The arrival of gardening in Britain
From Fertile Crescent to the Romans
We assume that gardening arrived in Britain with the Romans whose influences can be clearly traced to the Bronze Age civilizations of the Fertile Crescent, and later the civilisations of the Mediterranean and Near East. Of course gardens were just one part of the urban space in these early city states.
We can imagine a gradual transition from the sacred grove to more formal temple or henge-like sites for social gatherings.
Through the Greek and Roman periods can be seen the transfer of the sacred grove of tree trunks out of nature and into the urban and civic sacred environment as the stone temple and its columns, arches connecting the columns sometimes taking on the form of a conopy enclosing the sacred space below, the connection to nature reinforced by entablature of carved acanthus and other leaves and vines.
As part of an examination of the beliefs, attitudes and assumptions that arrived in Australia with the early settlers the environmental historian looks first at the way that physical space, the land, is divided up or ‘categorised’ in the mind of the occupier, because it is according to these categories that the land is managed. We know that there was a gulf of difference between the categories/perceptions of the Aboriginal and those of the British settler. Firstly, settlers arrived with the idea that land was either ‘public’ (collectively owned and used) or ‘private’ (owned and used according to the wishes of a single person or small group of people). The question of land and property ownership is discussed here but suffice it to say here that it was the settler idea of land ‘ownership’ (an idea that is alien to the Aborigines in the European sense) that was at the heart of the British policy of terra nullius.
When settlers landed on Australia the entire continent became, effectively, privately owned by the British monarch (the ‘Crown’, King George III), to be divided up according to his wishes, although in practice this devolved onto other entities like parliament, the public service, the Governor and others).
The suite of articles on gardening through the ages in Europe was needed to establish the further categories used by settlers to divide up public and private land, considered here a primary division, together with the reasons for that division and the framework of values that would dictate the broad path for the design of our parks and gardens to the present day. Landscape architect, archaeologist and garden historian Kathryn Gleason identifies three sets of opposing ideas (dialectics) that have driven Western garden culture: pleasure vs utility, public vs private, and informal vs formal. To these three can be added the perhaps presumed overriding tension between nature and culture and its subordinate opposites natural vs artificial, and wild vs cultivated.
If this provides us with a dialectic of ideas and values, then what about the actual design elements, where did they come from? What might at first sight be summarised as Greco-Roman can potentially include a melting pot ofmany cultures: Carthaginians, Egyptians, Etruscans, ?Hittites, Judaeans, Libyans, Lydians, Mesopotamians, Minoans, Mycenaeans, Nabataeans, Persians, Phoenicians, and Syrians to name a few. But we can perhaps for the sake of making some headway accept certain accretions. We know for example that at the time of Britain’s Roman occupation there were no gardens there to speak of and that to describe the origins of British gardening as ‘Roman’ is accurate providing we recognise that ‘Roman’ means the accretion of many influences that made up Roman gardening. produced the Roman other influences after the Roman occupation. We know that the powerful Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations would surely have absorbed Much has been written about British garden history to which I can add little if anything. However, in developing this Australian perspective it was clear that it would be necessary to summarise the key practices and ideas that came to Australia from Britain (with all its own cultural accretions) both at the time of settlement and after –key ideas relating especially to the social context of gardens, the elements and ideas of garden design, garden technology, economic botany, the process of plant introduction and distribution, and the general influence of gardening on the wider cultural landscape.
This suite of articles on the British legacy to Australian gardening looks at the major historical periods of British garden history through the lens of the above categories. It is just a brief summary with all the failings of a synthesis that covers both a long period of time and a world of space, but it does provide a ‘quick-reference’ framework of ideas from which to view the future.
These summary articles have drawn heavily on several key British syntheses of the general topic: The Oxford Companion to Gardens, Garden Styles: An Illustrated History of Design and Tradition and The Making of the English Landscape revised and amended by Taylor and Jenny Uglow’s A Little History of British Gardening.
