in the Isle of Ree with a Letter in it, which was swallowed by a Woman, and found.
Although we should never suspect it from such a collection, Tudor scholarship was already keenly aware of the intellectual Renaissance of Europe. But the arts followed much more slowly, for the intellect can travel fast along the paths of knowledge and reason, but popular taste is a plant which must have time to grow and develop. As our twentieth-century aesthetic has scarcely yet caught up with the Industrial Revolution, so Tudor fashions in the arts (as in gardens and popular museums) followed English styles so vigorous that they flourished untroubled by foreign influences. Fashions from abroad were either ignored, or taken confidently and transformed by our native traditions into “something rich and strange” and very different from the original.
The Renaissance style is still an alien in Tudor England, something rare and foreign, a curiosity brought home by travellers. Here and there we find it on tombs in country churches: a figure of the dead hero reclines on his coffin, beruffed and bearded and knickerbockered, his homely-looking head propped up awkwardly on his elbow, and the whole thing painted, as likely as not, in bright fair-ground colours. And over this very Tudor figure is an elegant white arch decorated in delicate low-relief with the emblems of the Italian Renaissance, and flanked by classical pillars homesick for the sun. The style is no more at home yet than spring bulbs made to flower at Christmas, and we must wait for the proper season before it will grow and flourish.
So the gardens of Tudor England borrowed ideas from Italy, but like the country tombs, they speak Italian with an unmistakable and unrepentant English accent. Their atmosphere is all their own.
The villas of the Italian Renaissance were set in formal garden arrangements of great beauty. The grounds were designed as magnificent backgrounds for magnificent palaces, and man in such surroundings may talk with the gods if he wishes. But Tudor gardens are gardens which children would make for themselves to play in.
One of the charms of children, as of other young animals, is their irresponsible gaiety. They will always play with us. No matter how unlikely the time – wakened in the night perhaps, or crying and in trouble – they will always laugh if we persuade them. They have no feeling for the fitness of the occasion; they would never say, as we do: “This is no time for laughing,” since for them it is always time. They carry no steadying burden of worry or responsibility, but are playful by a natural and unthinking effervescence of high spirits.
So, too, Tudor gardens are delightfully free of any suggestion that life is earnest. They are irresponsibly gay, and as Ophelia turned her sorrows “to favour and to prettiness,” so they turn everything to fun. They delighted kings and commoners alike well into the seventeenth century, when European fashions at last broke through our deep hawthorn hedges, and the great gardens of England become European gardens.
The King was in the counting-house, counting out his money,
The Queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey,
The maid was in the garden ….
Behind the Tudor portraits there are gardens straight from nursery rhyme, where we half expect to see the Knave of Hearts running off with his mother’s baking, leaping over the beds of flowers and silver bells and cockle-shells and pretty maids all in a row. They are gardens full of quaint fancies and naive enthusiasms, of tricks and odd surprises, gay and charming and absurd. As for a controlling plan for the grounds as a whole, there was none. They were laid out, says Thomas Hill, according to the “spirit of the Gardener . . . lead by hops and skips, turnings and windings of his braine . . . by the pleasing of his eye according to his best fantasie.” They cared nothing at all for the intellectual discipline of gardens which were designed as settings for fine architecture. For Tudor gardens were not intended as settings for anything at all but pleasure and the growing of flowers. In any case, they were too small to be a background for the house. The famous garden at Kenilworth was only one acre, and although some of the larger ones covered much more ground than this, it was only by an addition of various small gardens; there was no sense of space or planning. Their ideal garden was laid out so that, passing from one enclosure to the next, it was as if the visitor “had been magically transplanted into a new Garden.” They liked their view, as Sir Henry Wotton says, “rather in a delightful confusion than with any plain distinction of the pieces.”
