Gardens of Sense and Sensibility; Rational and Romantic

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Gardens are purposeful, and the evolution of any garden always begins with a plan. This ego-centric composition comes from the thought processes of its creator, and the design itself is a rational action. The designer works towards achieving personal ideals, fulfilling user requirements, or satisfying the societal norms popular for the time.

In gardens of the 17th to 19th-centuries, great contrast existed. Garden styles waxed and waned from excessively austere formality to ridiculously beautiful romanticism.

As individuals, we will always feel a stronger pull towards one style, shape, or form, and an instinctive withdrawal from its polar opposite.

And not just gardens! Think about literature; which character would you connect with in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811): the ‘sense’ of Elinor or the ‘sensibility’ of her

By Philippa Hadlow

Reading time: 14 minutes

Gardens are purposeful, and the evolution of any garden always begins with a plan. This ego-centric composition comes from the thought processes of its creator, and the design itself is a rational action. The designer works towards achieving personal ideals, fulfilling user requirements, or satisfying the societal norms popular for the time.

In gardens of the 17th to 19th-centuries, great contrast existed. Garden styles waxed and waned from excessively austere formality to ridiculously beautiful romanticism.

As individuals, we will always feel a stronger pull towards one style, shape, or form, and an instinctive withdrawal from its polar opposite.

And not just gardens! Think about literature; which character would you connect with in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility (1811): the ‘sense’ of Elinor or the ‘sensibility’ of her sister Marianne? In Austen’s time, sensibility was closer to what we’d call ‘sensitivity’ or ‘romanticism’, but the sense demonstrated by Elinor retains its practical, intellectual, and logical connotations seen today.

Throughout time, literature, linguistics, art, philosophy, theatre, architecture, and music have entwined to share an intrinsically common theme. These subjects are collectively known as ‘the arts’: “documented expressions of a sentient being through or on an accessible medium so that anyone can view, hear or experience it” (Wikipedia). If arts can be viewed subjectively or created deliberately to provide aesthetic pleasure or otherwise, then I’ll add a sub-group of architecture to that group: garden architecture.

‘Landscape (or garden) architecture’ is identified as an art form in Ian Thompson’s Ecology, Community and Delight(1999), wherein he contemplates the concepts of 27 B.C. Roman author and engineer Vitruvius:

“Is landscape architecture one of the great arts? In this chapter, we must turn our attention to the even thornier questions that surround the aesthetics of art. In particular, we will examine the contention that landscape architecture is, or should be, a form of art. As with our discussion of beauty, our inquiry will lead us into some difficult areas of philosophical aesthetics, but first, let us see where this notion of landscape architecture as art has come from.”

Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture explored design, landscape, engineering, the environment, water, and the importance of public gardens. He introduced ideas such as beauty, convenience, and utility in garden design, and conceptualised Vitruvian beauty or the perfect symmetry of the Golden Ratio.

Chapter 1 of Book 3 contains the famous advice on ratios and proportion that inspired Leonardo da Vinci’s even more famous Vitruvian Man drawing. The ideas it illustrates are related to Plato’s Theory of Forms, or ‘sacred geometry’ – a mathematical process using circles and squares in renaissance architecture and garden design.

In 306 B.C., Athenian philosopher Epicurus created a famous garden specifically for philosophical meditation and study. He built it not far from Plato’s academy (believed to stir competition between the two philosophers), and scholars wrote about a new topic: botany.

Around A.D. 63, Roman philosopher Seneca sent a series of moral letters to his friend Lucilius, advising him to become a better stoic. Stoicism was an alternative school of thought dealing with the universe, matter and the soul that embodied courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Its concepts are still relevant today. Seneca tells Lucilius to go to Epicurus’ Garden:

“Go to his Garden some time and read the motto carved there: ‘Dear Guest, here you will do well to tarry; here our highest good is pleasure.’ This garden does not whet your appetite; but quenches it. Nor does it make you more thirsty with every drink; it slakes the thirst with a natural cure – a cure that requires no fee. It is with this type of pleasure that I have grown old.”

During this time, it became custom that every head of school important enough should have his own garden in which to teach. The philosophies of Theophrastus, Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato were all taught from these tranquil spaces.

From the teachings held within the walls of those famous gardens came the precursors to grand horticultural landscapes, both symmetrical and geometric.

From meditating to meeting friends to making meals, all gardens fulfil a purpose and provoke a reaction. Their designs reflect the pondering of the philosophers and educated folk and present the social mores and fashions of the time.

And when well designed, the composition effectively appeals to most of our senses: smell, touch, sight, and hearing and, if referring to an edible garden, taste.

Let’s focus on gardens made for man’s pleasure. The rational Renaissance of the 17th century, inspired by the ancient Greeks, and the classical Romantic of the 19th century were two periods of history that brought about revolutionary opposites in garden design.

In the 1600s, it was all about order: formal ornamental gardens featuring columns, water fountains, courtyards, statues, paths, sculptures, topiary, low box hedging, and potted plants in systematic and strategic layouts were in demand.