British gardens did not develop in isolation. From their classical beginnings in the gardens of ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, Greece and Rome we can see that much of what we are familiar with in our gardens and general urban design has come to us from this Mediterranean melting pot and its resurrection during the Renaissance as reinvigorated old ideas spread across Europe from south to north. Britain, as an isolated island in the north west of Europe, was at the end of this process. Aware of its isolation ideas from the continent were at first borrowed and emulated, first from Italy as interpreter of the great classical era of horticulture and then, often through royal connections, from France, Holland and elsewhere in Europe. The Renaissance was especially important for gardens where ‘… what is immediately striking is the importance that for400 or 500 years was attached to gardens as emblems of status and expressions of taste. Great talents were employed and great resources lavished on projects that, in many cases, would be considered ambitious even with the advantages of modern technology’. Perhaps, since Britain has been such a force in gardening, an ‘outside’ perspective is needed to comment on the next phase of western garden history.
Garden design ideas of the 18th century, the ‘landscape movement’, left an imprint on Britain that remains today. And as British economic and political power increased, so too did its ‘gardening’ status within Europe. Britain, for so long a minor horticultural presence, suddenly had gardening ideas that appealed to Europe’s rich, intelligent and powerful. Britain’s scientists and intellectuals were as capable as those anywhere in Europe and as they sailed out on voyages of distant scientific discovery it also became evident that the British navy would soon rule the waves. Now, resisting continental formality Britain had followed its own path, opting for more relaxed and natural landscapes with less artifice. This new independent approach was viewed from the continent with approval and suddenly among Europe’s rich and powerful there emerged the desire for Le Jardin Anglais. From this point on, Britain’s gardening has not looked back. It was during this period of British ascendancy, when European interest in gardens and plants was at an all-time high (botanophilia), that British feet first stepped on Australian soil. Through the Victorian period of empire the influence Britain had now gained in Europe was to spread across the world – to America, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the Caribbean, the East Indies and elsewhere.
English garden historian Edward Hyams makes a revealing remark in his A History of Gardens and Gardening (1971): ‘It might be suspected that the author, being English and writing from an English point of view, is giving more than their proper importance to British gardeners and garden styles. But considerable pains have been taken to refer to French, German and American authorities, and the fact clearly emerges that at this time, while gardens were being made increasingly by the middle-classes as well as by the gentry, in every civilised, properous country in the world they were being made in one, or a mixture, of the styles perfected in the past. Only in Britain and Ireland was the art of gardens still growing towards a conclusion which was by now in sight. [Though in other countries] advances in scientific horticulture were great; but there were none in the art of composing a garden except in Britain.’
Though Britain’s empire has now dissolved, its horticultural legacy has not. Even so, we are now entering a new global phase of history in which British historical influence is strong but its control weak: it is a time for reappraisal.
Gardens as social history
For a style of gardening to be accepted and widely followed, social and economic conditions must be such that the making of gardens in that style is materially possible … Only the existence of quite a large class of rich nobility and gentry in eighteenth-century England made the works of Brown and Repton possible
[Hyams, p. 322]
Gardens, as we know them, are surplus to necessity. They are therefore, as they have always been, the domain of people with the time to devote to their planning and organisation, and the labour needed to create and maintain them. To produce gardens of any scale therefore involves the command of considerable forces of energy in the form of creative ideas and manual labour – or, in simple terms, money. Perhaps this is a crude simplification of the story of history itself?
Historically, those people possessing the luxury of excess over necessity in time, creativity, labour, and money have been the most privileged and influential within their communities – the pharaohs, princes and princesses, kings and queens, moghuls, czars, lords and ladies, dukes and duchesses, emperors and other assorted rulers. It is not surprising then that the history of gardening turns out in many ways to be simply part of the social history of the rich and powerful (see socialladder in TheGreat Chain of Being). How could things be different?
Well, today there are collective administrative bodies like powerful corporations or government authorities like municipal councils, botanic gardens, or forestry commissions that command large areas of public or private space. Sometimes nowadays small private companies are employed to carry out large design works.
The simple point is that gardens reflect social authority structures and that over time there has been a shift from powerful individuals at the head of society to either government authorities or some sort of public or private administrative arm.
