Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Standard gardens from Thomas Fairchild to Mien Ruys

thomas fairchild the city gardener
There are two things that people need when they plan to have a garden: a suitable space and a basic knowledge of botanics.
For centuries the art of gardening has been a prerogative of rich people, who appointed expert gardeners to take care of their gardens, and of monks, who mainly cultivated herbs, fruit trees and vegetables.
In the 18th Century gardening became more and more popular, so that whoever had an even very small place attached to the house wanted to turn it into a garden. Many guidebooks were published at that time in order to help them reaching their goal.

One of the best known of these guidebooks is The City Gardener, written in 1722 by Thomas Fairchild, a London nurseryman. The book was then re-published in 1760 with the title The London Gardener. 

In fact it is a treatise about small gardens in London, that explains which plants to choose and how to deal with pollution problems and climate conditions of that particular city.
This book first lists all the plants that would grow healthy in London, then suggests the proper design for particular town spaces, such as squares and courtyards.
The author tells the readers how to dispose the plants in these spaces, according to their flowering period, color, size and growing necessities.
Finally it focuses on gardens which are close to River Thames and that can take advantage of the proximity of water.

Two centuries later, in Netherlands, a woman will take this kind of DIY manual to a new level. After the formal garden, the landscape and romantic garden and the picturesque garden, a new and modern way of creating art with nature was rapidly taking place in Europe. Mien Ruys' gardens reflect the changing tastes in garden design, leading to a very natural and personal style.

In 1888, Mien's father, Bonne Ruys, founded the Moerheim Nurseries in Dedemsvaart, so she grew up literally surrounded by trees, flowers, bushes and seeds.
In 1923 she created her first garden, in 1928 she worked for an English Nursery and in 1929 she went to Berlin to study Architecture. All these experiences have been crucial for her career as a landscape designer, and led her to be considered the mother of Modernism in garden design.
In 1960, probably influenced by prefabricated building in architecture, Mien Ruys began working on the idea of standard perennial borders: she designed a series of borders that anyone could choose from for their own gardens. These borders were made of healthy perennials, which were long flowering and very easy to take care of.
The great difference between these borders and the ones recommended by Fairchild was that they were on sale at Moerheim nursery. They can be considered as authentic gardens in kit.
Like Fairchild, Mien Ruys designed different borders according to their size and, particularly, their position. So you can find Sun borders and Shade borders.
Clients just had to point out their necessities and wishes and to hand in their garden details in order to obtained the right plants together with a planting scheme and instruction which helped them to look after their new border.

Standard gardens were, and still are, a smart way to promote garden culture and help people to attend properly their "domestic "nature", as a starting point from which, eventually, experiment their own art of gardening.

Please, see below some pictures from Mien Ruys gardens taken by Erica Vaccari (thank you, Erica, for the pictures and the inspiration!).

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

New gardens in London

I must confess I have a weakness for London.
Maybe it is for its atmosphere, or for its cultural opportunities. Each time I go there I find new places
to see, new amazing discoveries to head for.
Two awesome pieces of news caught my attention during the last months:

1. London Docklands: this summer a roof garden filled with plants from all over the world opened, as a link with the past, when ships arrived here from exotic countries bringing plants never seen before.
The selection of plants has been made to remember the past but also for the future role of the new crossrail that will connect east and west.

Crossrail roof garden, London

The roof structure was designed by Foster + Partners, while the roof garden has been landscaped by London-based studio Gillespies, located  beneath a 310-metre-long transparent hood.
The ceiling is made of triangular air-filled ETFE cushions (a type of plastic used for its resistance to corrosion) set in the timber-latticed awning.

Crossrail roof garden, London

2. Talking about another part of the city, there is a project to build a garden bridge over the River Thames.
The new footbridge will connect the top of Temple underground station on the Northbank with the South Bank.
Planned by the designer  Thomas Heatherwick, the bridge has its own web page for fundraising, and this is what you can read there to understand the project:
The garden will be an enchanted space in the middle of the busy city. It will feature an abundance of plants, trees and shrubs indigenous to the UK, Northern Europe and other parts of the world. These have all been chosen for their biodiversity, bringing wildlife and horticulture to the heart of London. The planting has been carefully designed to ensure that it will frame and enhance views of the iconic landmarks of London.
The arden consists of several sequential spaces, designed to reflect a number of different characteristics of the rich cultural heritage of the capital’s river and both river banks, so that a pedestrian crossing the bridge will walk through an ever-changing seasonal landscape.
The south end will have a more relaxed aesthetic, featuring plants reflecting South Bank’s marshland history such as willow, birch, alder, geranium, violet and primrose.
At the north end, planting will be inspired by Temple Gardens’ history of ornamental gardening, featuring wisteria, magnolia, roses, alliums, irises and summer snowflakes.
Holding the garden will be a beautifully engineered copper-nickel structure. Its warm colour will provide a contrasting finish to the stone and steel structures that characterise the architecture on both sides of the river.
London garden bridge

London garden bridge

The project has been criticized because it would block the view and, most of all, because it would be very expensive.

