Sir George Reresby Sitwell (1862 – 1943), 4th Baronet of Renishaw, is remembered today mostly for his eccentricities. He wrote prodigiously on an odd list of topics (Wool-Gathering in Medieval Times and Since, Lepers’ Squints, Domestic Manners in Sheffield in the Year 1250, Acorns as an Article of Medieval Diet, The History of the Fork etc) none of which attracted a publisher; Sir George bought a printing press and published them himself. He designed a small pistol for shooting wasps as well as other unlikely inventions. He had posted in the hall of his manor a notice that read “I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of the gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.”

He spent decades designing the garden at his estate at Renishaw, in Derbyshire, raising and lowering the ground-levels repeatedly (first up a few feet, then down, then up again) and transplanting mature oaks and installing a lake, then having it relocated. He served as a member of parliament between 1885 and 1895 reinforcing the belief that the English are kind to eccentrics. His children, Osbert, Sacheverell and Edith fared better in the literary world. Sir George traveled to Italy to convalesce from a nervous breakdown and spent most of his time visiting gardens throughout the country and taking copious notes. He eventually purchased an estate in Italy, Castello di Montegufoni, near Florence, and restored the house and gardens. He was often seen in local eateries dressed in full evening clothes, accompanied by his loyal, and equally eccentric, valet, Henry Moat who always carried an inflatable cushion with him for Sir Georges comfort.

His essay “On the Making of Gardens”, published in 1909, this time by a publisher, contains some beautiful period writing and valuable suggestions concerning garden design. Sir George seems, for a Victorian, to have been impressed with science, particularly evolution and psychology, and, in the essay, rails against the English landscape style of ‘Capability’ Brown, and others and extols the Italian Renaissance gardens that he loved so much. It is difficult not to agree with him as these Italian gardens are still justly famous. I’ve included a few excerpts from the essay and recommend it to gardeners with an appreciation for historical insight. The spelling is as in the original and it is worth noting that the Victorians and Edwardians could ramble on for pages before breaking for a paragraph.

I tried to find a link to Amazon for this book but found none. I bought my copy at Tomes & Tales, a used book store that has recently opened in Pitt Meadows (103 – 19141 Ford Road, 604-459-5000).  I’m slowly building up a library of garden books, and am up to above 400 at the moment, so I’m always looking for used book stores in our area. Perhaps I’ll publish a link to some of them.

Update, 7:12 PM 29/01/2013:

You can download a copy of On the Making of Gardens, in a variety of formats, at (

Jim Thorleifson

On the Making of Gardens

Sir George Reresby Sitwell

Having chosen a site and determined the relation of house and garden to the landscape and to each other, we may now consider more closely the inward meaning of our task. The garden, in every language, speaks of seclusion. To flower and plant and tree it is a cloistered refuge from the battle of life, a paradise where free from the pinch of poverty and the malice of their enemies, they may turn their thoughts and their strength from war to beauty; and this perfect freedom of the garden finds a voice in the joyous murmur of the fountain, for water too is outside the struggle for existence, and goes on its way rejoicing from one ocean of darkness to another. So, to man, the garden should be something without and beyond nature; a page from an old romance, a scene in fairyland, a gateway through which imagination lifted above the sombre realities of life may pass into a world of dreams. One should be able to escape to it from labour or business, from office or Senate-house or study, as to a haven of rest and refreshment, where Time does not dole out his seconds to you like a miser telling his guineas, nor snatch again the golden moments you cannot hold: no sound of the outer world should break the enchantment; no turret-clock should toll the passing hour; nor, could one silence it, should there vibrate through the garden the menacing voice of the church bell, with its muttered curse on nature and on man, lest it beat down the petals of the pagan roses.

