Russian Parks and Gardens

Posted on January 20th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Peter Hayden, Russian Parks and Gardens (London: Frances Lincoln, 2005), 256 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £35.00, ISBN 0-7112-2430-7

Peter Hayden’s Russian Parks and Gardens is arguably the most important book on garden history to be published in the last decade. It is likely to introduce even well-informed readers to at least thirty important eighteenth- and nineteenthcentury gardens in the Russian provinces from Moscow to the Crimea, while covering the Imperial gardens around St Petersburg in searching and scholarly detail. Hayden is a fluent Russian speaker who been travelled there over the last twenty years, and whose acknowledgements are a roll call of honour, listing the academics, ministers and institutions that have enriched his meticulous research.

The very personal text, with its lavish colour photographs, suggests convincingly that the finest Italian garden pavilions and the most richly endowed ‘English Gardens’ in Europe lie neither in Italy nor in England, but in Russia. Once Peter the Great had thrown his closed empire open to the West, the Russian aristocracy’s huge advantages in serf labour and their uncritical enthusiasm for French formalism, German gilt work and English eclectic garden buildings soon put them far ahead of their mentors. Unrestrained by limp notions of propriety, they painted trilobal, multidomed pavilions of Vanbrughian scale in grey-skydefying colours: pale blues, dark blues, pinks and creamy whites. Some are conventional hermitages and grottoes, but the most extraordinary and innovative are those that served as platforms, ‘Coasting Hill’ pavilions, for rollercoaster rides. Ornate, wheeled chairs for two daring people shot down from them on rails carrying, by gravity alone, their happily terrified passengers over a switch-back of five or six artificial hills for half a mile or more. They were dangerous: Grigory Orlov lamed himself permanently when rescuing his mistress, the Empress Catherine, from one derailment. Also they were scandalous: the British Minister’s wife, who had been obliged by national pride to try one, reported: ‘I was terrified out of my wits, for I had not only the dread of breaking my neck, but of being exposed to an indecency too frightful to think on without horror’.

Her Imperial Russian hosts had preserved, well into the eighteenth century, that seventeenth-century taste for practical jokes in the garden that Isaac de Caus had indulged the English with in Charles I’s reign. Visitors to Bogoroditsk garden who climbed a little viewing mound found themselves, after a sluice had been opened, encircled by a moat of water and had to call out for a plank bridge to escape. Canon that fired automatically when the sun reached a certain glass prism at noon were another favourite toy. Why did we have no coasting hills in this country? Lord Baltimore drew a careful plan for one for his Gaudia Poetica of 1770, so they were known. Another common expression of this national exuberance was the garden theatres for free public entertainments. All these were staffed cheaply by trained serf musicians and serf actors, putting in their statutory three days’ unpaid service a week, with plays, concerts and vaudeville. Russia had one hundred and seventy serf theatres: the Sheremetev family alone had eight in their gardens. With estates such as Stanislas Potocki’s 3.5 million acres and 130,000 serfs, Imperial Russia could copy in its gardens the circuses of Imperial Rome.

A national feeling for the land and nature must explain why an aristocracy that spoke French and intermarried with German princes was so devoted to English and Scottish gardeners salaried at £100 a year. It was not Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s elegant landscape vacancies that attracted them, but the appeal of eclectic garden buildings in the ‘English’ style. The Kuskovo Palace gardens had acquired, post-1750, a Dutch House, a palatial Hermitage with elevating tables and chairs to keep the servants hidden at lunchtime, a Chinese Pagodenburg, a Persian Tent, a Grotto, an Italian House, a Menagerie, a Belvedere, a Winter Garden, a Cupola Hall, a Green Theatre, a House of Diana, a Temple of Silence and a Lions’ Cave. That was standard for the really rich princes; six garden buildings to an estate was commonplace, and Hayden describes them with tactful historical notes and the potted biographies of a lost exotic world, so much of it laid out by our own English gardeners: William Gould, Robert Manners, Francis Reid, Adam Menelaws and, of course, Charles Cameron, the Empress Catherine’s favourite.

Something of the Russian preference for substantial garden structures may be explained by a letter of 1717 that Johan Busch, a Hackneybased nurseryman, wrote from Oranienbaum to George William, 6th Earl of Coventry, at Croome Court, Worcestershire: ‘it is dangerous in these woods to collect plants, there being large bears and wolves’. Abounding in such rich anecdotal source material, this book puts Anton Chekhov, even Pushkin, into context.

Tim Mowl
University of Bristol

33:1 (Summer 2005)

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