‘The modern rich are not leaders in the arts they are followers …'[Hyams, p. 324] As Hyams goes on to point out – now there are rich corporations and affluent municipalities though ‘… the class of small clients for the garden artist is more numerous than ever before’.[H, p. 325] More and more people though desiing a garden are not prepared to sacrifice the time that it demands. Here we now have the small-scale paid gardeners and designers of various kinds creating gardens, not as ‘separate’ spaces but as a pleasing ambience for recreation and relaxation.
As we admire the creative genius of the glorious gardens and walthy lifestyles of the past it seems that there was a moment in in the 1960s history when the horror of sprawling suburban mediocrity was drowning everything. We have certainly paid a price for greater social equality. But we do have choice, something unknown to our ancestors, and nowadays we can enjoy our own creative garden space, maintained by ourselves or not, while having access to simulacra of the great landscaped spaces of the wealthy of yesteryear our parks and botanical gardens. Perhaps that is not so bad.
The basic elements of the Anglo-European and therefore Neo-European cultural landscapes boil down to the relative proportions of elements within a mosaic pattern of field and hedgerow, hamlet (town) and farm, segmented by lane and road, canal, river and lake. To this can be added a natural landscape consisting of woodland, heaths, moors, fens, mountains, water bodies, and barren land. The process of landscape change entailed the clearing and creation of fields, there are the changing patterns of increasing settlement, introduction of enclosure, and changing approaches to field management.
One result of powerful democratic institutions is that it becomes difficult to target ultimate responsibility because responsibility reflects back on the community itself. If, like Professor Hoskins, we love the natural landscape and deplore modern developments that have devastated it – the airfields, golf courses, super-farms, sprawling towns and cities, featureless factories and industrial estates, and the multi-lane highways that have ‘destroyed cultural meaning or been simply ugly’ (Professor Hoskins & Taylor) then we must look to ourselves rather than ‘faceless planners, mindless civil servants … or wild politicians’. Is democracy a move towards the acceptance of the lowest common denominator?
Gardening in antiquity – summary adding Greece, Mesopotamia, Mycenae, Minoans.
Gather summary information:
Starting afresh, how would we have done things differently or, in other words, what have we learned from history?
In spite of the difficulty of constructing a precise definition of a garden (see ‘On Gardens’) we can nevertheless draw out three repeated general themes: production (vegetables, herbs, fruits); decoration and display; and recreation, relaxation and meditation.
As in other arts, we can view the historical process of garden creation and design as a working through of logical possibilities. In music we have rhythm, melody and pitch along with timbre, metre, dynamics and texture as the basic tools with which to create compositions of sound, and in the course of the history of Western music we can see how, over time, composers have combined these elements in different and new ways. In garden design we have the garden space with a soft landscape of trees, shrubs, and herbs to combine in various ways with a hard landscape of buildings and other hard structures. The conventions of composition though involving general artistic concepts relating to colour, rhythm, texture, balance and so on result in a spectrum of formality and informality based on various elaborations of straight lines and curves with an overall appearance that tends towards or away from natural landscapes. Unlike paintings, gardens are three-dimensional creations that change in time.
Possibilities, though in principle infinite, in practice are constrained by the availability of two key factors: space and labour.
the amount of space available and the seem to s, as in the other arts, to have much already established in antiquity.
In gardening, as in society at large, it seems that throughout history, fashion, ideas, traditions and even values, were the preserve of a small privileged social elite. This is especially evident in the study of garden history. A student soon learns that, so far as Britain is concerned anyway, garden history seems to emanate from the royal court, the gentry and their country estates and, as times became more propitious, a wealthy merchant class. It is tempting to correct this apparent bias by a more systematic exploration of the lives and gardens of the ‘common man’, the people who made up by far the greater part of the population. Sadly, although this story must be told, in so doing it becomes evident that history as ’the story of kings and queens’ has tended to be that way in large part because it was the kings and queens who set the agenda for peoples’ lives – politically, economically, and culturally. Much of British society from the Roman occupation to the twentieth century did not have the means to develop ideas, and it seems fair to say that, anyway, most either accepted the given social order or aspired to the lives of their social betters. Only in the twentieth century can we see the independence of spirit that came with a more general affluence, the relaxation of rigid class barriers, the emancipation of women, and more universal access to education – the democratisation of gardening.