Certainly the boundary was definite enough-there must be a firm fence or hedge for the “Verge and Girdle of your Garden” -but as for “the inward proportions and shapes of the Quarters Beds Bankes Mounts and such like,” says Surflet, “they are to be divided by Alleys, Hedges, Borders, Rayles, Pillars and such like.” And such like, and such like-you do not create the Boboli Gardens so. He is clearly bored by intellectual problems of layout and planning; each man, he says, must follow his own fancy, and the gardener’s part is to help him follow it, no matter how wayward.
Even the monarchs of these gardens have, at this distance, the same fairy-tale quality of exuberant fantasy – Elizabeth with her orange wig and her learning, Gloriana of the cryptic virginity and the adoration of her poets; and Henry VIII with his six wives, so that I was always astonished, seeing pictures of him when I was a child, that his beard was not a bright and beautiful cornflower blue. But there are many surprises about Henry VIII.
“Bluff King Hal” they have called him, but he wrote charming verse: “Pastime with Good Company” we still sing, or at least listen to. And if that seems a subject so happily in character that it might almost do for his epitaph, he wrote on other, more unlikely themes: tender lyrics of the faithful heart.
As the holy grouth greene
And never chaungyth hew,
So I am, ever hath bene
Unto my lady trew.
Now unto my lady
Promys to her I make,
From all other only
To her I me betake.
I wonder which of his ladies he wrote it for.
Then he was a “pretty” figure, so an onlooker said, watching him play tennis at Hampton Court – “He is extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of finest texture.” I suppose he must once have been a fine young man, but portraits are not of the fine young men, they are of the famous; and the famous are mostly old, or at least middle-aged.
Henry VIII delighted in his gardens at Hampton Court, a pleasure-ground laid out by Wolsey but later seized and enlarged by the envious King, who became so fatherly-proud of his creation that when visitors arrived, even though it was “near night,” he would take them round in the dusk to admire it. There were flower gardens lavishly planted with violets and primroses, gillyflowers and mints, with sweet Williams at threepence per hundred and roses at fourpence. There was the Pond Garden, kept filled by “labourers ladyng of water out of ye Temmes to fyll the pondes in the night tymes,” and still much the same now as it was when the King courted Ann Boleyn there. There was another garden, long since lost, which was full of brass sundials, twenty of them, each set on its own little mound, and costing four shillings and fourpence “the piece.” And there was a Mount, so popular in Tudor gardens, a little artificial hill climbed by a path edged with hawthorn bushes which circled the slope “like turnings of cokil-shells.” On the top there was a summer-house, and judging by the bills for glazing the windows, it must have been quite large enough for a family to live in.
But Henry’s chief delight was in his “beestes”-fantastic carved figures of animals painted and gilt, which sat on the tops of posts set everywhere about the gardens. Often they held banners, and it must all have been very cheerful and very ridiculous. In one small garden alone there were” 11 harts, 13 lions, 16 greyyhounds, 10 hinds, 17 dragons, 9 bulls, 13 antelopes, 15 griffins, 19 leberdes, 11 yallys, 9 rams and the lion on top of the mount.”
Nor was that all, for the flower beds and paths were edged with railings, and these, like the barber’s poles which the beasts sat on, were painted in vivid stripes of green and white, the royal colours. There are bills for painting them by the hundred yards, for there were railings everywhere.
Indeed, the Tudor gardens were as full of ornaments as they were of flowers. Besides an astonishing number of sundials, there were “columns and pyramids of wood,” pilasters and obelisks and spheres and “white bears, all of stone upon their curious bases.” In the garden of the Temple there were the twelve signs of the Zodiac set on posts, and at Whitehall, besides thirty-four heraldic beasts holding the royal arms, there was a “Parnassus Mount, on top of which was the Pegasus, a golden horse with wings, and divers statues, one of black marble representing the river Thames. It far surpasses the Parnassus Mount near Florence.”
