Doing ‘Green Heritage’: towards a Theory of Conservation for Historical Gardens

Posted on September 6th, 2011 by Charles Boot

Symposium at Sypesteyn Castle, the Netherlands on 10 September 2010

report by D.H. van Wegen

Theory of conservation and restoration is usually focused on Art with a capital A. Those involved with ‘Green Heritage’ can borrow from this, but usually they rely on standard practice, and common sense. In recent years conservation theory has been tailored to accommodate more specific forms of heritage, such as technical collections and contemporary art. In particular non-traditional art forms such as installations called for new practices and a new theory of conservation. At this meeting in Holland it turned out that these new concepts might fit the needs of historical gardens surprisingly well.

Our purpose was to develop and exchange ideas on the conservation of historical gardens and to introduce these ideas to an audience of gardeners, gardens designers and conservators of historical gardens. Chaired by Jan Willem Edinga, four experts on green heritage engaged in fruitful debate with a fifth scholar specializing in conservation of twentieth-century installation art. The symposium was organized within the context of an exhibition, entitled ‘Tuinvisioenen; Jonkheer van Sypesteyn op zoek naar de verloren tuinkunst’ (Garden visions; Jonkheer van Sypesteyn in search of lost garden art).

Rik van Wegen, who initiated the exhibition and is the author of the accompanying book, emphasized that gardens present a living heritage; the identity of gardens ought to be considered as partly fluid. It is inevitable, moreover, that over the years this identity becomes multi-layered. At Sypesteyn Castle, this multi-layered identity was even built in; designed at the beginning of the twentieth century the gardens point back to the heyday of Dutch garden design. Jonkheer Van Sypesteyn laid out the gardens as his fancy took him; they reflect both the period around 1600 as well as the modern ideas of the early twentieth century, his own lifetime. And, to top it off, his gardens breathe his own, personal taste and passion as a collector of rare plants and trees.

An elderly Jonkheer Van Sypesteyn in his garden. By courtesy of the author

An elderly Jonkheer Van Sypesteyn in his garden. By courtesy of the author

Johan Carel Bierens de Haan argued that van Sypesteyn’s seemingly unique creation was in fact part of a much wider tradition. When designing his gardens, van Sypesteyn’s aim was not to be restricted to a mere reconstruction, his aim was to create an image of continuity. He wanted to present a ‘gardenscape’ that not only looked as if it had been created in the sixteenth century but had then been cared for ever since. This resulted in a traditional garden with modern features. Sypesteyn Castle and its gardens would emphasise the ancient roots of the Van Sypesteyn family.

Van Sypesteyn was not the only one doing this, as Bierens de Haan pointed out. Other Dutch families had been engaged in similar endeavours. Huis ten Bosch in The Hague, for example, was built in the seventeenth century by Prince Frederik Hendrik, and completed by his spouse Amalia van Solms; the decoration of the main hall illustrates the role of the Princes of Orange in the long struggle for freedom from Spain. At Duivenvoorde, near The Hague, gardens and house were restored, and extended using both modern and older styles; at Keukenhof and Heeswijk Castle, old architectural fragments were integrated in the buildings; Schaffelaar Castle was built in the then modern neo-gothic, a want-to-be medieval style, emphasizing the ancient origins of the family. Even at the Royal Palace ‘Het Loo’, at the beginning of the twentieth century Queen Wilhelmina ordered the main staircase to be redecorated in order to evoke the most glorious period of the palace and her own family, the reign of Stadholder King William III; who not only re-established the family in its leading position in the Netherlands, but also became King of Great Britain and gave Louis XIV many a hard time, both in the battlefield and in European politics.

Vivian van Saaze introduced the audience to the latest developments in the theory of conservation of contemporary installation art. Although van Saaze focused primarily on her own subject-matter and did not venture into the field of green heritage, interesting parallels could not be misssed. Van Saaze defined installations as three-dimensional artworks engaging in a physical and substantial relationship with the surrounding space, requiring some kind of meaningful participation of the observer. A starting point for Van Saaze’s research was the strain between the supposedly fixed identity of artworks in museums and the variability which inevitably shows up with installation art.

Originating in the 1960’s from an anti-institutional attitude, such works, intended to be ephemeral, were eventually bought and incorporated into museum collections. From then onwards, re-installing installations presented a challenge. Whenever a work of art is installed in a space other than in the one for which it was originally conceptualised, it entails consequences for its meaning. More substantial problems occur when a change in technical ‘surroundings’ demands changing hardware-support that can change the aura of the work completely. For example, the 1979 multi-channel video installation 25 Caramboles and Variations: Birthday present for a 25 year old by Miguel-Ángel Cárdenas was originally shown by using black-and-white monitors on a billiard table in a pub and is now re-enacted in full colour in the museum. Several stakeholders, each with their own ‘interests’, were involved in the decision-making processes which surround re-installing installation art. The word ‘biography’ is nowadays commonly applied in this context.

