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In general, almost no-one who reads history books actually makes history. In contrast, almost everyone who reads garden books makes a garden. Garden-history books occupy a shadowy in-between zone; probably no-one who reads them does not have a garden, but how many gardeners find their gardens influenced by what they read - thoughts prompted by a sumptuous new volume called 'The Formal Garden: Traditions in Art and Nature' by Mark Laird, and with endless wonderful photographs by Hugh Palmer (published by Thames and Hudson at œ28.00).
Undoubtedly, formalism is a strengthening chord in current garden design thinking, even for the tiniest of modern gardens. Garden centre owners are now entirely aware that ericas in wavy edged beds are planted only by first-time garden owners; once they have time to learn, they begin to want something more satisfying. Some even want yew and box hedging, topiary, clipped standards, balustrades, sundials.
So, the market exists. Is this 'the' book? Perhaps. Mark Laird writes in his introduction that '...it seemed reasonable to ask: what is 'formal' and what is 'informal'? This book is not an attempt to resolve such a large and complex question...' which, considering the book's title, might fillet further interest. He continues: 'It is more an opportunity to open up a fresh discussion of how, over five centuries, architecture and horticulture, art and nature were wedded and not divorced...' But even the informal garden, almost any garden anywhere, is some sort of wedding between conscious design and the self-directed growth of plants. The author is on surer ground once he starts his splendidly detailed story of the formal garden in western Europe and, later, America from Alberti onwards - Alberti was a writer on architecture of the early Renaissance, and who drew upon ancient Rome for his inspiration. The book's first photos are of the ravishing gardens (much altered from their original state, as Mark Laird points out), of the Villa Lante, begun in 1568, and even now one of those achingly beautiful places, where it seems, momentarily, that to make, visit, or tend, gardens is one of the most fortunate things anyone can do with life.
In all gardens, the author sees formalism as a way of expressing social order, hierarchy, and grandeur. The princely gardens he mostly discusses, of course, were doing just that. 'Formal gardens' are not unique in that capacity; the immense landscape gardens of the eighteenth century were hardly about social equality. But the 'formal style' was not just princely; it was the way everyone in the West, and in substantial parts of the East, too, gardened for century upon century. Mark Laird's chosen gardens express only a small part of the expressive possibilities of formalism.
The story moves on to the Baroque garden, encompassing Versailles and Vaux (the latter now almost a new creation, only based on the bones of the old garden, but wonderful nevertheless), the enchanting Villa Aldobrandini (now much overgrown), Het Loo, as well as rather lesser known ones like Gross-Sedlitz and Schleissheim, or ones more domestic in scale like Brecy, in Normandy, and Westbury Court in Gloucestershire.
In the eighteenth century, when the English landscape idea vanquished almost everything in England, the formal idiom survived healthily in much of France and what is now Germany. There are photographs, and interesting history, of the remains of a wonderful Rococco garden at Veitshochheim, hardly seen in print, and some magnificent pictures of the extraordinary Caserta - where the central axis is so long that to visit the fountains along its length in any detail takes several hours. There's also a brief look at small scale formalism in Holland and America (though with no mention of formal survivals in 18th C Scotland).
Half the book is devoted to the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with Drummond Castle (so much more fun in the 1840's than now), magnificent sites like Shrubland Park and Blenheim, and then moving on into the golden Edwardian summer of Hestercombe and Hidcote in England, and the castles of Roche-Courbon and Villandry in France. Even in these chapters, where there is so much surviving that is both wonderful and small, there is little descent from the very highest planes of wealth. All the gardens so wonderfully photographed are open to the visitor, a critique, perhaps, of the sort of formalism that the book is about; no-one can now afford to look after it. There is, curiously, no suggestion in this gorgeous book that the formal gardens of Arab Spain, or even Mughal India, played a role in the enrichment of western European gardening. Nor is there any suggestion that almost every single fó é element of the formal garden, whether topiary, obelisk, or canal, had its origins long, long before Alberti, often at the birth of civilisation itself. It is that, for most gardeners, that gives the formal garden its resonance.
Copyright david stuart 2004