There was a great deal, too, of what the gardeners call “carpenters work” – trellises for edging the beds, and frames for training climbing plants over arbours, and the little nooks to sit in which they called “roosting-places.” “RUSTIC SEATS AND PURGLERS” I once saw written on a notice at the gate of a country carpenter, and our pergolas are what the Tudor gardeners called galleries or covered ways. The summer-houses, too, were made by carpenters or even builders. “Banketting-houses” they called them, for they often held banquets there. At Whitehall there was a noble one with a roof painted like clouds, where Elizabeth received “certaine Ambassadors out of France.” These summerhouses are a fine opportunity for interesting chimneys, so Bacon thinks, but Stow disapproves of such extravagant frivolities “like Midsummer pageants,” he says, “with towers and turrets and chimney-tops, not so much for use of profit as for show and pleasure, betraying the vanity of men’s minds; much unlike to the disposition of the ancient citizens.”
There were even houses in trees, as children build them, platforms which they climbed to with a ladder, and I wonder what Stow’s ancient citizens would have said of the one Parkinson describes so admiringly: “I have seen a tall or great-bodied Lime tree, bare without boughes for eight foote high, and then the branches were spread round about so orderly, as if it were done by art, and brought to com passe that middle Arbour: And from those boughes the body was bare againe for eight or nine foote (wherein might be placed halfe an hundred men at the least), and then another rowe of branches to encompasse a third Arbour, with stayres, made for the purpose, to this and that underneath it: upon the boughes were laid boards to tread upon, which was the goodliest spectacle mine eyes ever beheld for one tree to carry.” When the children were little, there was scarcely a tree in the garden without its few boards balanced rakishly across any likely-looking branches. It gave the garden a quite astonishing air of squalor. “Our tree-houses” the children used to call them, and, like John Parkinson, they would have appreciated the lime tree as connoisseurs admiring a veritable palace of tree architecture.
No one could help being fond of Parkinson, despite the dreadful Latin pun on his own name which he uses for the title of his book: Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris – Parkinson’s Earthly Paradise. “A Garden of all sorts of pleasant flowers which our English ayre will permitt to be noursed up” – so he explains his title, and there is a frontispiece of the kindly bearded author holding a single flower as he might hold some precious treasure, a flower called sweet John, as we recognize from the illustrations later on, and we wonder whether he arranged the delicate and affectionate compliment himself. For he understands his own gentle nature and can praise it without offence. “Such men doe as it were send forth a pleasing savour of sweet instructions, not only to that time wherein they live and are fresh, but being drye, withered and dead, cease not in all after ages to doe as much or more.”
The Tudor gardens, full as they were of ornaments, still had room for flowers and plants, though these were seldom left to grow naturally, but were trained into every kind of fanciful and amusing shape. Flowers were planted in patterns of “rampande lyons and dragons of marvaylous likenesse,” bushes were cut into topiary figures of men and animals and geometric curiosities, and even hedges “made battlement-wise, in sundrie formes, according to invention, or carrying the proportions of Pyllasters, Flowers, shapes of Beasts, Birds, Creeping things, Shippes, Trees and such like.”
Above all, the Tudor gardeners loved their knots-square beds laid out in symmetrical designs of interlacing hedges of box or lavender or thrift or other low shrubby plants. Of all the Tudor fancies, this seems most intimately their own, a kind of garden doodling, like the patterns children cut out from folded paper squares, like the fretwork designs on the walls and parapets of Tudor houses.
In these playful gardens there were parts laid out especially for play: bowling-alleys and tennis courts, archery butts and cockpits, and mazes, which they called labyrinths – “a delectable labyrinth,” says one writer, and delighted to bewilder his friend therein “till he cannot recover himself without your help.” There were pools for bathing and for fish, and if you made your Mount near the boundary of your garden, says Markham, you could fish over the hedge in your own moat: a delightful picture which somehow reminds us of Tristram Shandy’s Uncle Toby.
They took, too, a particular delight in what they call “water surprises”-fountains spurting water in every unlikely and curious way, or suddenly drenching the unsuspecting audience; for this, they considered, was the most entrancing of practical jokes. At Whitehall there was a much-admired fountain worked by a gardener from a distance, and one of the few improvements Elizabeth made at Hampton Court was “a splendid high and massy fountain, with a water-work by which you can, if you like, make the water play upon the ladies and others who are standing by and give them a thorough wetting.” If we can get used to such crudities in people who appreciated equally the most delicate lyric poetry, then we are less shocked by Shakespeare’s dreadful clowns.