In her dissertation Doing Artworks, Van Saaze argues that when installations are re-installed time and again, their identity becomes variable and instable. Moreover, the very act of installation itself (the choices, the actions, but also the architectural framework and manner of documentation) inevitably becomes part of the identity of the work. In the context of installation art, Van Saaze proposes to replace the concept of ‘authenticity’ by ‘continuity’ and the concept of ‘artist intent’ by ‘interaction’. By introducing continuity as an important concept to the identity of installation art, the difference between gradual development and sudden change immediately comes out as being meaningful. Identifying interaction recognizes the fact that every time the artwork is re-installed, its meaning is also reconstructed. Consequently the identity of installation artworks can evolve, depending partly on the institution which became its owner.

Henk Boers, described how, since the death of van Sypesteyn in 1937, the Castle gardens had been neglected because of lack of funds as well as a lack of interest, until the late 1970s. Between then and the early 1990s, the head gardener and the voluntary staff, among them Boers himself, worked to restore and return the gardens to their former glory. Van Sypesteyn’s notebooks, drawings (below) and publications were thoroughly researched, as well as the garden itself. The efforts made were immense and the results truly impressive, the historical garden was reborn. In just over ten years, a complete metamorphosis had taken place; the original layout, the numerous singular patterns and the many pruned shapes were, once again, fully recognizable.

One of Van Sypesteyn’s drawings used in the continuing care of his garden. By courtesy of the author

One of Van Sypesteyn’s drawings used in the continuing care of his garden. By courtesy of the author

During the process of this extensive restoration, the age of the gardens has always been respected. The passage of time, more than half a century, had left, undoubtedly, visible marks. It is curious, therefore, that the formal purpose of the restoration remained ‘reconstruction’, as if to fit sound garden practice into standard museological conservation theory. One might say that during restoration of the gardens between the late 1970’s and the early 1990’s, ‘authenticity’ as the main identifying concept was never explicitly challenged. At the same time, it was equally self-evident, that ‘continuity’ was implicitly introduced; reclaiming a huge topiary chicken from a giant shrub (below), doing a garden artwork indeed!

A huge topiary chicken rescued from within giant shrub. By courtesy of the author

A huge topiary chicken rescued from within giant shrub. By courtesy of the author

By contrast, the fourth speaker, Hanneke Schreiber, took the audience to the reconstruction of the ‘Snippendaal Garden’ in the Amsterdam Hortus Botanicus (Botanic Garden), named after the 17th-century botanist and author of the Catalogue of the then Hortus Medicus. From the beginning it was obvious that authenticity in the strict sense of the word would be unattainable, just one authentic element was left of the original Hortus Medicus, the 1646 catalogue of its plants. Not a single image or description of what the original ‘Snippendaal’ looked like remains. Moreover, as the Amsterdam Hortus Botanicus had moved to a different location, a technical reconstruction on site would not be possible anyway. The Keepers of the Amsterdam Hortus Botanicus decided to turn this problem into an advantage. Rather than creating a ‘historical’ herbal garden anew, they created a truly new garden with all the original species of plants, giving the authentic assortment of medicinal plants a contemporary home.

Finally, Sypesteyn’s present-day gardener Henny van der Wilt demonstrated how she ‘does’ these gardens which are entrusted to her; not bound to any kind of theory, let alone dogma. Van der Wilt freely, yet respectfully adds to the continuity of their existence. As to respect for the ‘artist’s intent’, van der Wilt regards van Sypesteyn as her ultimate boss. First thing every morning, she salutes his portrait above the coffee maker, then she literally springs into (inter)action. The structural design of the gardens is conserved, but within that van der Wilt takes the liberty to change whatever needs changing; she alters the mowing-regime in order to gain a wealth of ‘stinzenplanten’, wild spring flowers, on the lawns; she replaces roses suffering from parasites with less demanding perennials.

Non-traditional artworks demand new practices and new theories of conservation and restoration. Conserving historical gardens fits in surprisingly well. ‘Il faut cultiver le jardin’, one must maintain one’s garden, was the answer to the disturbing questions of life that Voltaire’s hero Candide eventually came up with. But in maintaining one’s garden, men will still ask themselves: how? And why in that way? Theories of conservation seek to provide answers.

Van der Wilt found her ‘common sense’ practice confirmed by van Saaze’s analysis of the practice of conservation of installation artworks, as did the other speakers and the audience. Previously such ideas and actions were intuited, now it turned out that they can be argued in a rational and even academically sound debate. This allows those responsible for the conservation of green heritage to take the exchange of ideas one step further, to express and question thoughts and considerations which were not voiced before. As a result, awareness of questions facing the conservation of historical gardens are deepened.


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