Apart from their architectural quality, these are two important signals that the ancient commitment to nature, and gardens in particular, is still alive and vibrant today in Great Britain.
I hope this attitude will become contagious and reach other parts of Europe, sooner or later.

Resources on Crossrail Station roof garden:

Resources on the garden bridge over the Thames:


Monday, 20 July 2015

This blog in the Garden History Society newsletter

A Garden History Blog is in the spring newsletter of the Garden History Society, with a note about the Old Psychiatric Hospital in Trieste.

See the pdf, at page 23.

Very proud!

Saturday, 28 February 2015

A misterious pattern book

In the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries architects used to meet their clients carrying catalogues from which they could choose any style or model for their own houses. The same happened with landscape architects, who carried pattern books with many kinds of garden buildings, organized according to their use or their style.
In London there was a bookshop, that was also an editor, that specialized in this kind of books, the Architectural Library in High Holborn, run by Isaac Taylor and his son Josiah since 1780.
They often published catalogues of their books, so we know many of their titles, among which there are William Chambers' Designs for Chinese Buildings, John Soane's Designs for Temples, and other Buildings, for decorating Pleasure-grounds, Charles Middleton's Architect and Builder's Miscellany, and many others left anonymous (the history of this Library is an issue I am going to expand on).
One of this mysterious books is titled Decorations for Parks and Gardens, Designs for Temples, Prospect Towers, Cattle Sheds, Ruins, Bridges, Green Houses, & C, also a Hot-house, a Hot-wall.

decorations for parks and gardens
An image from Decorations for parks and gardens...

This one is particularly interesting for us because of its variety: it is a compendium of almost all styles and uses, from gates to seats, from temples to bridges.
But looking at the drawings in it we find that some of them don't look like the ones we are used to: in particular the Temple of Neptune is usually modeled on the Roman style in Paestum (a Doric Temple with a rectangular peripteral plan). Here we see, rather, a building whose base is squared, topped with a dome.  
The Temple of Minerva, or Athena, (the Greek Pantheon is its best known model) is here drawn with a squared base and without its tympanum. It is not even similar to the Temple of Minerva Medica in Rome, often depicted by artists in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century.
The Grand Tour influenced these choices, as landowners desired a copy of what they had seen during their journey across Europe or in Claude's paintings.
But, besides its content, another thing got me curious: the debate about its author. While the publisher left it anonymous (in the book cover as well as in the Architectural Library's catalogue no author is suggested), the British Museum says its author is Charles Middleton, while the Metropolitan Museum (which also possesses a copy) maintains that it is a book by Sir John Soane.
So I tried to compare this book with other similar works written by these two authors and I also wrote to the British Library and the Metropolitan Museum in an attempt to resolve this enigma. This is what I found:

Charles Middleton is, for sure, the author of some other essays on garden buildings edited by the same publisher: Picturesque and Architectural Views For Cottages, Farm Houses and Country Villas... (1793),  Architect and Builder's Miscellany, or Pocket Library; Containing Original Picturesque Designs in Architecture... (1799) and Designs for Gates and Rails Suitable to Parks, Pleasure Grounds, Balconys etc. (1800).

Middleton's miscellany
An image from Charles Midlleton's Architect and Builder's Miscellany, 1799

In Taylor's Catalogue there is a book by John Soane titled Designs in architecture; consisting of plans, elevations and sections, for temples, baths, cassines, pavilions, garden-seats, obelisks, and other buildings; for decorating pleasure-ground, parks, forests, etc... (1778)

soane designs in architecture
An image from John Soane's Designs in architecture..., 1778.

I could not see the first one of Middleton's books, but looking at the other two, they do not seem to demonstrate an affinity with the one I am talking about here. 
The graphic features in Soane's essay are much more similar to it, but I still have doubts regarding this attribution. Maybe none of them wrote or drew this handbook.
It is not even easy to find out when the attribution was made and by whom. The British Library (that I want to thank for their enduring support) reports that in the 1892 edition of the Catalogue of Printed Books in the Library of the British Museum (393 parts) the book is attributed to Charles Middleton but unfortunately "there are no records with the details and reasoning of such curatorial or cataloguing decisions".
I am still waiting for an answer from the Metropolitan Museum. I promise I will update this post whenever I receive any news.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The writer's garden: John Ruskin at Brantwood

Gardens and literature are deeply linked. As literature inspired many revolutions in garden design, in the same way gardens have always been an inspiration for writers and poets.
The relationship between these two arts is a very interesting subject, and that's why I decided to write a few posts on this topic.
This is the first post, and it is about one of the most influent people on the subject of Picturesque: John Ruskin.
Ruskin spent the last 28 years of his life in Brantwood, in the Lake District.  This place represented for him both a shelter during his period of illness, an inspiration for his writings, and a place for recreating atmospheres he had seen and studied from paintings and during his long travels around Europe.

