Experiencing the Garden in the Eighteenth Century

Posted on January 25th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Martin Calder (ed.), Experiencing the Garden in the Eighteenth Century (Bern: Peter Lang, 2006), 251 pp., illus. in black-and-white, £34.00 (pbk), ISBN 3-03910-291-5

This volume comprises a collection of diverse papers presented at a one-day international conference held at the Institute of Romantic Studies, University of London, in 2004. Two of the essays, those by Michel Baridon (‘Understanding nature and the aesthetics of the landscape garden’) and Jean-Marcel Humbert (‘Egypt in the eighteenth-century garden: decline or revival of the initiatory journey?’*), were given in French, and the editor has translated them into English, not entirely successfully, for Antinou?s (c.AD110–30),** the Bithynian ‘favourite’ (as he if often coyly referred to elsewhere) of Hadrian (emperor AD117–38),*** is unaccountably called ‘she’ (unless this is, perhaps, a camp joke, though I doubt it). Calder himself was responsible for one of the papers (‘Promenade in Ermenonville’). The other contributors are Katherine Myers (‘Visual fields: theories of perception and the landscape garden’), Katja Grillner (‘Experience as imagined: writing the eighteenth-century landscape garden’), David L. Hays (‘Figuring the commonplace at Ermenonville’), David Maskill (‘Death in a French garden: the Laborde and Cook monuments at Méréville and the landscape of loss’*** *), Renata Tyszczuk (‘Nature intended: the garden of a roi bienfaisant’), and David Jacques and Tim Rock (‘Pierre-Jacques Fougeroux: a Frenchman’s commentary on English gardens of the 1720s’). There are footnotes, a list of the somewhat dimly reproduced illustrations, and an inadequate index.

Otherwise, the book is a pleasure to read: obfuscation has been eschewed, clarity reigns supreme, and generally the prose is worthy of the subject-matter, blessedly free from pseudery and pretentiousness, and for this presumably the editor can mostly be thanked. The authors correctly point to the eighteenth-century garden as providing a series of pictorial experiences to be enjoyed by visitors as they walked through it: and there was more to it than that, for a perambulator would have his or her thoughts triggered by images, be they fabriques or compositions, so on every hand there were allusions to history, mythology, and much else, prompting memory, emotions, appreciation of aesthetics, and even sombre considerations of Death itself, for even in a beautiful garden, even in Arcady, Death was ever-present.*** **

However, the visitor to an eighteenth-century garden was not only a spectator, but also an actor, himself or herself part of the changing compositions. Eighteenth-century gardens were intended by their creators as places where meaning was carefully encoded, often by indirect references or allusions. The various scenes or episodes within gardens, notably where there were what the French call fabriques, were intended to trigger responses in those who experienced them.

Rather curiously, as the references make clear, this rather pricey volume omits many significant contributions to the subject which have been in the public domain for some years: this hints at some of its limitations, and it is a pity the papers were not augmented and revised so that an altogether more substantial volume might have emerged. As it is, it must be regarded as an introduction to a vast subject, readable, but in parts curiously insubstantial, which is a pity, for what material it contains is reasonably sound and enjoyable, as well as being digestible and agreeable.

As Calder observes, though, gardens ‘must be experienced at first hand in order to be fully appreciated’: ‘the garden cannot be taken to the viewer; rather the viewer must go to the garden’. Nevertheless, all gardens change, and some decay beyond recall: the other huge problem today is that few persons are mentally or culturally equipped to read them when they visit them, for the poverties of modern education and understanding really preclude any meaningful grasp of the subtleties intended. That is why scholarship is vitally necessary in order to interpret, explain, and reveal the riches of such places that could well prove ephemeral without care, thought, and real expertise. It is sobering that some blinkered commentators have dismissed certain fabriques that display (for those who care to look) solutions to over thirty technical problems associated with bridge-building as merely work-relief schemes for disbanded soldiers. The modern mind is clearly ill-equipped to understand exemplary demonstrations, yet in the Age of the Enlightenment civilised persons believed that in order to effect improvements and raise tone as part of Man’s Regeneration, a garden was as good a place as any in which to start.*** ***

James Stevens Curl

* L’Égyptomanie à l’épreuve de l’archéologie (Brussels: Du Gram, and Paris: Musée du Louvre, 1996), esp. pp. 347–65.

** For Antinou?s and Hadrian, see James S. Curl, The Egyptian Revival: Ancient Egypt as the Inspiration for Design Motifs in the West (Abingdon: Routledge, 2005).

*** Anthony R. Birley, Hadrian; The Restless Emperor (London: Routledge, 1997).

*** * James S, Curl, ‘Young’s Night Thoughts and the origins of the garden cemetery’, Journal of Garden History, 14(2) (1994), pp. 92–118.

*** ** James S. Curl, ‘Symbolism in eighteenth-century gardens: some observations’, in Symbolik in Gärten des 18. Jahrhunderts: der Einfluss unterschiedlicher philosophischer Strömungen, wie auch der Freimaurerei [Stichting ter bevordering van wetenschappelijk Onderzoek naar de geschiedenis van de Vrijmetselarij in Nederland] (The Hague: OVN, 2006), pp. 25–67.

*** *** For expositions on this theme, see Peter H. Currie (ed.), Ars Quatuor Coronatorum, 116 (2004), pp. 83–126.

35:1 (Summer 2007)

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