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Archive for the ‘History’ Category

It may be the only time that historic garden conservation has been compared to a flaky French pastry. But use of the term mille-feuille was not the only unusual thing about the 1990 plans by Bernard Lassus for the Jardin des Tuileries, that magnificent processional space between the Louvre and the Place de la Concorde in the middle of Paris.

Originally created as riverside pleasure grounds for a palace, the gardens have over their 450-year history been the playground for monarchs and emperors, the site of many important events in French history, and a reflection of changing fashions and trends in landscape design.

In the 1980s, with the implementation of French President Mitterrand’s grand projets, the gardens became part of an extended axis through the city. A controversial glass pyramid in the Louvre courtyard created a new focal point at their eastern edge; beyond the western edge, the axis that had continued up the Champs Elysées to the Arc de Triomphe was extended to the vast new Arche de la Défense in the city’s business district. At this time, the French government decided to renew the gardens themselves, and invited nine firms to put forward proposals.

The competition

The shadow of Le Nôtre’s work in the Tuileries clearly loomed over the nine designers, and encouraged rather cautious, reverential proposals. Most of them aimed to conserve as much as possible of the existing gardens, and focused on preservation work such as repairing statues and restoring planting.

The proposal from Bernard Lassus stood out. An experimental artist and theorist, Lassus was known for his pioneering ideas on landscape design. He had already won two competitions to create public gardens that celebrated the history of their settings in novel ways and, in 1984, had proposed a remarkable—some said unbuildable—plan for a vertical garden at the new Parc de la Villette in Paris.

His proposal for the Jardin des Tuileries was thoughtful, subtle and utterly radical. With his fascination for spatial depth as a metaphor for the passing of time, Lassus was inspired by the way that the new Louvre pyramid had gone underground, slicing its way through the archaeology of the ancient site, to create a new, subterranean entrance to the museum. In doing so, it had revealed the densely packed history stored there. Lassus proposed the same approach for the gardens, cutting away the historic layers to create a mythic archaeology that exposed the main design periods for the Tuileries. Still rectilinear, the site would become deep, using its strata or layers to reveal and reinvent the garden’s history, maintaining and celebrating its many memories and associations.

Views of the Lassus plans for the Tuileries. From http://www.bernard-lassus.com

Views of the Lassus plans for the Tuileries. From http://www.bernard-lassus.com

Details of the Lassus plan

Five layers of the Lassus plan.

Five layers of the Lassus plan.

The proposal split the garden horizontally into areas and vertically into strata, representing the five main eras in the history of the gardens. The oldest, and lowest, layer would correspond to the walled garden created from the 1560s by Catherine de’ Medici, widow of Henry II, which was a place of variety and surprise. Designed in an Italian style, this garden had been divided into regular compartments, with parterres, a maze, groups of fruit trees, lawns and vineyards. This is shown as dark grey on the Lassus plan, and would be reconstructed and, where necessary, reinvented 80 centimetres below the current surface of the gardens.

One of the so-called Valois Tapestries, depicting a ball held by Catherine de' Medici at the Tuileries Palace, Paris, in 1573. Image from wikipedia.

The jardin des Tuileries in 1573, during a ball held by Catherine de’ Medici. From one of the so-called Valois Tapestries; image from wikipedia.

Visitors could then step up to the next layer (the dark red area on the plan). This would be a box parterre and large fountain, dating from around the turn of the seventeenth century, and said to be designed by Claude Mollet, gardener to Henry IV and one of a great dynasty of French gardeners.

Up another level, the middle stratum (lighter red) was to be the celebrated work of André Le Nôtre who, from 1664, redesigned the gardens in a monumental style. They contained the grand central axis for which the gardens are now perhaps best known, marked by fountains and large ponds at either end.

Les Jardins des Tuileries, as laid out by Le Nôtre c.1670, drawing by Israel Silvestre. Image from Gardens of Illusion by F. Hamilton Hazelhurst.

Les Jardins des Tuileries, as laid out by Le Nôtre, c.1670, drawing by Israel Silvestre. Image from Gardens of Illusion by F. Hamilton Hazelhurst.

The hexagonal pond and monumental curved walkways created by Le Nôtre at the western end of the gardens.