What we notice, reading about the Tudor gardens or looking at the illustrations, is how alive they are, how full not only of flowers and ornaments but of active human beings. They are best considered as an extension of the house, where people lived their lives in the open air as we never have done since. In the pictures they are doing all kinds of things which we have never since included in our garden scenes – playing cards, eating their dinner, paddling, making love, fishing, wandering in mazes, chasing each other, rolling on the ground, playing with monkeys, splashing each other with water from the ponds. Anything, in fact, but sitting still, which is what we do now. They held Revels in their gardens, Masques and Pageants, and Elizabeth received ambassadors in her garden at Whitehall, where I dare say her Latin was just as overwhelming among the gillyflowers and roses as anywhere else. We can understand the writer who describes the busy garden scene at Kenilworth: “the people, the fruit trees, the plants, the herbs, the flowers, the birds flittering, the fountain streaming, the fish swimming, all in such delectable variety, at one moment in one place.”
Bacon in his essay “On Gardens” shows a feeling for space which is ahead of his time. Let the main plot, he says, “be not too busy or full of work”; but except for its size (and Bacon is very much a gardener on paper, where it is as easy to write 20 acres as 2), his garden proper is very little different from any other garden of his period. He describes a plan for a prince’s pleasureground which he obviously considers is free from silly fancies; he despises knots and topiary work as fit only for children, but the decorations he suggests instead are even more fanciful and charming. The main hedge, he says, is to be trained on “carpenter’s work” into a series of arches, and above each arch a little turret to hold a cage of birds, and between them “some other little figure, with broad plates of coloured glass for the sun to play upon.” The bathing-pool, too, is to be “finely-paved and with images, and embellished with coloured glass.”
At Hampton Court, in the old gardens which lie between the Orangery and the river, we can still feel what privilege has meant in England, how the English character has expressed itself when money and power were unlimited. The proud princes of Italy built proud palaces and gardens to match; the ceremonious court of France was perfectly expressed in the glories of Versailles. But these have no real place in England. We are awkward at ceremony, embarrassed at display. The ambitious mansions of our eighteenth-century England are cold and theatrical and ostentatious. For all their splendours, they have a curious air of the nouveau riche: we feel they were built, not as a fitting background for a magnificent way of life, but only as a magnificent way of keeping up with the Joneses. As Dr. Johnson said of one of them, “It would do excellently for a town-hall. The large room with pillars would do for the Judges to sit in at the Assizes; the circular room for a jury-chamber; and the rooms above” (the bedrooms, which were skimped, as not being part of the fine show to dazzle visitors) “the rooms above for prisoners.”
Their owners, we cannot help suspecting, seldom used the ceremonious front door, but strode cheerfully out at the back to their dogs and horses in the stable yard, the only part of most of these cold palaces with any atmosphere of life and affection.
The most famous shops of England have no imposing entrances, no fine windows, no lights or plate glass or thick carpets or smart assistants. They are in back streets with only a modest private-looking window, and nothing in it but a small plate quietly announcing in old-fashioned type the name of a world-famous tailor.
In England privilege is astonishingly discreet. Not a Lord Mayor’s coach driving through cheering crowds, but a closed motor-car which slips through cleared streets almost unnoticed. And the old gardens of Hampton Court are like the tailors’ shops and the closed car. Their privilege is in privacy and a complete disregard of any impression they may make. As the pleasuregrounds of a powerful king, they are a marvel of understatement. But because they are an unforced and natural expression of something inherently English, they are still alive, even though they are stripped now of their Tudor fancies of beasts and rails and sundials, unsuitably planted with the wrong trees and flowers, and misnamed the Dutch Garden. They still have an authentic air, as the seventeenth-century formal gardens have not – the great parterre and the long canal which are only empty and desolate, like the clothes we never wear because we do not feel at ease in them, they do not suit us.