All this would be easy enough if we were living in the age of Virgil the Enchanter, or Merlin, or King Roger of Sicily, or Albertus Magnus, or Michael Scott; a few woven circles upon the sand, an earth-shaking spell from the book, and there would be our enchanted fastness, high-walled like the Garden Mirth in the old romance against pale Sorrow and wrinkled Care and envious Time and all the spectres of the night. But in this unimaginative age, when a necromancer who ventures even to tell a fortune may be committed as a rogue and vagabond, it is necessary to be more circumspect; we must endeavour to find some form of ‘white’ magic which does not come within the meaning of the Act. In a garden, as elsewhere, Art has the power by selection, accentuation, grouping, and the removal of defects or superfluities, to intensify and surpass the .beauty of nature, thus reaching the ideal. This power, being higher than natural law, is a kind of witchcraft; but it is not the kind of which I speak. Art has another function also; it is concerned not only with the scene but with the mind of the beholder, for more than half of what we see comes from the mind. Here then at last we have found the garden-magic of Italy, in the domain of Psychology – that occult science which deals in spells, exorcisms, and bewitchments, in familiar spirits, in malign and beneficent influences and formulas of alchemy; that dim untrodden under-world from which Shakespeare and Wagner drew their shadowy legions, which will yet inspire the great poets, artists, and musicians of the age to come. If we use the witchery that here lies ready to our hand, the garden, like the work of a great painter, may ‘create a mood’; may throw over the soul the spell of a persisting present, unpursued by a ravenous past, the child’s illusion of an harmonious universe, free from the discords of sorrow or unkindness, from the dominion of iron Necessity or of scornful Chance; where forethought may colour the future with rainbow images of spring and hope, and memory like a fountain pool that has cast off the dark days of winter can reflect nothing but flowers and sunshine and deep-blue sky. We shall hear an echo of felicities older than mankind in the birds’ most ancient song, shall know the thrill of numbers and see in the tender, tranquil eyes of the flowers, their drooping heads or pouted lips, other beings like ourselves who may return the sympathy we feel.

We shall share with all living things that sense of union with nature which is the very essence of pleasure – in the radiant happiness of the plants whose flowering is the expression of a desire to live, a sigh of well-being, a smile of thankfulness, a hymn of praise, whose blossom is as laughter and whose perfume is as song, and the sight of all these smiling faces will teach us that life is a splendid gift, not a vale of tears but a dell of roses. We shall learn the philosophy of the plants, which have ceased from their wanderings, which do not seek to shiver in the cold shadow of impending ill, to groan in anticipation under evils which are beyond remedy and evils which may never arise, to guard against the future by building up an organ of instability, an organ of suffering, but have made their peace with Destiny, resigning themselves in hope and trustfulness to their winter sleep. We shall learn the inmost secrets of the garden, the hidden relations, the waves of mysterious affinity that flow between these flowers that cannot thrive except in the company of their kind, the green thoughts of the trees whose leaves are trembling at the sough of the distant rain, spring’s first ‘faint beatings in the calyx of the rose’. So, as time goes on, the glamour of the garden shall deepen, till we know that it is a commonwealth and that we are citizens with the rest. The great trees cast their shade over the garden, which shields them from the woodman’s axe; man gives in labour what he takes in beauty, and every bush and flower has its appointed task, for there are some that feed the minstrels or find their dole of honey for the marriage-making bees, that watch through the midnight hours or guard the thickets with thorns and prickly blades and snares of coiling cables; and some there are that worship the Sun God, following in silent adoration his progress through the sky, and some that breathe a perfumed prayer at morn or even, when he scatters from his chariot the soft roses of dawn, or returns like a conqueror to his flaming city in the west. Thus it seems that one interest binds the garden together, one desire runs through it, a common purpose animates the whole: to dream through the dreary winter, when the petals of the cloud roses are drifting down in sheets of chilly blossom, when the boughs of the leafless woodland are heavy with crystal fruit, then, when the dream is over, to wake again, to creep out from the darkness, to bask in the sunshine of another year.