Ruskin Brantwood watercolor
John Ruskin, Brantwood from the edge of Coniston Water. 1871.

He also wanted to use this space to experiment with his new social theories.
What he creates around his house is similar to an alpine garden but you can't really find a resemblance with the kind of gardens that were fashionable at that time, nor with any garden scheme of the past.
During his travels Ruskin rarely stopped to visit parks and gardens, he preferred wild nature by far. Even though we know that he visited Chatsworth and Blenheim with his parents, what moved him most in these palaces were the paintings by Claude and the Carracci.
When he came to Italy one of the most fascinating places he described in his letters were the Alps, with all their majesty, and this is the main feature of his garden in Brantwood.

We know many things about this garden and Ruskin's improvements thanks to W. G. Collingwood, artist and biographer of Ruskin, who spent much time with him in Brantwood.
One of the most interesting ideas we can explore reading Collingwood's essay is about Japan and offers a very original interpretation of Ruskin's gardening:
Ruskin had little to say in praise of Japanese art as he knew it, because they could not draw pretty figures, and he had no admiration for dwarfs or monsters; but one cannot help thinking that if he had seen Japan, and if it is all that travellers tell us, he might have written some enthusiastic passages on a people who love stones for their own sake and tub themselves daily.
Ruskin Brantwood zig zag
Ruskin's sketches for a zig-zag path in a letter
to John Severn (march 1873)

In the upper part of the garden Ruskin left the trees grow tall as to recreate a scene from Botticelli's
But one of the clearest characteristics of Brantwood is that every part of the garden had to be useful. So we can see a cottage garden with fruit trees, a fishpond for studying fish, and many water reserves.
Above all, he wants to leave nature as untouched as possible.  Ruskin deplored the manipulation of nature and the use of glass houses, very popular in those years (he often criticizes the Crystal Palace, built in 1851 for the Great Exhibition of London because it represented the subjugation of the society to commerce and industry).
Transforming his estate as little as possible was Ruskin's way to put in practice his theories on returning to simple beauty and nature.

Bennett, Jackie. The writer's garden. How gardens inspired our best-loved authors. London, 2014.

Collingwood, William Gershom. Ruskin relics. London, 1903.

Hunt, John Dixon. Ut pictura poesis, the picturesque, and John Ruskin, in: MLN, Vol. 93, No. 5, Comparative Literature (Dec., 1978), pp. 794-818. The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Hunt, John Dixon. The Wider Sea. A life of John Ruskin. London, 1982.

Ingram, David. The Gardens at Brantwood. Evolution of John Ruskin's Lakeland Paradise. London, 2014.

Tyas Cook, Edward and Alexandrea Wedderburn. The Library Edition of the works of John Ruskin. London, 1903-12.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Ninfa: a landscape garden out of time

Just outside the Italian town of Sermoneta there is a romantic garden called Ninfa, known in every part of the world.
ninfa gardenNinfa was the name of an ancient town owned by the Caetani family, and this is its first peculiarity. It was not simply a private estate, it was a town, with its own houses, churches, its shops and even a castle.
Its second distinctive trait regards the subject of ruins.
In landscape gardens, false ruins are often used as focal points. Ninfa's ruins are real. What we see today was once a real town, destroyed during a war in 1380 in which two branches of the Caetani family were involved.
The first garden in Ninfa was created in the Sixteenth Century by Cardinal Nicolò Caetani. It was a walled garden organized by two orthogonal axes with an octagonal basin at their intersection. Far from what it would later become, the first garden of ninfa was a kind of hortus conclusus. We can see clear traces of it today, and the octagonal basin is still there.
Ninfa remained abandoned for centuries, but it began to receive increasing interest by travelers during the Nineteenth Century. What they saw was, entirely accidentally, surprisingly similar to a landscape garden, because Nature had taken over the buildings. Ninfa had become, unconsciously, a landscape garden. 
ninfa garden bridge giardinoOnly at the beginning of the Twentieth Century did Gelasio Caetani decide to transform his hometown into a real garden, and his heirs continued to improve it throughout the duration of the whole century. He restored part of the ruins and added only one new building, a small cabin similar to the ones stonecutters and charcoal-burners used to live in. This is the only intentional fabrique in Ninfa.
Over the last 100 years women of the Caetani family took care of the garden, planting roses and trees and giving it its final shape. No expert gardeners ever worked on it. 
Marguerite Caetani’s interests were not limited to gardening. She brought to Ninfa art and culture. She was indeed a journalist and an art collector and she founded the literary magazines Commerce (in France) and Botteghe Oscure. The director of the last magazine was Giorgio Bassani, who spent much of his time in Ninfa where he wrote his most famous novel, Il giardino dei Finzi Contini, during one of his stays.
balthus lelia caetani
Balthus, portrait of Lelia Caetani.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Marguerite's daughter, Lelia, continued her mother's improvements to the garden and left us paintings of Ninfa. She was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, she visited English gardens quite often and married an English man, Hubert Howard, who founded Italia Nostra, an association for the defense of the historical, cultural and environmental heritage of Italy. 
Today the garden of Ninfa is open to the public and preserved by a foundation. 

