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Archive for December, 2010

Snowy sceneFestive greetings from a British landscape lover in Paris. Expect more musings on gardens, parks and all things green in 2011.

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I’m grateful to fellow blogger Garden History Girl for alerting me to a splendid new way of wasting hours on the internet, while claiming to be researching important trends in landscape history.

A couple of days ago Google launched their Ngram Viewer. It is an oddly-uninspiring name for a nifty gadget that lets you trace the appearance of particular words or phrases in books over time. Garden History Girl writes amusingly of the 18th century fad for shrubbery, and uses the Ngram to show how for a while the word shrubbery was actually more popular than plain old shrubs.

Playing around with the gadget this morning, I have traced the dramatic rise and slow fall of the usage of picturesque and sublime, concepts painfully fashionable of course in the late eighteenth century; confirmed that the term jardin à la francaise is a nineteenth-century construct which would have had no meaning for Le Nôtre and his contemporaries; and discovered that parc de la Villette is the most discussed of the three great new parks created in Paris in the late twentieth century.

Google Ngram result

picturesque, sublime, in English 1600-2008

It is quickly clear that the gadget has all sorts of shortcomings: it is case and accent sensitive, so Jardin des Tuileries for instance will not find references to jardin des Tuileries, nor will Pere Lachaise find mentions of Père Lachaise; any pre-1800 results are pretty suspect, given the frequent lack of publication dates, non-uniform spelling and poor printing quality of many early books; and there is no way of verifying context, so mentions of Dan Kiley could equally refer to the master American landscape designer or to his pop-psychologist namesake.

Unlike Google Maps, there is no organised way of disseminating the results, except apparently as a ‘tweet’, and many of the graphs already appearing on blogs and online newspapers are blurry and difficult to read. It is also all too easy to search for the obvious, as I did, and get unsurprising results.

But the Ngram is great fun, and endlessly addictive. Its real value will come when unexpected patterns lead to fresh understandings and new avenues for research.

Postscript: A quick scout round the internet shows that I am far from the only one playing with Google’s new text miner. It is generating a lot of pretty unthinking coverage: see for example the gleeful US headline ‘Pants up, trousers down’ (non-American anglophones will quickly spot an omission in the writer’s analysis of the results).

But thoughtful and erudite posts are also appearing. This one explains the technical shortcomings of the Ngram, and argues that the gadget needs perfecting before it will be of any use. While this accepts its imperfections and welcomes the Ngram as another tool that can help us explore the past.

I remain on the fence. Try something seemingly simple like plotting the popularity of landscape designers over time. You can show that in British English in the twentieth century, Le Nôtre appeared more than Frederick Law Olmsted, and that poor old unfashionable Capability Brown barely merited a mention:

Ngram viewer

‘Capability’ Brown, Frederick Law Olmstead, Andre Le Notre, in British English, 1900-2000

Or you can show the opposite, with Brown easily more popular than Olmsted, and Le Nôtre relegated to a distant third:

Google Ngram

Capability Brown, Frederick Law Olmsted, André Le Nôtre, in British English 1900-2000

If you look closely, you’ll see that the results are completely skewed by spelling variations. ‘Capability’ Brown yields no results at all in the first graph (the gadget doesn’t seem to like the quotation marks, even though they are commonly used). Without the quotation marks there are suddenly lots of results (but there is no obvious way to combine them with those for his real name Lancelot [sometimes Launcelot] Brown). Olmstead in the first graph is a surprisingly frequent misspelling of Olmsted, the correct spelling of which produced the second set of results. Trickier still in the English canon is André Le Nôtre, whose name most commonly seems to appear in English books without any accent marks (at least according to Google’s OCR), producing the results in the first graph. Add both diacritics and you get the second graph. Originally spelled Le Nostre, his name is still sometimes rendered that way, although none of those results show up here.

So it is almost impossible to trace any meaningful trend in the appearance of their names in books over time. Hmmm…

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Square Louis XVIThe little park around the Chapelle Expiatoire on boulevard Haussman is traditionally planted with white flowers, in memory of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. So it was somehow fitting to visit yesterday during a major snowstorm in Paris. Everything was rapidly being engulfed in deep, soft whiteness.

This place was once the cemetery of La Madeleine, and became a dumping ground for as many as 3,000 guillotined corpses during the terrors of the French Revolution. In 1793 the bodies of the king and (some months later) his queen were hastily buried here in a pit. Later a royalist, Pierre Desclozeaux, acquired the site and quietly marked what he believed to be the royal burial spot with a planting of willows, cypress and hornbeam.

After the restoration of the monarchy, Louis XVIII had the purported remains of the former king (his brother) and queen re-interred in the royal selpulchre at Saint Denis, and commissioned Pierre-François Léonard Fontaine to build a chapel on the spot where their bodies had first lain. It seems the plants of Monsieur Desclozeaux were not enough of a memorial.

The small domed chapel is a splendid, Neoclassical edifice, currently in the process of being cleaned and restored after suffering storm damage last year. The small park which surrounds it, known as Square Louis XVI, is pleasantly planted with scented white-flowering shrubs and perennials, including roses, viburnum and lilacs. They grow in the shade of a mixture of trees (horse chestnuts, sycamores, cherries, maples, hawthorns, clipped yews), chosen to reflect the wide range of people killed during the Revolution. There are also lots of benches and a small toddlers’ playground.

The Square is tucked away behind railings near the grands magasins in the 9th, and the dramatic pale curves of the chapel always somehow take me by surprise when I glimpse them among the traffic and shoppers and dense surrounding buildings. If this were a more populist blog, I would mention that Marie Antoinette’s ghost is said to haunt the place. But instead I will just point out that the chapel is open to visitors (see the website for details) and that the little park is a splendid place to sit quietly and ponder.

Square Louis XVI

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