But these were the pleasure-grounds of princes. What of the humbler gardens of ordinary people? For Stow talks constantly of “fair garden plots” and “gardens of pleasure,” and in Tudor times more people were interested in gardening than ever before. Reading the books of Instructions for Gentlemen, we realize that there was no great difference between any of their gardens. The carved beasts and marble “inventions” of the wealthy were replaced in humbler gardens by clipped trees; instead of bankettting-houses there were green arbours roofed with vines and walled with roses; but they are all unmistakably the gardens of Tudor England.
The first essential, as in medieval gardens, was still the outside enclosure. This might be a moat or bank or fence, or a “Hedge of Quicksett verie thicke,” or any combination of these all at once, for in the pictures there are often two or three layers one inside the other. Along the front of the house there was often a terrace which overlooked the whole enclosure, and round the garden there was generally a gallery or covered alley, formed either of pleached trees-yews or hornbeams or limes, like the modern one at Kensington Palace-or made by building a wooden scaffolding and covering it with “arch-hearbes”-vines or roses, “jacimine honeysocke or Ladies’ Bower,” which was a clematis. These walks were sometimes planted with scented herbs for the pleasure of their fragrance when they were trodden on, and the galleries were often enlarged into little arbours or “shadowe houses,” arbours, says Parkinson, “being both gracefull and necessary.” These shadow-houses were carpeted with grass, and Sudlet tells us how to make the turf grow close and fine. The ground must first “bee cleansed from all manner of stones and weeds, not so much as the roots left undestroyed, and afterwards the floore must be beaten and troden downe mightily; then after this, there must be cast great quantity and store of turfes of earth full of greene grasse, the bare earthie part of them being turned and laied upward, and afterward daunced upon with the feet, in such sort as that within a short time after, the grasse may begin to peepe up and put forth like small haires; and finally it is made the sporting green plot, for Ladies and Gentlewomen to recreate their spirits in, or a place whereinto they may withdraw themmselves if they would be solitarie and out of sight.” The ladies of the Middle Ages would certainly have felt at home there.
The garden inside the surrounding green tunnels of the gallery was divided into more or less regular “compartiments” (“every man will please his own fancie”), and these were separated by paths and enclosed by hedges or palings, or perhaps by “Lattise worke continued into arbours, or as it were” (for they can never resist a fanciful idea) “into small chappells or oratories and places to make a speech out of, that many standing about and below may heare.” I wonder what sort of speeches they made from such green pulpits.
Each of these small enclosures was a separate little garden, beds of flowers in one, “like a peece of tapestry of many glorious colours,” and herbs perhaps in another. Herbs included what we should now call vegetables, and though they were sometimes grown separately in a kitchen or summer garden, there was no strict division, though “your Garden flowers shall suffer some disgrace,” one writer warns us, “if among them you intermingle Onions Parsnips etc.” There were gardens, too, for strewing-herbs – plants to strew on the floor instead of carpets, to “turn up the house,” as they called it. The common ones were the aromatic plants we still call herbs today, but for honoured guests roses and violets were scattered where they walked, and Queen Elizabeth’s favourite strewing-herb was meadowsweet.
Fruit trees might be planted in another division, or perhaps a nosegay garden, “with hearbes and flowers used to make noseegaies and garlands of.” They give lists of suitable flowers, but “Beares eares or French Cowslips” (auriculas) are best of all, says Parkinson; “their flowers being many set together upon a stalke doe seeme everyone of them to be a Nosegay alone of itselfe . . . with a pretty sweete sent which doth ad de an encrease of pleasure in those that make them an ornament for their wearing.” For what the seventeenth century calls a “nosegaie” we should call a buttonhole.
