Gardens of Court and Country
English Design 1630-1730
New Haven & London : Yale University Press, 2017
Hardcover. ix + 406 p. 299 illustrations. ISBN 978-0300222012. £45
Reviewed by Peter Borsay
David Jacques is a distinguished garden historian, historic gardens consultant and conservationist. This book brings together all his experience in the archives and the field. It is an important study; one that no garden historian will want to miss. The volume begins with a ‘Prologue’ reviewing the historiography of the subject, followed by two introductory chapters, the one surveying the surviving evidence of the formal garden, the other exploring the garden’s uses and broader cultural context. The remainder of the study consists of what are essentially six chronological chapters, with a brief postscript taking the story up to to the mid-eighteenth century. The book’s principal conclusion is that the significance of the English formal garden, and of the century or so before the emergence of the classic English ‘informal’ landscape garden, have been neglected and underestimated. Jacques reveals the high level of investment, and continuous re-investment taking place between 1630 and 1730 – especially from the Restoration onwards – among the nation’s elite in garden landscaping, and the sophistication and changing character of the designs produced. He demonstrates convincingly that this is not a period to be ignored, and indubitably not the derivative and impoverished backdrop to the rise of what became known in France as the jardin anglais.
Indeed, what Jacques demonstrates in painstaking detail is the way in which during the early eighteenth century the new style of informal gardening, one it was claimed to be more attuned to Nature, began to formulate itself. It was not necessarily a matter of dramatic gestures: subtle but cumulative changes took place in the character of features such as the wilderness, there was a reduced application of geometric forms in favour of curvilinear ones in the construction of paths and water features, the walled enclosure went into decline and enhanced attention was paid to the landscape beyond the immediate zone around the house. Thus Jacques can argue that already by Queen Anne’s reign (1702-1714) it was possible to see ‘the initial stages in country-house gardens becoming one with the countryside around’ , and that by the 1730s there has taken place ‘an astonishing shift in form and scale, a revolution in the setting of the country house’ . At the same time the author makes the case that formal garden did not simply disappear. Formal gardening flourished and evolved for much of the period, and in the mid-eighteenth century the geometric garden was still the dominant type to be seen on the ground.
The strength of this study, and what underpins its conclusions, is the depth of research undertaken; 300 or more seats, with 600 overlays (or separate phases of garden-making) were investigated for the years 1660-1735, as part of the author’s doctoral thesis. This all bears fruit in the richness of example and detail. The range of sources examined is also impressive: archives, archaeology, printed contemporary manuals and literary texts, and visual material. The 300 fully annotated illustrations, many in colour, in this beautifully produced book are integral to the argument, and are worth the price of the publication alone. All are listed scrupulously in an appendix, along with their sources.
The book’s richness of detail, and its wealth of illustration will be invaluable to those engaged in restoration projects. Sections on flowers. shrubs, the wilderness, the kitchen garden, statuary, grates, grilles, greenhouses and the like will provide suggestive models to follow. The largely chronological approach will also allow restorers and conservationists to align practice and period. However, there is a sense at times that the chronological structure of the book means that key themes remain underexplored. There is, for example, at various points fascinating material on nurseries (such as the Brompton Park Nursery formed in 1681 by the professional head gardeners Roger Looker, John Field, Moses Cook and George London) and garden undertakers, that raises the questions whether this might not have been better gathered together in a chapter on its own, where the whole issue of the commercialisation of gardening might have been addressed. The Brompton Nursery was located in Kensington, then in open country on the western and fashionable edge of a London that was rapidly expanding to become the largest city in Western Europe. On several occasions the gardens of the metropolis and its squares are referred to, there is mention of Dezallier d’Argenville’s The Theory of the Practice of Gardening (1712) as a text dealing with the ‘gardens of the town and the suburb’, and the wonderfully detailed painting of the formal garden (c. 1705) of Pierrepont House in Nottingham is reproduced. But the issue of the urban garden and green landscape (on which there is now a good deal of research), and how its development relates to its rural counterpart, is never systematically addressed.
One subject that recurs frequently is the influence of national styles on attitudes and practices in gardening. In the introductory section the author notes that ‘much had been made by some authors of Italian, French and Dutch influences on English garden style in the formal gardens period’, but takes the view that ‘there are always difficulties in pinpointing the characteristics that especially denote national style, but even if some are identified, they rarely transfer in an unambiguous fashion’ . On the face of it this is a sensible approach. However, later discussion seems to endorse the notion of a national style. There are references to ‘the French example’ ; the French and Dutch influences on Charles II’s ‘two canal-cum-avenue projects’ at Hampton Court, ‘which were unlike anything seen in England before’ ; the hesitancy of Charles II’s nobility and gentry ‘to embrace the French example’ ; the ‘aspect of the increasing French influence upon English gardens in the 1680s’ provided by ‘a passion for flowers’ ; and the fact that though from the 1690s ‘France may have been war with Britain, yet it remained the country to emulate in artistic matters’ . It is not necessarily contradictory to be sceptical about national characteristics in art, at the same time as recognising such characteristics exist and are influential, at least in the minds of contemporaries. But there is an ambivalence here that could be investigated systematically in a separate chapter. This would allow theories of cultural transmission and transnationalism to be examined in an age when there was an increasing flow of cultural forms and ideas across Europe and indeed the world (the text touches on this when it refers to the way that ‘the rapidly expanding world of trade brought hitherto unknown plants of all forms from all climatic zones’ ). The brief sections on Scottish, Irish and American gardens – which have the appearance of an afterthought – could also be meaningfully incorporated in this chapter, with the issue of cultural flows and identity examined from within as well as without the British national and imperial polity.
Important as these issues are, they may be asking the book to go beyond its own reasonable remit, which is to force us to rethink the significance of the formal garden in the received view of English garden history, and to do so by providing a richly researched and detailed narrative of the years 1630 to 1730. Read in these terms there can be no doubt about the success of Jacques’ impressive study.
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