But if we are to call up this new world of mists and shadows to replace the illusions of the old, it will be necessary to face the problems of psychology and in the first place to analyse the pleasure which the beauty of a garden gives. There is no truth but the whole truth concerning an object, both in its countless aspects and manifold relations, and what we call the garden is only a single, fugitive appearance, an infinitesimal part of the whole; not a reality, but a phantom which we mistake for a reality. It is not even a part of the truth, all we know with certainty of such existences in the outer world being that in every quality and feature they are utterly unlike our conception of them. A rose is neither red nor sweet though we may think it so. To the old man, time and space and colour are not the same as they are to the boy. For the tiny creatures that swarm in a dewdrop and may swim in thousands through the eye of a needle, the garden has no existence; it is beyond the grasp of their minds, beyond the ken of their senses, further off than the clustering suns of the Milky Way. For the blind man it is a dull place; not a sight, but a sequence of touches with feet and hands, a succession of perfumes, of lightly echoed sounds, of the perception of obstacles and open spaces; a place of soft turf, warm sunshine, and whispering breezes. The thing itself with him is the chain of touches, the other impressions are only signs of the thing: if you could show him the garden he would not recognise it. For the smaller winged inhabitants of the flower-land, which make ten or fifteen thousand wing strokes in a single second and are supposed to be conscious of every one, time moves by another measure, the day is a twelve-month long and gravity a restraint as light as it may be to the dwellers upon Mars. To their eyes, which reach beyond the violet rays, the world is full of colour which we may not see, to their ears of rhythms which we may not hear, calls and love-songs and shrill alarms and rustling music of unfolding leaves and pistol-shots of bursting bud or falling berry; and other senses they may have which the heart cannot even conceive, differing from ours as light from heat or sound from motion. They indeed must find it such a wonderland as we have dreamed, an enchanted forest of fearful delights, where trees a thousand feet high are laden with flowers of incredible magnificence, roses great as arbours, snowy cupolas and purple obelisks, spires of red-crocketed blossom, peals of azure bells; with cup-like flowers that offer fairy foods – ambrosia, and draughts of nectar and chalices of poison; where skiffs with painted sails come floating down the breeze, and nets of corded silk are gemmed with globes of rainbow crystal, and in the green light of the thickets lurk forms of unearthly beauty or of uttermost horror – dragons in jewelled mail or burnished armour, horned dinosaurs, and filthy creeping monsters; where the flying moments flow with a soft gliding, like weary watches of the night, and giant magicians pass onward with imperceptible motion, slow as the snowy clouds that steal through the summer sky.

To human beings, from whom all these marvels are hid, the beauty of a garden is less enthralling, the pleasure less acute. It is what is termed a massive and soothing pleasure, built up of many strands of feeling. There is the pride of the eye in colour and curving lines and dappled light and shade; the suggestion of pleasing rest and coolness; the intellectual pleasure of the processes of comparison and deduction: the train of association which calls up memories of other gardens, of other trees and flowers; the appeal to the sympathetic sentiments of power and happiness, whereby we rejoice in another’s good fortune, finding delight in the vigour and well-being of plant and herb and tree. Further, there is the gratification of the instinctive sympathy of reason, where the scene has the qualities of appropriateness, diversity in unity, proportion, symmetry or balance, orderly progression, all of which come under the head of design, or at least of order and fitness. In every well-planned garden, as indeed in every work of art, there are many harmonies of appropriateness – in relation, convenience, proportion or scale, form, colour, historic style – so subtle as to escape individual notice; but these come within the halo of obscurely felt relations, and being fused together rise above the threshold of consciousness in a vague and general sense of ordered beauty. Art’s highest appeal to emotion is in the region of subconsciousness.

