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Modernism c. 1900-2020

The last 100 years of gardening has seen a further broadening out of ideas and influences from a wider geographic and social base. Gardening, like the rest of society, is a product of scale – becoming globalised while of necessity also engaging the local. Though there is still a vanguard of ideas in garden design and horticultural practice (with money, leisure and physical space ever at a premium) the creative drivers are tending to come from academia, government departments and the new discipline of landscape architecture but swamped by the army of home gardeners and an unprecedented proliferation of social media.

In history the modern period or modern era generally refers to that time following the Middle Ages and is usually further divided into the Early Modern Period preceding the Age of Revolutions (c. 1500-1800) and the Late Modern Period following the French and Industrial Revolutions. Contemporary history (recent history) covers approximately the last 80 years. Modern literature covers the period 1900-1920 and architecture from 1920 to ?1972. In art history ‘modernism’ (sometimes called the Modern Age) refers to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The very uncertainty and diversity suggested by the word ‘modern’ indicates the character of the times.

Historical context

For our purposes ‘modernism’ refers mostly to the time after WWI marked by the disillusionment of two wars and a reaction against traditional ideas about literature, the arts, religion, and social organization followed by the rapid growth of cities in the West, the new intellectual freedom absorbing the impacts of evolutionary theory, the disintegration of class and gender barriers, the rise of mass media, and distinctive new forms of art and architecture: it included the critical re-evaluation of the institutions of family, home, country, and tradition.

At the turn of the 20th century Britain was still the major world power. Americans were
unashamedly regarded as cultural philistines, and little notice was taken of this economic powerhouse. Places like Australia and New Zealand were antipodean colonial outposts of little consequence in the arena of art and politics although, economically they did supply wool and other products of the land to the mother country.

In America, tycoons, unfettered by the heavy taxes that had crippled Britain’s plutocracy, set about creating gardens in the European French, Italian and naturalistic styles but ‘..the late 19th and early 20th century did not … see any original work in design of gardens’.[2]

Coastal Mediterranean gardens of the Italian and French Rivieras, with their agreeable climate, flourished with the palette of plants that had been newly introduced in the 19th century.

Landscape architecture was beginning and Britain, in 1929, followed American Frederick Law Olmsted in setting up an Institute of Landscape Architects. This was an early sign of a Britain, sitting astride the world of Western horticulture, being gradually drawn into the post-war global community. American landscape architect rebel Thomas Church (1902-1978) from Harvard university’s Graduate School of Design resisted his training in the Beaux Arts tradition, instead experimenting in the 1930s with new and creative designs that came directly to terms with modern living and the small residential garden, especially the outdoor living space in places like California that took account of the car, BBQ, decking and outdoor living in general. He and his students have left a legacy in Australia and, in Britain too as its climate shows signs of warming up.

These Americans like other designers of the Modern period were demonstrating something rather new, something that we now accept as the norm: they designed gardens for ‘everyman’ according to the needs of each individual. Church’s rebellion had symbolised a rejection of the monolithic design theories and practices that had come out of Europe, and he acknowledged the multiple design responses that can be used depending on the site, the materials available, financial constraints, and the different requirements of individual clients.

As in other arts, while there is a broad mainstream, some designers are pushing the logical boundaries: gardens without plants and soon.

In America Supermarkets arrived in the 1950s along with super-nurseries called Garden Centres and by the early 1960s they had opened in Britain. A new way of doing things, plants were mass-produced and bought from wholesalers rather than being grown on site. As leisure and income increased the stock in these centres ranged into outdoor life and later still coffee and cakes. As convenience shopping the garden centres were excellent as they went in across the Western world but the problems too were global. Lack of expert advice, similarity of stock.