The hexagonal pond and monumental curved walkways created by Le Nôtre at the western end of the gardens.

The fourth layer in Lassus’ proposal (shown in yellow on the plan) consisted of the nineteenth-century additions to the gardens, including the twin pavilions at the western edge, and the jardin réservé (private garden), with its water features, flower beds and statues, created for the restored monarch Louis-Philippe, and subsequently enlarged and much enjoyed by Emperor Napoleon III.

The Orangerie, one of a pair of classically styled pavillions added to the gardens by Napoleon III in the mid- nineteenth century.

The Orangerie, one of a pair of classically styled pavilions added to the gardens by Napoleon III in the mid-nineteenth century.

Finally, Lassus proposed a new, fifth stratum of contemporary design. Just as the Louvre pyramid and the Arche de la Défense created a new axial geometry for the city, Lassus wanted the gardens to include a distinctive contribution of our own time. So, at a level some 170 centimetres above the current surface, he proposed a modern jardin d’eau or water garden (shown as pale blue on the plan). The new reflecting pools and cascades would appear to bring the Seine, running along the southern edge, into the gardens, as well as making a link with the existing pools and the new fountains in the Louvre courtyard.

Different surfaces would mark the different periods in the gardens’ history: for the Medicis garden there would be terracotta and grass; for Le Nôtre, compacted sand; for the nineteenth century layers, gravel. These changes underfoot would set up a rhythm for visitors to help them discover what was being revealed. This would be further supported by glass engravings showing the full garden plans of each period, and stone inscriptions marking the site of important events.

Thus, the Lassus proposal was for a layered landscape, with a mix of styles and histories on show; a veritable mille-feuille. Rather than giving one age precedence over another, his approach recognised the multiple significance of the Tuileries; they were, as he described them, “the sum of the thickness of places and events” and provided the opportunity to create “a space exploring time.” Freeing the gardens from what might be seen as the too imposing precedent of Le Nôtre also allowed new opportunities for people’s interaction with the landscape, which might include travelling shows and temporary works by modern-day artists.

Competition results

The Lassus proposal was not successful in the competition. Instead, the French Government picked the team of Louis Benech and Pascal Cribier, who essentially spruced up the existing gardens, with modern watering systems, restored garden features and new perennial plantings.

Mixed perennial beds today on the site of the nineteenth century jardin réservé.

Mixed perennial beds today on the site of the nineteenth century jardin réservé.

Belgian designer Jacques Wirtz was invited to rework the Jardins du Carrousel at the far eastern end of the Tuileries (which had not formed part of the Lassus plans), with a design of radiating yew hedges, today widely viewed as a failure.

There are those who might criticise Lassus’ proposals as a Disney-esque version of the gardens, deliberately (and wrongly) giving the impression that each stratum continued under the subsequent layers, and arguably creating a false sense of history by combining features that never existed together historically.

Yet his plans would have been a bold and thought-provoking way of treating these gardens. Landscape historian John Dixon-Hunt has argued that the Louvre pyramid forced us to see the historic space around it differently, and required an equally challenging garden to complete the design: something as demanding, as deep, as exciting. But, in the end, France’s courage seems to have run out with the pyramid, and the iconoclastic Lassus proposals for the Jardins des Tuileries will remain forever unrealised.

A version of this article originally appeared in Gardens and People, as part of a series I wrote on ‘Gardens That Were Never Built.’

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As you might expect, the British Library has an extraordinary wealth of archive material, including much that is essential study for the serious landscape historian. Its strap line, with some justification, is “The World’s Knowledge.” Yet it is far from my favourite repository, partly for its dreadful website, and partly for what might charitably be called its rather high-end charges for image reproduction and permission to publish.

But it has just done something to gladden the heart of every researcher. It has published a Flickr photostream of over a million images from some of the books in its collection. Examples include this lovely 1881 drawing of the gardens at Versailles, entitled “Plan des Bosquets à l’Epoque actuelle” [contemporary plan of the groves] from page 529 of Le Château de Versailles. Histoire et Description by Louis Dussieux.