Sir George concludes his essay thus:

But whatever the garden is to be, whether its roses are to clamber up the eaves of a cottage or the towers of a palace, this at least is necessary, that it should be made with a care for the future and a conviction of the importance of the task. According to Bacon, gardens are for refreshment; not for pleasure alone, nor even for happiness, but for the renewing rest that makes labour more fruitful, the unbending of a bow that it may shoot the stronger. In the ancient world it was ever the greatest of the emperors and the wisest of the philosophers that sought peace and rest in a garden. By the olive groves and flower-bordered canals of the Academia Plato discussed with his followers the supremacy of reason, the identity of truth and goodness. Among the roses and myrtles and covered walks of the Lyceum Aristotle taught that perfect happiness is to be found in contemplation, in the divine intuitions of reason. Theophrastus left to his pupils the shady theatre of their studies, and amidst the fruit and flowers Epicurus pondered how by wise conduct to attain happiness. In the garden of the Bamboo-Grove Budda taught the conquest of self, and in the Garden of Sorrows a greater teacher was found, for we know that Jesus ofttimes resorted thither with His disciples. The cloistered paradises of Sicily and of the Arabs may have been made for fairer, frailer flowers, but the rose-tangled orchards of the Middle Ages and the great gardens of the Renaissance did not serve for pleasure alone. In the romances we find the company playing chess in the apple-garden, singing, weaving garlands, dancing the carol, looking on at the play of jugglers, tumblers and dancing-girls, but here also they listen to the lay of the troubadour, and here part of the business of government is carried on. In the Chanson de Roland, Charlemagne gives audience in a verger to the ambassadors of the Pagan King of Spain, seated on a golden chair of state beside a bush of eglantine under the shadow of a pine tree, and in Garin Le Loherain, Count Fremont, one of the great barons, receives a messenger sitting in a garden surrounded by his friends. Some of the great pleasure-grounds of the Renaissance were ever crowded with a great retinue of priests and lawyers, architects and painters, doctors and men of letters, to whom they offered change and rest and freedom. Others were the homes of a court, where laws were considered, finance was regulated, envoys were received; where in one arbour the Poet Laureate might be paying his addresses to the Muse, in another the Treasurer be grappling with his budget, while by the fountain under the shadow of the cypresses the Prince and his companions were discussing the doctrines of Plato and the greatness of the ancient world. Many of the letters of Rene d’ Anjou are dated from the garden at Aix, and a century later we find Queen Elizabeth giving audience in her garden at Hampton and one of her courtiers attesting a charter in his viridarium at Edzell. The garden, like beauty in landscape, is inimical to all evil passions: it stands for efficiency, for patience in labour, for strength in adversity, for the power to forgive. Perhaps at the last, in contemplation of the recurring miracle of spring and of that eternal stream of life which is ever flowing before our eyes, we may find that it stands for something more – one of the three things the Greek philosopher thought it lawful to pray for, hope to the dying; for along the thread of time and consciousness the individual is never severed from the race; he is but a leaf on a tree, a blossom on a flowering plant; to the ocean of life he goes, and from the ocean he may return again. Gardens have coloured every dream of future life, every hope of happiness in this, and he who can make them more beautiful has helped to exalt the sentiment of religion, poetry, and love. The older descriptions of Paradise are simple renderings of the pleasure-grounds of the Persians and the flower-orchards of the Dark Ages, imagination being able to picture to itself things more perfect than the eye ever saw, but not things diverse in kind. The mind cannot anticipate an unknown sensation; the deaf mute cannot form an idea of sound, nor the man who is blind from birth have a mental vision. Every impression, whatever its elements may be, is an indivisible whole, differing from its parts and even from the sum of them as a chord in music from the notes of which it is composed, or a new flower from the plants that gave it birth, and it is thus always in the power of the artist to give us a fresh creation, something different in kind, as different as were the fountain courts of the Renaissance from the gardens of the Arabs, or the terraces of Helmsley from the alleys of Versailles.