During this time, André Le Nôtre, perhaps the most famous and influential landscape architect in French history, planned the Gardens of Versailles. King Louis XIV commandeered Le Nôtre to design the palace gardens drawing on the symbolism of the king dominating Nature. His designers drew from mathematics and science, cartesian geometry – horizontal and vertical – and Vitruvian concepts of symmetry and decorum.

The Palace de Versailles Gardens, by landscape architect Andre Le Notre copy

Le Nôtre was one of the first designers in Europe to consider the concept of space as a whole and the role of ‘garden plus architecture’ as guides to creating a unified, complementary landscape. He was impassioned by the relation between sky and earth and the effect of reflections on water.

Le Nôtre incorporated gradients, measured out to suit the topography of the area. He created a garden ‘rhythm’ marked by basins, optical illusions, stairs and balustrades, topiary hedges, and furniture. Sculptures – which nodded at the Greek God of Peace and Arts, Apollo – were included as a metaphor for King Louis XIV. Apollo was associated with the sun, the heavenly body that gave life to all things, regulating everything as it rose and set. Like Apollo, the warrior-king Louis XIV brought peace, was a patron of the arts, and dispensed his bounty.

The castle gate of King Louis XIV ‘Apollo’

André Le Nôtre bowed to the king’s power by creating avenues that drew in the surrounding landscape and instilled a sense of insignificance in the viewer when looking up at the expansive palace. And when the king looked out from the palace to the garden and vista beyond, he felt very mighty indeed. Every aspect of the design had a purpose, and nothing was left to follow its natural path. With the impact placed at the apex of the axis, the Palace of Versailles gardens clearly represented the rational ‘sense’ design.

When fans tired of stiff order and symmetry, grandeur, austerity, nobility, and idealisation, the creatives of the time turned their energies to the evolving concepts of 18th-century romanticism. This time was a period of heightened awareness that encouraged emotional engagement with nature. French philosopher Rene Descartes’ famous cogitation, “I think, therefore I am” was replaced with “I feel, therefore I am”, and nature was taken on as a new spirituality, thus allowing an alternative to Christianity.

Understanding God through nature meant the ‘natural’ garden was allowed to develop more naturally to provoke emotional and subjective responses. The natural garden was inspired by the idealised romantic paintings of Hubert Robert, Claude Lorrain, and Nicolas Poussin, and by European ideas about Chinese gardens, as well as the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Rousseau’s studies embodied socio-political change, belief in the innate nobility of man and botany. His great love of nature and the natural garden inspired him to imagine a perfect landscape where people could be true to themselves. He visited England in 1761 to see the style personified and was so inspired he wrote a novel: Julie ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (Julie, or the New Heloise). His book in turn inspired one of his pupils to create Parc Jean-Jacques Rousseau Garden, designed and named in his honour. It was the first romantic or picturesque garden in France, and here, Rousseau spent the last few weeks of his life in bliss.

The picturesque garden movement was well underway as early as 1720. One mover and shaker of the style was English landscape theorist William Gilpin, an accomplished artist known for his realistic depictions of nature. He preferred the unrefined landscape over the manicured and urged designers to respond to the topography of a given site. He also noted that while classical beauty was associated with the smooth and neat, picturesque beauty had a wilder, untamed quality. He described it as: “that peculiar kind of beauty which is agreeable in a picture”. Later in life, Gilpin was successful in designing hundreds of such sites, including the gardens at Scotney Castle in Kent, Harcourt Arboretum in Oxford, and Shaw Hill in Lancashire.

Stourhead Estate – an English romantic garden

The English picturesque or romantic landscape garden spread to France from 1740 onward and exemplified the artistic movement known as romanticism. This new emphasis partly reflected the tastes of the growing middle class, who found the refined and elegant art forms patronised by aristocratic society to be artificial and overly sophisticated. They came to favour more realistic artistic gardens that were emotionally accessible and easy on the eye. In the late 18th and early 19th century, gardens of ‘sensibility’ gradually replaced the symmetrical French formal garden.

No less carefully constructed, the picturesque style also incorporated architectural follies – castles, Gothic ruins, rustic cottages – built to add interest and depth to the landscape. These gardens were designed to lead the walker on a journey uphill and down dale, into groves and down meandering pathways, to pools reflecting trees and flowers, all the while enhancing an emotional connection to nature. The fluidity of these layouts is apparent in Claude Monet’s Garden at Giverny. Monet’s garden mirrored the relation between garden, emotion, and art because it was created by the painter himself.

Monet believed it was important to surround himself with nature and paint outdoors. He gained much of his artistic inspiration from his garden, designed to include water, bridges, umpteen flowers. His water lily pond alone was the subject of over 250 paintings.

Monet’s garden and the garden of the Palace of Versailles illustrate how the concept of art – based on philosophy, subjective public opinion, and fashion – changes through the centuries, yet is interconnected.

The arts depict or mimic reality, communicate emotions or ideas, create a sense of beauty, explore perception, or explore formal or informal elements for their own sake. As art forms themselves, these gardens achieved all of this and more. Both styles, the Rational and Romantic (the sense and sensibility), can justifiably stake their claims as powerful representations of amazing eras of revolutionary change and discovery.

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