By the twentieth century accelerating social, economic and technological change resulted in a more universal approach to gardening and urban space but in Australia Britain was still a strong reference point. With yet more garden ‘democratization’ the gardens of the rich and powerful are still admired for their magnificence, grandeur and creative imagination but as landscaped estates: the word ‘garden’ is now more apt when applied to the large numbers of relatively small blocks of land that are maintained by their owners – gardens are now the domain of the ‘general public’. Today the meaning of the words ‘garden’ and ‘gardening’ is well and truly grounded in the suburban home garden, not the country estate. With the further erosion of aristocratic wealth the grand garden traditions based on the work of private consultants was drawing to a close (with the possible exception of a few outstanding examples like the much vaunted designer of tropical gardens, Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx) as the era of publicly financed landscape architects arrived. It was, and is, a slightly uneasy relationship as experience in design and planned landscapes on the one hand, and skills in horticulture on the other, are not readily combined.

Cities once considered peripheral, like waterfronts, railway corridors, parking lots, strips, shopping malls, car parks, and derelict wastelands are now accepted as mainstream. Computer-design. Community consultation. Perhaps part of the transition has involved a loosening of the formal strictures of garden interpretation as perceived by garden historians and literary people, part of this rarified conceptual realm being engulfed by the abstract musings of landscape architects anxious to establish their credibility and status.

The early twentieth century finally saw the end of gardening as ‘fine art’ controlled by the aristocracy and extremely wealthy. Master gardeners and garden training on the estate was fading into the past. Two world wars and subsequent taxation on estates, corporations, and individuals, in both Britain and America, altered lifestyles and attitudes to domestic expenditure, especially in relation to servants and private staff which affected not only the way gardens were maintained but their design as well. It is perhaps no coincidence that the rare combination of wealth and horticultural expertise was the domain of women, in true Greco-Roman tradition it was the duty of women to manage the estate while their husbands attended to political administration or served as captains of industry. Gardens that were in the public eye now tended to become smaller with simpler designs, fewer plants and owners doing the maintenance or hiring the work out to maintenance companies or semi-professional gardeners.

Gardening was now a respectable pursuit for the middle class and in the process it had become less ponderous and ‘learned’ and more individualistic and personal, although the latter part of the 20th century was also a period when art historians and literary critics gave us a thick layer of historical garden interpretation and garden history became a ‘subject’. Now, garden democratisation is almost complete as the latest gardens and gardening ideas come into all our homes and neighbourhoods through TV gardening programs, garden festivals and shows, the universal garden centre (surely an element of gardening globalisation), magazines, tablets, smartphones and so on: it is surely more ‘relaxed’ than ever before and as a routine part of community projects there is usually community consultation?

By the end of the twentieth century the debate concerning native and exotic plants was still alive and well although modified further into a discussion concerning local indigenous plants and those brought in from elsewhere.

Two World Wars

Deprivations of war saw a reinvigoration of the allotment system, hoarding of seed, removal of flower gardens and their replacement with vegetables, especially potatoes. People tuned in to their radios lapped up the first gardening programs in the 1920s. Flower, vegetable and agricultural shows boomed. Hybrid tea and floribunda roses enjoyed a period of great popularity along with the Russell lupins that arrived just before the outbreak of WWII. And the flower decoration spree in the late 1920s of Constance Spry. Jenny Uglow gives us a list of the trending favourites through the inter-war years: Sweet Pea, 1900; Viola and Pansy, 1911; Iris, 1922; Gladiolus, 1926; Herbs, 1927; Delphinium, 1928; Alpine Garden, 1929.[1]

After WWI the era of grand gardening was drawing to a close but on larger estates a few people could indulged a passion for rhododendrons and camellias stimulated by an expeditions to the Himalaya, notably that of Kingdon-Ward while others plumbed for Alpines and rock gardens in the tradition of Reginald Farrer and in the wake of his book My Rock Garden (1907). Lawrence Johnston’s property ‘Hidcote’ and Vita-Sackville West’s ‘Sissinghurst’ began their iconic ascent between the wars.

WII brought the ‘Dig for Victory’ movement that also found its way to Australia as public parkland, school grounds and sports grounds were turned into vegetable patches. To assist the main effort in agriculture there was the Women’s Land Army again, a workforce of about 80,000.


The embedding of garden design in the arts of the day could no longer be taken for granted. In general garden designers had little interest in Modern art. Long-held distinctions and discussions of art-garden-nature-culture took a new turn as art and design passed through a plethora of phases, -isms, most with few garden associations. There is not space to consider this artistic smorgasbord but an abbreviated list will give an impression of the times.