Caracciolo, Marella e Pietromarchi, Giuppi. Il giardino di Ninfa. Torino: Allemandi, 1995.

Conforti Calcagni, Annamaria. Una grande casa, cui sia di tetto il cielo. Il giardino nell'Italia del Novecento. Milano: Il Saggiatore, 2011.

Fiorani, Luigi. Ninfa. Una città, un giardino. Roma: L'erma, 1990.

Quest-Riston, Charles. Ninfa. The most romantic garden in the world. London, 2009.

Randall, Frederika. Day Trip; a secret garden. In: The New York Times, June 16 2002. 

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Chinese influences and a European cameo

Chambers pagoda KewLandscape gardens were also known, especially in France, as Anglo-Chinese Gardens.
Probably the first one to use this description was Georges-Louis Le Rouge, an architect and cartographer who published, in 1775, a  collection of plans and drawings titled Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode.
What was the link between Landscape gardens and Chinese gardens? There are many analogies regarding the composition of space and the way to look at nature.
Both styles of gardens were irregular, they seemed to most revere natural landscape, they used water not through fountains but through small rivers and lakes, masking as much as possible their artificiality.
Artificial mountains give the place a natural look and brought people closer to the sky so that the garden was conceived as a series of consecutive views.
In Europe, landscape gardens soon begun to use the Chinese-style buildings. The first one was probably built in Stowe in 1738, but one of the most famous is found in the Kew Gardens, and was designed by one of the most important architects and essay writers of the new garden, William Chambers.
In his book A dissertation on Oriental  Gardening (1772) Chambers states clearly that even if Western architecture is far superior to that of Chinese architecture, their gardens are certainly worthy of imitation.
How did people know about the look of Chinese gardens in that period, since long distance travel was so rare?
One of the first and most important accounts of a Chinese garden came from a  French Jesuit, Jean Denis Attiret, who stayed in Beijing as a missioner but also working as a painter for the Qianlong Emperor and in 1752 wrote a letter (that was then published in Europe) describing the most stunning garden of China: Yuanmingyuan, or Garden of Perfect Brightness.
Attiret himself, together with an Italian artist named Giuseppe Castiglione, and Michel Benoit (both Jesuits like Attiret), worked to design and build the garden. 
The curious thing, and the reason why I decided to write something about it, is that Yuanmingyuan unfortunately doesn’t exist anymore. It was destroyed in 1860, and remains the only Oriental garden containing a small European-style garden.

yuangminyuan maze

It might seem like a vicious circle: who is copying who? and why?
The truth is that in many ways oriental gardens influenced european ones, while the opposite never happened.
Western buildings in Yuanmingyuan can be considered just as fancy as the Emperor, but never influenced Chinese architecture.
European garden in Yuanmingyuan is a kind of a rococò garden, coming from Castiglione’s studies on Italian villas. Buildings are symmetrical, formal, massive, and so is the composition of the garden, far removed from what was happening in those years in Europe. 
The focal point is a big maze and several fountains are positioned in key points on orthogonal axes. 
Emperor Qianlong was a collector of European art, and for this reason he often asked for the cooperation of Jesuit missioners, especially Castiglione, who soon became a well-known artist in China, being able to combine traditional Chinese art with modern european techniques. 
In Italy he had studied also as a stage designer and in China he wrote the first essay on perspective in 1729.

yuangminyuan western building

We know something about this place thanks to forty copper plates that are now in Paris, that show different views of Yuanmingyuan. A few of them were published by Le Rouge in the books mentioned above. 
The European buildings are shown in a suite of twenty engravings commissioned by Qianlong in 1784.
On the following links you can see recent extraordinary studies that reconstruct Western Buildings of Yuanmingyuan in 3D, plans, elevations and even videos. A wonderful way to learn more about the past using the newest innovations. 

Thomas, Greg M. Yuanming Yuan/Versailles: Intercultural interactions between Chinese and European Palace Cultures. In: Art History vol 32. Oxford, 2009.

Wong, tsu-Young. A Paradise Lost: The Imperial Garden Yuanming Yuan. University of Hawai'i Press, 2001.

Zoratto, Bruno. Giuseppe Castiglione. Pittore italiano alla corte imperiale cinese. Brindisi: Schena editore, 1994.