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British Garden History

For a very brief overview of garden history see Future gardens

This series of articles is about garden history, but garden history mostly from the perspective of the West and with an antipodean slant. To understand horticulture in Australia we must reach back into the horticulture of Britain, and to understand the horticulture of Britain we must have some idea of the horticulture of Europe and the ancient world.

Garden history is a young discipline. The web site Garden History Society of Britain claims itself as the oldest society in the world dedicated to the conservation and study of historic designed gardens and landscapes: it was founded in 1966 and its journal Garden History remains a world leader in the field. The Australian Garden History Society was formed in 1980 and also produces its own journal, the Australian Garden History Society Journal.

The history of Western gardens and their design is now a well-worked field of study: articles here can add little that is new. What they can provide however is an Australian perspective, a slightly different synthesis of familiar themes … a kind of local history within a grand tradition.

The long tradition
From English garden history we have a strong sense of historical continuity. Australia’s gardening conventions, as inherited from the English, draw on 3000 years of world history passing back to the ancient civilisations of Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Near East, Persia, Greece, and the Mediterranean – all absorbed and embellished by the imperial Romans who introduced them to Celtic Britain during the 400-year British occupation from c.65-410 CE.

Christianity had arrived in England at the time of the Roman occupation and with the departure of the Roman garrisons Britain entered a relatively passive period of Christian Medieval monastic life, some would say a ‘Dark Age’, punctuated by repeated invasion – first from Anglo-Saxons, then Vikings and finally the Normans before the arrival of new and more humanistic ideas as the continental Renaissance arrived. Horticultural trends and practices in Britain were now largely influenced by the political and economic fortunes of countries in continental Europe and the fashions of their royal courts and aristocracy. With the waxing and waning of different countries came influences from Italy, Holland, Spain, the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere on the continent. In the modern era this is sometimes presented as a path of ‘progress‘ from Italian Renaissance to French formal, Dutch, English landscape then possibly picturesque or gardenesque.

As Britain gradually took charge of the seas, gathering influence in the 17th century in the 18th centuries to eventually become the world’s greatest empire since the Romans, Britain itself finally emerged as the glorious and coveted centre of the Western horticultural world. Napoleon had famously described England as a nation of shopkeepers. It would have been more apt if he had noted his wife Josephine‘s horticultural interests and association with England, and described them as a nation of gardeners.

Although Britain’s imperial lands have now shrivelled and its political and economic fortunes waned to see Britain as just one of several European powers its pre-eminence in the Western gardening world has remained unchallenged: it is a position that is has been tenaciously held on to.

With the social democratisation of society in the twentieth century virtually complete, horticulture has taken on a new guise touched only obliquely by the rich and famous. But until that time gardening in Britain was largely for the wealthy in an artistic tradition that could be traced through history into the mists of pre-history.

The rise of British horticulture
It is Britain that, from the 17th century, rose to take centre-stage in the European world of gardening.

One person in particular galvanised this English pre-eminence, Joseph Banks (1743-1820), who was known and respected throughout Europe in science generally but especially in the subjects that were his passion, botany and horticulture. We can also add Philip Miller as one of the founding fathers of the grand tradition of British horticulture.

With formation of the Royal Society in 1804 and the rise of Imperial Britain in the 19th century the English pre-eminence continued and remained secure. In simple ways we still see this: it is England that has produced The European Garden Flora (1986-2000); Europe’s most comprehensive list of garden plants, the RHS Plant Finder; its most prestigious garden exhibition, the Chelsea Flower Show; its best known Botanic garden, the renowned and revered Royal Botanic Gardens Kew; and an impressive gathering of garden writers and garden authorities of various kinds that are respected across the old imperial world and beyond.

So it was that in 1788 the British culture arrived in a new continent juxtaposed with a stone-age Aboriginal culture that had by-passed the Neolithic Revolution. British settlers regarded agriculture as the mark of moral development, a stepping stone on the path to civilisation. New Holland’s Aboriginals were exposed to agriculture through the cultures to the north of the continent but, it seems, found it an unnecessarily cumbersome lifestyle that involved unnecessary toil, only adopting its practices in a few places and in the simplest of ways.

Australian garden history
So what are the factors about Australia that are unique, different or special, and which deserve more of our attention? I have isolated five themes that will be explored in the articles that follow: Aboriginal horticulture; prctical horticulture at the time of settlement; gardening as high art and landscape design; Australia as a Neo-Europe; globalisation and postmodern sustainability.

Aboriginal horticulture
Australia is a continent with a deep awareness of its colonial history, confronting in a more direct way than most other countries, the clash of two vastly different cultures, the Aboriginal and European; an 18th century meeting of a Stone Age culture and one that had been among the last in Europe to adopt agriculture but the first to embark on an Industrial Revolution. Across the world imperial Europeans confronted indigenous people and their starkly different beliefs about the land, its meaning, and the way it should be managed: for Australia, as elsewhere, it was a momentous turning point in the continent’s environmental history.