Art Nouveau (c. 1890-1920s), Russian geometric Suprematism and ‘social’ Constructivism (c. 1915->), Art Deco (1930-1940s), Abstract Expressionism (1940s), Da Da and Surrealism (c. 1918-1960s), Cubism (c. 1910-1930), Conceptual Art and Minimalism (1960s), even Performance Art, Installation Art, and other genres, fashions and foibles.

We get a hint of landscapes and gardens through the earlier landscapes of en plein air French Impressionists (1870-1880s) like Monet who was so devoted to his garden at Giverny, or the abstract colour swirls of Burle Marx, and occasional civic works by architects like, in Germany, the Bauhaus movement in design (c. 1920-1935), and in Holland De Stijl/Neoplasticism (1917-1931).


We have not yet found agreed categories for what has been going on in our gardens over this period. Words like ‘abstract’, ‘eclectic’, and ‘sustainable’ seem to be emerging as sub-categories of the portmanteau term ‘modern’. English garden designer Tom Turner suggests that elements of the genre include modern materials, form following function, and minimal use of ornament, style and narrative. The abstract character of modernism rejects the classical and is free from representation: perhaps minimalism, with its clarity and simplicity of structure and texture would serve as an example.[3]

Architects like Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier become household names and designers are now employed for one-off civic commissions or making submissions to exhibitions and competitions. There was an experimental subculture of horticulture and design led by Geoffrey Jellicoe, Brenda Colvin and Sylvia Crowe (Garden Design, 1958), co-founders of the Institute of Landscape Architects in 1929, and others who explored new ideas like those of modern constructivist and abstract artists, but diversity was a common theme, everything from the symbolic abstractions of raked-pebble Zen Buddhist gardens, a sudden desire for ornamental grasses or the application of new technologies to roof gardens, green walls, and planting schemes in shopping malls. Popular writer-designers like Russell Page (1906 – 1985) and John Brookes (who had worked briefly with Sylvia Crowe) would later design in an eclectic way, following their own inclinations and design ideas.

In the world of architecture by the 1970s there was a perception that Modernism had failed to engage the public – so architectural Postmodernism was born as Modernism but allowing more ornament, narrative, style, variety of materials and detail (Maximalism). Postmodernisms connection to gardens is tenuous.

Contemporary garden designer Tom Turner reserves a place in his work on British Gardens for what he terms Sustainable Postmodernism which he approaches with cautious optimism: ‘Two aspects of sustainability are appealing to 21st century designers: the image and the reality. The images are of green walls, green roofs, wildflower meadows, organic vegetables and ecological art. The reality is the difficult task of using gardens to help sustain life on Earth‘ and ‘The imagery of sustainability is Postmodern in the sense that it constitutes a retreat from the silences of abstraction. Communication of ideas and beliefs is back on the agenda of garden design and involves making visual statements about the relationship between Man and Nature‘ also that sustainability as a political ideology is ‘… a re-turn to pre-Modern and even Medieval principles‘.[p. 397] In his view the early Modernist turn against flowers and shrubs resulted in garden and landscape theory separating and losing their way … flower gardens being an opportunity for Abstract Expressionists. Finally, ‘Since the 1970-s, garden designers have been responding to International Modernism while also thinking about historical ideas and about sustainability‘.

Interestingly Turner slightly disparagingly distinguishes between Low-Tec sustainability as amateurish Boy Scout design and DIY construction, and High-Tec Sustainability based on Modernist principles which ‘evangelises’ the man-nature relationship. Perhaps he perceives sustainability as diminishing the role of garden as art.

In the grander arena of urban space it is the English landscape park, sometimes referred to as ‘naturalism’, that exerted a clear influence in America and Australia where it suited the wide open spaces and pleased people like Olmsted and Frank Lloyd Wright.



Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

London as a modern imperial city, before the ascent of America, served as a global example for urban planning and design. The world’s first underground railway was opened in 1863, with the world’s first use of underground electric trains in 1890. Metroland was the name given to suburbs built in counties to the north-west of London in the early 20th century: they were serviced by the Metropolitan Railway and promoted as having not only modern homes in beautiful countryside, but express trains into central London.

