|"Beautiful nature" in the 18th century: Pope's Garden at Twickenham, c.1730, by William Kent. From the British Museum|
“Follow Nature. Gardening is an imitation of “Beautiful Nature” and not works of Art.”
In 1751 the Reverend Joseph Spence, who is not nearly so well-known to garden history as his friend Alexander Pope, penned a list of sixteen “general rules” for the design of landscapes. The first repeats Pope’s all too famous “consult the genius of the place” aphorism, but the other rules are actually more interesting, and I particularly like his recommendation for imitating “Beautiful Nature”, because that’s really what all gardeners, and all gardens, seek to do in their own way.
But by modern lights few of us would call Spence's ideal--Pope’s garden at Twickenham (above)--so very natural.
In a way that's what enables garden history: the fact that the sort of Nature we perceive as being beautiful, and therefore want to create in our gardens, is constantly changing.
|"Beautiful Nature" in the 21st Century|
Thus the paeans to philosophy in the eighteenth century garden, and the paens to ecology in ours. The more we view the wild as precious, the more we seek to create it. Reverend Spence might not recognize the forms, but he would surely be in comity with the means, because the 21st century garden above still follows his rules:
4. Assist or correct the general character of the ground
5. Conceal any disagreeable object
6. Open a view to whatever is agreeable (n.b. Spence would definitely have taken out that middle tree)
8. Conceal the bounds of your garden everywhere
10. Contrive the outer parts to unite well with the country around them
Is a carefully constructed rock bridge more 'natural', more wild, than a shell-encrusted grotto? No, yet I don't think that's a bad thing. Defining a garden style as particularly ‘natural’ has frequently been a way to scorn previous styles by attaching to them the scurrilous ‘unnatural'. Horrors! But all designed landscapes are places of artifice. Even if (especially if?) they're made of weeds.
|The award-winning 2009 'Crack Garden' by CMG Architecture featuring aesthetically pleasing weeds.|
Only in our time would this be considered beautiful.
Make no doubt about it, these weeds are carefully pruned and controlled...and quite unnatural. How we achieve our imitation of wild and beautiful nature is always a subject of debate. William Robinson’s 1870 The Wild Garden (available in its entirety on google books) is currently having a resurgence of popularity, but it’s appropriate to question his enthusiastic championing for introducing hardy exotics into native plant areas. Frederick Law Olmsted, that great 'constructor of nature' followed Robinson's ideas, but botanist Charles Sprague Sargent disagreed so fiercely that he demanded that 'his' side of the Boston riverway project be planted only with natives in direct challenge to FLO's side, which mixed in exotics. And I get snippy about the faddish ‘prairie garden’ of European descent, because it doesn't look like real prairie to this native; just like an English perennial bed in a grassy dress.
|"Beautiful Nature" c. 1870: the frontispiece of William Robinson's The Wild Garden|
I love 'wild gardens', and my own landscape is wild-ish more by default than by pure intent. But I also want to continue to see other forms of created nature. On this debate, we must let the Reverend Spence have the final word. His own landscape had a kitchen garden, and a fruit orchard, and a grassy meadow 'dashed with trees' and sandy paths for walking and flowering evergreens and a long view of the hills. "Variety" he said, summed it up. "Study variety in all things."
[Sources: Reverend Spence's list can be found in Ann Leighton's American Gardens in the Eighteenth Century" or in The Genius of the Place: the English Landscape Garden 1620-1820 edited by John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis. The lattter also contains the description of Spence's garden. Both should be in any serious garden historian's library. The best discussion of the concept of the wild garden in the 20th Century is Nature and Ideology: Natural Garden Design in the Twentieth Century, Volume 18 in the Dumbarton Oaks series, edited by Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn. It's an excellent scholarly overview, though expensive, and I found the reference to the dispute between Olmsted and Sprague there. The best wild gardener, for my money, was Jens Jensen, about whom we'll talk more in the future. And in the interest of full disclosure, this post has been prompted by a conversation with House Beautiful magazine. Which is good, because it has gotten me posting again.]