Garden History – issues by Sara Venn

June 13, 2011

in Articles, General Interest

The use of ‘historic styles’ in gardens raises some interesting questions and deserves some thought from thinking gardeners. As indeed does the import of styles from different countries and cultures. Sara Venn discusses some of the problems.

Anne Wareham, editor

Kenilworth Castle Elizabethan Garden Copyright Anne Wareham 20130909_155830.S

Kenilworth Castle Elizabethan Garden. Historic. Ish..

Sara Venn:

It is frequently the case with garden history books that gardens are seen within their own culture with little or no background information on what was going on elsewhere within the era of the garden to explain its design.

Garden history, as an academic subject, needs to be seen within the whole context of its time, not as a stand alone subject. Without this it can make little or no sense, particularly when looking at such massive areas as Islamic gardens, for example, which were created over hundreds of years and have subtle but defining differences within them. Equally, to truly understand the English Landscape Movement it is vital to understand the Whig politics of the time and see the making of such Arcadian landscapes as part of this political movement.

Many books appear to offer the reader an almost step by step account of how to  design a garden within the confines of a specific genre of garden history, but how is that possible outside of that era, and why would that be wanted anyway? It seems strange to me that, outside  the confines of a museum, anyone would want a garden designed totally within an ancient/past culture. How can that give them a garden that is useful to them today?

On the other hand there appears to be  a market for gardens designed with several historic themes in mind all at once. Recently I heard of a request for a “Japanese style modern cottage garden” and was dumbstruck at the horror that could unfurl. Japanese gardens have no perennials other than a few water plants perhaps, cottage gardens don’t do bonsai and modern gardens veer away from cottage gardens. And then I remembered a garden that I was involved with at Chelsea in 2009  whose concept was indeed Japanese and English cottage garden combined. But it didn’t work there either as it was neither one or the other and so made little sense, something that was seen in its lack of success with the RHS judges.

Within the history of design of course it is imperative that we take influence from what has gone before, and in this it is important that the designer has the knowledge to be able to do this well in whatever their field of design is. However, the measure of success in doing this should be in the execution of a design that has taken influence from the past in order to make a design for the present and future within the parameters of today’s world. Whatever is being designed, be it clothing, offices, gardens or furniture, this should be the case.

However, within garden design historical elements often appear for no apparent reason when often another feature would have been more practical or aesthetically pleasing.  It has occurred to me that when I was (?)  studying Fine Art, a basically practical subject, 40% of the  final examination mark was from an Art History paper that was an essential part of the course. It was not possible to pass the course at all without passing both written and practical parts of the course.  Wondering whether it was the same for Garden Design qualifications I decided to look at the syllabus of several colleges, only to find that many did not address garden history at all and of those that did it made up less than 10% of the course.

My point then is that I believe garden history to be an important part of the cultural history of not only its famous eras but of all eras. But  whereas we are apt to visit and take influence from the large and well known gardens, we rarely look at what today would be seen as an average garden and how the average person or family of a given period used their outside space. This tends to mean that garden history is seen as a design history and the use of plants during the period being discussed is  hardly addressed.  This seems to miss out on so much when considering how the use of plants throughout history has been vital to each periods cultural, culinary and medicinal persona .

It is easily forgotten that only recently has the average person been able to use their garden as a purely recreational space and plants as mere decoration, without having to provide food or medicines from their garden. So perhaps this is something that could , or should, be focused as well as the design of historic gardens.

Sara Venn



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