St Carlo’s unjust judgement on Cardinal Gambara – that the revenues laid out upon his villa would have been better employed in good works – has even now its defenders, and we have yet with us the ‘practical man’ who, visiting the dream-gardens of Italy, can see nothing in the cypresses but bundles of faggots, in the flower-beds but baskets of vegetables, in the statues and fountains but heaps of road-metal, and goes away sorrowful at heart over the selfishness of these aristocrats, who waste on pride and luxury what might have been given to the poor. Yet in truth such a garden as that of Lante is a world-possession, and the builder of it like a great poet who has influenced the life of thousands, putting them in touch with the greatness of the past, lifting their thoughts and aspirations to a higher level, revealing to them the light of their own soul, opening their eyes to the beauty of the world. Architecture, the most unselfish of arts, belongs to the passer-by, and every old house and garden in which the ideal has been sought is a gift to the nation, to be enjoyed by future generations who will learn from it more of history and art and philosophy than may be found in books. Thus the garden-maker is striving not for himself alone but for those who are to come after, for the unborn children who shall play on the flowery lawns and chase each other through the alleys, filling their laps with treasure of never-fading roses, weaving amidst the flowers and the sunshine dream-garlands of golden years. They too will share the joys and sorrows of the garden, will learn to love even the humblest tribes of its inhabitants: the prodigal weeds that carry the banners of spring in procession upon the cornices, and the dwarf trees, dead to the world, that have rooted themselves like anchorites in the crevices; the tinted lichen which feed on pure air and sunshine and outlast the stubborn oaks, and the lowly mosses which drink in the dewdrops and the blue shadows of the mighty trees; the sweet-sighing herbs of the twilight; and the pale stars of earth which, stirred from their slumbers when night is dropping dew into the mouths of the thirsty flowers, call the outcast moths to a honeyed banquet. They too will know bare winter’s hidden hoard, when the earth under their feet is full of dreams – dim memories of misty morns and dewy eves, of the slumbrous warmth of the golden sunshine, the soft caresses of the life-giving breezes, the nuptial kisses of the bees. They too will feel the rhythmic breath of wakening life from the countless millions of beings in earth and air and dew-drop and rivulet, with the rising murmur of insect delight, the scent of the sun-kissed grasses – all the mystery and music, the riot and rapture of the spring, and the passion of the flaming roses, and that strange thrill of autumn sadness when the flowers that have mingled their perfumes through the summer are breathing out to each other the grief of a last farewell.

It is not given to every man, when his life’s work is over, to grow old in a garden he has made, to lose in the ocean roll of the seasons little eddies of pain and sickness and weariness, to watch year after year green surging tides of spring and summer break at his feet in a foam of woodland flowers, and the garden like a faithful retainer growing grey in its master’s service. But for him who may live to see it, there shall be a wilder beauty than any he has planned. Nature, like a shy wood-nymph, shall steal softly back on summer nights to the silent domain, shading with tenderest pencillings of brown and grey the ripened stone, scattering wood-violets in the grassy alleys, and wreathing in vine and ivy the trellised arbour, painting with cloudy crusts of crumbly gold the long balustrades, inlaying the cornices with lines of emerald moss, planting little ferns within the fountain basin and tiny patches of green velvet upon the Sea-God’s shoulder. As the years pass by and no rude hand disturbs the traces of her presence, Nature becomes more daring. Flower-spangled tapestries of woven tendrils fall from the terrace, strange fleecy mottlings of silver-grey and saffron and orange and greeny-gold make the wall a medley more beautiful than broidered hangings or than painted pictures, the niches are curtained with creepers, the pool is choked with water-plants, blossoming weeds are in every crevice, and with pendent crystals the roof of the grotto is fretted into an Arab vault. Autumn has come at last, and the harvest is being gathered in. Flying shafts of silvery splendour fall upon the fountain, and all the house is dark, save for the strange light that is burning yet in the chamber window. Softly the Triton mourns, as if sobbing below his breath, alone in the moon-enchanted fairyland of a deserted garden.