Colin Burrow

  • Green Desire: Imagining Early Modern English Gardens by Rebecca Bushnell
    Cornell, 198 pp, £18.95, August 2003, ISBN 0 8014 4143 9

Gardening today labours to be classless. TV programmes and books try to persuade us that we, whoever we are, can make over scrubby lawns, erect decking, build pergolas, plumb in water features, and construct a little Blenheim in a rectangle of twenty by thirty feet. Everyone knows this notion of classlessness is false, since nothing stimulates petty snobberies more immediately than a garden. If you have the wrong sort of paving, or if you put swathes of purple and orange together in the misguided belief that you are the new Gertrude Jekyll, you can be sure your friends will snigger about it on the way home. And if you see a garden which has nothing in it but an abandoned car and knee-high grass, you know to quicken your step. Gardens are full of class, and we can read them like books.

Gardening as an activity, however, is rather more complex than the gardens in which it results. It offers at least a fantasy of self-transformation. An accountant who spends his weekends laying York stone in the garden of his ruined manor in Somerset is imagining himself moving in two social directions at once: he enjoys pretending to be a manual worker; and he likes the idea that after his labour his estate will seem a bit more like that of a gentleman. There is a release to be had in working in a garden: you can play with natural forces, entangling them with human labour in a way that lets you go a little wild. My grandmother, who was a woman of infinite respectability, and whose street in metropolitan Essex was home to some of the last unironic gnomes, would lose all morality when it came to gardening. Taking a cutting for her meant just that: in stately homes and botanical gardens she would whip out a pair of scissors and a plastic bag and snip off a few semi-ripe shoots of this and that. Her garden was stocked with scions of Hampton Court and Kew.

It’s tempting to assume that for our upper-class ancestors gardening was a relatively simple matter. They paid people to grow things, and had their gardens laid out for them by teams of geometrists and labourers. Then they walked in them like little Adams imparadised. Certainly, early modern gardens were meant to look, sound, smell and feel like paradises, and to provide dramatic and dynamic spaces for those who walked in them. At Hampton Court in the later 1520s, formal walks were mixed with knot gardens, in which elaborate patterns were outlined in santolina or box. A privy garden ornamented with sundials and statues, was set apart for the special pleasure of the most senior courtiers. Lord Burghley’s garden at Theobalds followed a similar model: it had a privy garden with a knot at its centre, while the expansive great garden (more than seven acres) contained nine divisions into knots. As the 16th century progressed, the ornaments within these formal structures became increasingly elaborate: large trellises and summerhouses sat among substantial fountains and water features, which might shoot jets of water at unsuspecting guests. For the greater repose of the eye, a late 16th or early 17th-century garden might contain what Bacon called a ‘heath or wilderness’. This would be a carefully informalised (though still very formal) area in which rigid symmetry would relax into the appearance of something more like unregimented nature. The aim throughout the early modern garden was to bombard all the senses at once with delights which were guaranteed to be innocent because they were, or appeared to be, the products of nature rather than art. Artifice was often required to create these sensual paradises: John Evelyn, at the end of the 17th century, describes how to make what he calls a ‘Phonotactic Cylinder, or giant musical box’, which used water to produce sounds similar to birdsong (the alternative was to have an aviary). The synaesthetic delights of Milton’s Paradise, in which ‘Birds thir quire apply; aires, vernal aires,/Breathing the smell of field and grove, attune/The trembling leaves,’ are intimately connected to the artful manipulations of the senses by late 17th-century gardeners.

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