With the end of WWII Britain’s old nobility was now a spent force. Even country houses were a luxury, cottage gardens declined in numbers and suburbia (a global phenomenon of more affluent countries) stretched out from the cities as population continued to grow, the car became a focal point of peoples’ lives, and a new age of community affluence slowly emerged from the former war-time austerity. It was the era of the small suburban garden and ‘garden cities’ sprouted up, the suburban sprawl creating a vast gardening industry with a new breed of journals, books, and broadcasting personalities that, for the first time in gardening history, pointed its energies directly at its audience rather than a more elevated sector of society, it had ceased to be a function of social aspiration. Though an aspirational interest in ‘celebrity gardeners’ would, it seems, always be an aspect of the garden scene, it would only be a small part. Larger gardens still held interest in the 1960s through the writing of Rosemary Verey, Penelope Hobhouse, Christopher Lloyd. Rosarian Graham Stuart Thomas wrote about older roses while breeders like David Austin, Harry Wheatcroft and the Harknesses worked on the new.


Major improvements were now being made in transport and communication systems.

Computers made a huge difference to many aspects of horticulture from speedy point-of-sales systems to the database behind the first RHS Plant Finder released in 1987 which linked plant botanical names to retail outlets across Britain. Numbers of plants included has increased over time and in 2013 numbered about 70,000.


Gardening was now beginning to take into account the increasing impact of urbanisation on peoples’ lives and also on nature. Rather than creating impressions of natural landscapes or using the actual surrounding countryside as a ‘borrowed landscape’ emulation of nature was taking on a scientific as well as aesthetic role. Ecology emerged as a discipline in the 1920s and Germany was prominent in early attempts to adapt ecological principles to gardening through the work of Erwin Barth, Director of the Greater Berlin authority in the 1930s and in Holland ‘heem’ parks were created to give city-dwellers a taste of the natural landscapes they no longer experienced in their daily lives. There were several waves of ‘meadow gardens’ of various kinds.

Though never mainstream, the theme of ‘working with nature’ was a realisation that one aspect of the gardening enterprise in general had been as a contrast to nature, even to ‘improve’ on it so, in a sense, it was setting itself against nature, not only aesthetically but scientifically as well through its demands on resources, use of pesticides and herbicides, importation of potential environmental weeds etc. The theme of a gardening that is ‘working with nature’ has continued to resonate in horticulture through a host of Green movements including: the biodynamic gardening of Englishman Alan Chadwick (1909-1980), Biodynamic Gardening of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), Fukuoka Farming of Japanese Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008), the organic farming and gardening movement that was established in the 1940s, the Australian Permaculture and No-Dig gardens of the 1970s and, since the 1980s, Sustainable Gardening of various kinds. There was also the precautionary accumulation of Seed Banks not only of native plants, like the Millennium Seed Bank organised by Kew Gardens, but more local Heritage Seed Banks, mostly for garden produce.

There has always been a stubborn ‘do-it-yourself’ and ‘good-old-days’ side to horticulture and resistance to the new industrial horticulture and this too is manifest as growing things from seed, exchanging plants over the garden fence, heritage heirloom seeds, refusal to use modern chemicals and fertilizers by preferring the luxuriation of a natural compost heap.

Plant commentary & sustainability analysis

In the Modern Age and the interplay between location, materials, designer and client we see the extending of scope: materials were more diverse; designers (many now formally trained ‘landscape architects’) more numerous and generally better trained; clients were no longer confined to wealthy individuals but responding to corporate, municipal and state authorities – apart from the private clients of more modest means.

Key points

  • Continued democratisation of gardens and popularity of design at the scale of the Country House; Robinson & Jekyll
  • Advent of cars, suburbia, suburban gardens
  • Garden cities
  • Garden Centres (Supermarket retail)
  • Birth of landscape architecture
  • Modernism a welfare state horticulture with a literature and practice working at all scales.
  • Postmodern sustainability

First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 5 March 2021


Suburbia (2008) – suburban neighborhood within the city of Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States.
Cul-de-sacs are hallmarks of contemporary suburban planning.
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – David Shankbone – Accessed 5 March 2021

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