Britons arriving in Australia would not have questioned their past – it was all they knew. They arrived with a ‘ready-made plant package’, a botanical and horticultural tradition that in their eyes was as good, if not better, than anywhere else in Europe – as an advanced European nation the British came assuming they had the world’s most sophisticated and progressive intellectual and physical tools to manage vegetation for both food and ornament.

As history is reinterpreted, paradigms change. We can no longer view the critical moment of horticulture’s arrival in Australia through the lens of a Christian belief system, a European conviction of racial superiority, and the Enlightenment belief in a simple and straight path of European cultural progress and improvement – which was the broad context in which horticulture arrived on these shores. What this means is that we must re-visit the past with fresh eyes, examining Aboriginal plant cultivation, its horticulture and agriculture, with respect to its aims and objectives. This approach also means applying an even-handed critical eye to the aims and objectives, strengths and weaknesses, of ‘European-style’ horticulture. Whatever techno-industrial society has offered us as a lifestyle, its environmental record stands in poor relief against the environmental record of the Aboriginal. In Australia this stark contrast invites us to revisit fundamental questions about western attitudes to landscape, civic space, and gardening itself. In Australia, much more than in Britain, we might ask ourselves the question ‘In retrospect, was European horticulture good for the continent?’ And regardless of our answer to this question we must confront another question ‘Is what we inherited from our European forebears what we would choose again today? And, if our answer is in the negative, how would we have made it different? The cultural circumstances in Britain today make these questions of less urgency.

From Bronze Age to now – the place of horticulture in the broader landscape
How would the continent of Australia look now if it had been settled, as we know could have happened, by a different European nation like the Portuguese, Dutch or French. Maybe not a great deal different from the way it looks now. But what if it had been settled by Chinese seafarers, Asians to the northwest, or the Austronesians who people the land in an arc across the north and east of Australia?

How and why, as civilizations emerged in the Bronze Age, space was allocated to its various social functions and where horticulture within this scheme. This then becomes a new examination of garden history from the broad prespective of the place of designed designed landscapes, including gardens, within the broader landscape. A question that lies perhaps on the boundary between garden history and environmental history.

From Mediterranean to Britain then Australia – horticultural globalisation
Then there is the wide-ranging general question posed for environmental and cultural history. How did horticulture, which had its origins in the Fertile Crescent, the Near East, and the lands bordering the limpid caerulean waters of the Mediterranean, find its greatest expression in the cool-temperate north-west European British Isles, and what are the broad environmental implications, and reasons for its subsequent transplantation to the other side and hemisphere of the planet?

Australia as a Neo-Europe
The scale of British influence on the world environment can hardly be overestimated. Imperial Britain left a strong cultural legacy in America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, South America, India, the Pacific and beyond. Environmental historian Alfred Crosby expresses one aspect of this infl;uence through his the idea of the Neo-Europes and the exchange of animals and plants that took place between countries under British occupation. Most tellingly Crosby points out how temperate agricultural crops were exported to take advantage of the massive lucrative ‘land grabs’ of the 19th century that occurred in North American as part of the rush from the East Coast to the hoped-for riches of the West. In Australia arable land was rapidly bought up in central Tasmania, SW Australia, and in an eastern arc running from Victoria into Queensland in a patttern that had its parallels in South America, South Africa, New Zealand, and elsewhere. Crosby drew a picture of a kind of agricultural environmental take-over in the Neo-Europes but it was also an exchange, albeit unequal. Europeans took in the material resources and agricultural products of empire to support the rapidly growing population and Industrial Revolution. In return there was employment and access to European products but the devastation of European diseases that wreaked more havoc on indigenous peoples that slavery or violence.

Crosby’s interpretation of events applies just as much, if not more so, to horticulture although the scale of horticulture’s impact on the world’s landscapes is much less, noting that in terms of urban environments it is much greater.

Our historical literature concerning ‘imperial gardening’ lies almost exclusively within the realm of gardens as art. Emphasis now and in the future is likely to see a shift towards gardens as environment, a story that still has much to be told and here Australia can lead the way.

As the world population climbs towards 9-10 billion, human impact on the natural environment is becoming more evident in global ecologicy and climate change just one factor of human influence in global biogeochemical cycling of chemicals critical to living systems. Articles can therefore provide, through ‘Sustainability Analysis”, an appraisal of Australia’s past horticultural environmental, social, and economic impacts as a means of informing future horticultural management.

A global and Australian perspective
It is a matter of perspective. Australia has treated English and Australian horticulture as more-or-less one-and-the-same, and for good reason. But there is now emerging a global perspective: it acknowledges the horticultural debt countries like America, New Zealand and Canada owe to English tradition but it looks to the future through a new lens, one in which each country pursues with greater vigour, not so much British gardening values and goals, more global and national goals.

These articles
To these ends this suite of articles explores, in summary form, the history and influences bearing on the development of gardening in Britain, from prehistory to the present day. This background matter forms the foundation of the cumulated horticultural tradition that arrived in and dominated Australian horticulture into the 1960s: it is a gardening heritage that Australia shares with other temperate countries under the influence of the old British empire – countries like the United States, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. In all these countries it was essentially English horticulture, with all its historical cultural accretions, that was imported and took root. In Australia, it is only since the 1960s and the advent of a native plant tradition, that there has been any significant divergence from European tradition.