I have a friend who once kept a buttonhole garden in his gallant courting days, a little plot behind the house where he went every morning to choose a flower for his coat. And his favourite was love-in-a-mist – not for the name, as we might suppose, but because it grew its own green, a neat fringe of feathery leaves arranged like a ruff around the flower: the perfect buttonhole. I have felt more warmly towards him ever since, for nothing is more endearing than the rather ridiculous enthusiasms of our friends.
Most popular of all was the knot garden, and the books are full of patterns for them, page after page of “knots so enknotted it cannot be expres’t,” for who could resist drawing such very easy illustrations? Although these tortuous designs of hedges sound to us elaborately ugly (and quite shockingly wasteful of labour), yet they must have had a curious formal charm, like embossed velvet.
The paths dividing the garden beds are made of gravel, or sand beaten firm, or “the powder of the sawing of marble,” and they are very narrow: “You shall marke out your Beds and Floores” (flower beds) “and the Pathes running along betwixt them …. And you must observe, that you make your Floores of such widenesse as that you may stride and reach your armes from one side to another, to the end that such as are to weed them, or to rake them, may from out of the said little Pathes be able to reach unto the middest of the Bed, and not to tread with their feet upon that which is sowne. Wherefore, if your said little Pathes be two feet wide, it will be ynough: for to make them anie broader, is but waste and losse of ground.”
We can see why Bacon wanted space, and what he means by gardens “too busy and full of work,” for these gardens were without lawns: the whole space was covered with beds and paths and hedges. The flower beds were often raised above the paths and edged with boards or tiles or pebbles or shells, or even by rows of sheep bones, “which prettily grace out the ground.” “In places beyond the seas,” so Parkinson says, they even use the jawwbones of animals arranged in rows, but this he considers “too grosse and base.” I suppose if they had had bottles or jam jars they would have used those, too, as cottage gardeners do still. In the beds they grew all the old-fashioned flowers of the medireval gardens: Primroses, Cowslips, Rose Campions, Batchelours Butttons (which were double campions), Stocks, Wall-flowers, Violets, Columbines, Snapdragons, Larkes-heeles (or spurres or toes), Roses, Pansies, Poppies, Double Daisies, Marigolds, French Marigolds “that have a strong heady sent,” Pinks, Peonies, Hollihocks, Sweet Williams and Sweet Johns, and “Daffadown-dillies which flower timely and after Midsummer are scarcely seen. They are more for Ornament than use, so are Daisies.”
The most cherished flower of all, the “pride of our English Gardens,” the “Queene of delight and of flowers,” was the Gillyflower or Carnation, which was brought to England by the Flemish refugees under Henry VIII, and for more than a century was the “chiefest flower of account of all our English Gardens.” It was called Gillyflower or July-flower because of its season of blooming, and stocks were called Stock Gillyflowers for the same reason. But why wallflowers were called Wall-Gillyflowers I have never been able to make out, unless it was because they resembled single stocks and people had already forgotten what Gillyflower meant. The country folk of Sussex still call sweet rocket June Gillies. In any case, the old carnations can never have been so attractive as the names the gardeners gave them. I wonder what the Grey Hulo looked like, or Ruffling Robin, or Master Bradshawes Dainty Lady. But Master Tuggie was the famous name – “Master Tuggie his Rose Gilloflower,” writes Parkinson under one of his illustrations, and later on, with growing enthusiasm: “Master Tuggie his Princesse.” I hoped to find somewhere, as the crowning happiness, “Master Tuggie his Queene,” but if he ever raised anything finer than his Princesse, Parkinson does not tell us about it.
Besides these old favourites, there were hundreds of new plants from the enlarging world, from the “Indies, Americans, Taprobane, Canary Isles and all parts of the world.” “Out-landish Flowers” Parkinson calls them, and they made the new gardens so beautiful, says one enthusiastic writer, that, compared with them, “the ancient gardens were but dung-hills” and even the Gardens of the Hesperides, he boasts, if set beside ours, “I am persuaded that an equal judge would give the prize unto the garden of our days.” Parkinson gives a list of the Outlandish Flowers which were most successful and popular, many of them blooming in early spring when our own flowers were scarce. Daffodils, ]acynthes (hyacinths), Saffron-flowers (crocuses), Lillies, Flower de luces (irises), Tulipas, Anemones, French Cowslips or Beares eares, and Fritillaries, which included the Crown Imperial-a flower, says Parkinson, which “for his stately beautifulness deserveth the first place in this our Garden of delight.” How I longed to say beautifulness when I was a child – it was so much more vivid than beauty, which was a remote and abstract word, the kind of word people put on monuments to the unreal dead. But beautifulness was the actual texture of the living petals in your hand.