So, the objective is to determine, as accurately as possible: when, where, and why our various gardening traditions, practices, and design elements were established as a way of increasing our understanding of their role in the future; the changing historical role of designed landscapes; and the role of gardens and horticulture in protecting the global environment for future generations.

The articles run in a chronological sequence of historical periods; they could just as wwell have been presented in terms of periods of intellectual change, from Renaissance to Enlightenment, Romanticism , Modernism, Postmodernism etc.

Sustainability is addressed through the notes on social context and meaning and changes in garden and designed landscape elements over time. Plants are considered for each historical period with a discussion of new introductions and develoments in economic botany. For each period there is a short consideration of changes in attitude towards land tenure, the use of designed space and its relation to the broader environment.

Global goals are generated from several sources:

  • instant communication through global media and the internet produces an instant global pool of knowledge and ideas making it difficult to determine their origin
  •   what is true of information is also true of technology which is soon available world-wide
  •   there are global environmental concerns like the current and potential future impacts of climate change (including fire, drought, flooding, pests and diseases), concerns about food security and water depletion
  •   with increasing urbanisation there is an increasingly shared approach to horticulture in cities, the environmentally sensitive design of urban space

But there are also signs of an increased concern with the local which can be seen in several ways:

  •   an increased awareness of the wisdom of working with the local ecology rather than imposing often resource-hungry and expensive new methods
  •   a desire to maintain local traditions, cultures, and landscapes

Gardens are a fascinating amalgam of botany, horticulture, art, science, culture, nature, and much more, their structure and function reflecting the political, economic and social conditions of the societies in which they were created.

When Roman garrisons arrived in Britannia they brought with them a new way of managing plants – gardening. Caesar reports that though he encountered forest clearings there was no gardening worth speaking of. Over a short 100-year period of Roman occupation tribal Britons were exposed to the elaborate technological sophistication of Roman villas (with elaborate underfloor heating, baths, kitchens using previously unknown spices and foods), roads, buildings, administration, coinage, a written history.

It was a clash of cultures not altogether unlike the arrival of the English on Australia’s east coast.

Why are the English ‘All, more or less, gardeners’ (as garden historian Andrea Wulf expresses the question through a quote from a German translation of Miller‘s Dictionary)?

Insofar as it is people that determine history then I’ll let Andrea Wulf answer in her own words:

Without the achievements of Miller, Collinson, Bartram, Linnaeus, Solander and Banks, England would not have become such a nation of gardeners. Miller taught his fellow countrymen practical horticulture with his matter-of-fact advice in the Dictionary – making it the model for all future plant encyclopaedias. Collinson and Bartram enabled plant-lovers to translate their ideas about the ‘natural’ Arcadian landscape into reality – incidentally nurturing the commercial seed trade and nurseries in England. Linnaeus and Solander transformed botany from the scholarly pursuit of a few educated men to a common pastime, for without the standardisation of plant names there would have been chaos and confusion, making it impossible for people to share botanical knowledge and research. Banks built on these achievements when he consolidated practical horticulture, systematic botany and imperial expansion into a coherent enterprise. As President of the Royal Society, member of the Privy Council, confidant of King George III and founder of the Horticultural Society, he, more than anyone before or after, saw how the three elements could bring pleasure and prosperity to the nation[1]

Citations & notes
[1] Wulf 2009, p. 241

General references
Crosby, A.W. 2009. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900–1900 (2nd edn). Cambridge University Press: New York
Harvey, J. 1981. Medieval Gardens. Batsford: London
Harvey, J. 1986. Medieval Garden . pp. 362-367. In: Jellicoe, S. & G. et al. 1986. The Oxford Companion to Gardens. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Hoskins, W.G. 1991.The Making of the English Landscape. Revised edition. Penguin: London
Hyams, E. 1971. A History of Gardens and Gardening. Praeger: New York
Hyams, E. 1971. Plants in the Service of Man: 10,000 years of Domestication. Dent: London
Jellicoe, S. & G. et al. 1986. The Oxford Companion to Gardens. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Shoemaker, C.A. 2001. Encyclopaedia of Gardens: History and Design. vols 1 & 2. Fitzroy Dearborn: Chicago.
Short, P. S. (ed.) 1990. History of Systematic Botany in Australia. Australian Systematic Botany Society: Melbourne
Stroebel, M. 2010. Australian Scholarly Publishing: North Melbourne
Taylor, P. (ed.) 2006. Medieval Gardens. In: The Oxford Companion to the Garden. p. 305. Oxford University Press: Oxford
Thacker, C. 1979. The History of Gardens. University of California Press: California
Uglow, J. 2005. A Little History of British Gardening. Pimlico: London
Wulf, A. 2009. The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire and the Birth of an Obsession. Windmill Books: London

Elizabeth II

Elizabeth II attending the prestigious and worlf-famous Chelsea Flower Show in 2012, 150 years after its inception in 1862

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