The Tudor gardeners grew runner beans, not to eat but for their scarlet flowers, using them as “arch-hearbes” to train on trellises as we do sweet peas. Nasturtiums, too, were grown as climbers; they were one of Parkinson’s favourite flowers. Indian Cresses he calls them, or yellow Larkes heeles: “the whole flower hath a fine small sent, very pleasing, which being placed in the middle of some Carnations or Gilloflowers (for they are in flower at the same time) make a delicate Tussiemussie, as they call it, or Nosegay, both for sight and sent.”
Rosemary was the favourite shrub, and among its many uses were the making of bridal wreaths and the seasoning of food. They grew it not only as a bush, but trained to cover walls, or cut into topiary figures, strewing the scented clippings on their floors. Many of the flowers we still grow today the Tudor gardeners knew by other names. Lilac was the Blew Pipe-tree, cyclamens were Sowebread, monkshood was the Blew Helmet Flower, the gladiolus was the Corneflagge, Canterbury bells were Coventry Bells, winter aconite was Winter Wolfesbane, cornflowers were Blew Bottles or Sions, honesty was the Sattinflower, and pansies were Love-in-Idleness. The snake’s-head fritillary they called the Checkered Daffodill, or the Ginny-hen Flower because the markings on the petals reminded them of a Guinea fowl’s feathers; and tomatoes, which they grew for decoration, they called Love Apples because they considered them an aphrodisiac. Which lends a new interest to a respectable domestic vegetable.
They grew, too, many flowers which were merely curious, like the little trefoils called Snailes or Barbary Buttons from their oddly twisted seed-pods, “pretty toyes for Gentlewomen,” and all kinds of curious primroses and cowslips: Hose-in-Hose, Curled Cowslips or Gaskins, and one they called the Foolish Cowslip or ]ack-an-Apes-on-Horse-backe, a name country people used, so Parkinson says, for anything they found strange or fantastic.
In their delight in all things curious and fanciful, the Tudor gardeners persuaded even their fruit and vegetables to grow into strange shapes. The fruit was put in moulds while it was young, and “so you may have cucumbers as long as a cane or as round as a sphere; or formed like a cross. You may have also apples in the form of pears or lemons. You may have also fruit in more acccurate figures, of men, beasts, or birds, according as you make the moulds.” This advice is from Bacon, of all people, who despised knot gardens as no better than the pastry patterns on the tops of tarts.
There were aviaries in the Tudor gardens, but they loved best the “infinite number of pretie small Birds” which came freely to keep them company, “the gentle Robin-red-breast and the silly Wren, with her distinct whistle (like a sweet Recorder).” But the “chief grace that adornes a garden” was “a broode of Nightingales [whose] strong delightsome voyce, out of a weake body, will beare you company night and day.”
Peacocks they kept both for use and pleasure, for “the peacock is a bird of more beautified feathers than any other that is, he is quickly angry, but he is far off from taking good hold with his feet, he is goodly to behold, very good to eat, and serveth as a watch in the inner court, for that he spying strangers to come into the lodging he failleth not to cry out and advertise them of the house.” Thomas Tusser, in his Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie, complains that peacocks scratch up the seedlings, but his eighteenth-century editor tells us in a footnote what we must do. If you find your peacock, he says, in any part of the garden where he is not wanted, “with a little sharp Cur that will bark, tease him bout as long as he can stand, at least till he takes his flight, and he will come no more there.” I dare say not.