11143880845_c44f5db04d_kAll the images are in the public domain (the books are from the nineteenth century or earlier) but for most of them this is the first time they have been available online at such high resolution – or indeed at all. Many are of good enough quality for print publication, a rare occurrence for images on the internet. And the British Library makes clear that the images are available for anyone to “use, remix and repurpose” as they see fit. There is no charge; the Library would just appreciate an attribution.

The purpose of releasing them – and there are delightful hints that many more are to follow – is to explore ways of navigating, finding and displaying these currently rather hidden images. At the moment, finding them is hard, even now they are on Flickr. Only the books’ titles and authors are tagged in the photostream. So search for “Taj Mahal” for instance, and there are no results. But search for “India” and – among hundreds of other images – are ones like this, from Our Life and Travels in India by William Wakefield, which shows how very different were the gardens around the tomb in the 1870s:

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and this even more detailed one from the following decade, which appeared in Sir Edwin Arnold’s “India Revisited … Reprinted, with additions … from the “Daily Telegraph:””

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Searching in this way, by broad geographical sweep or topical area, produces all sorts of splendid surprises. So among the many India images, I found this one from the 1860s of Chandni Chowk, the main street through Old Delhi, labelled interestingly “Main Native Street” and utterly different from the chaotic thoroughfare of today:

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and this one of Humayun’s Tomb and its gardens from a Pictorial tour round India; with remarks on India past and present, alleged and true causes of Indian poverty, supposed or real, twelve means available for promoting the wealth of the country, etc. by John Murdoch, p47, published in Madras in 1890, seemingly available nowhere else on the web, and certainly new to me:

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But searching (as researchers tend to do) for a specific subject is frustrating. None of the visible text in the images is indexed, so even clear image titles (such as “Humayun’s Tomb” above) are not found in searches – you simply have to wade through books with possibly relevant titles and know what you are looking for. And even more frustratingly, the details of the source volume do not seem to be stored with the image: so if you download a picture without keeping a proper note of its source at the time (as I did with the Chandni Chowk image above) it can be all but impossible to find it again afterwards, or know where it came from.

All to be played for, then. The British Library is planning a “crowdsourcing application” in early 2014 better to identify and describe these million images. It is an exciting, potentially hugely important project for researchers, and the Library is to be applauded for embarking upon it.

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Decadence is defined as

moral or cultural decline as characterised by excessive indulgence in pleasure or luxury.

In terms of Mughal design, Safdarjung’s Tomb in Delhi is a fine example of decadence. It follows in the pattern of the great garden tombs, which began with the sandstone mausoleum and geometric garden of the second Mughal emperor, Humayun, laid out by his widow around 1564.

An aerial view of Humayan's Tomb, from a photograph on display at the site

An aerial view of Humayan’s Tomb, from a photograph on display at the site

The tradition reached its undoubted peak with Agra’s supremely elegant Taj Mahal, created in marble amidst park-like surroundings in the 1630s for the wife of fifth emperor Shahjehan. Both Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal today are World Heritage Sites.

The Taj Mahal viewed from across the Yamuna river

The Taj Mahal viewed from across the Yamuna river

The Taj represents the artistic pinnacle of the Mughal empire, created at the height of its cultural and political power. Just over a century later, Safdarjung’s Tomb was the last Mughal building to be created in Delhi, and the last of the Mughal garden tombs. It is the mausoleum of the prime minister to the fifteenth emperor, created as his empire disintegrated. According to some accounts, Safdarjung himself played a part in the the downfall of the Mughals.

The entrance gateway to the site.

The entrance gateway to Safdarjung’s Tomb.

Sunset view of the tomb with its walkways and water courses.

Sunset view of the tomb with its walkways and water courses.

Safdarjung’s Tomb is a strangely appropriate monument. It sums up in stone the decline of the once-great empire. The mausoleum and its Mughal gardens are clearly modelled on Humayun’s. But the proportions of the main building feel strange, with an over-sized dome and chunky corner-towers, and the decorative marble elements are ostentatious, lacking all the elegance of the Taj Mahal’s exquisite inlaid stone work. The garden’s four water courses, one leading from each side of the tomb, also have a rather clunky, overly-literal feel. It is as if the architect was trying too hard to show off the main features of the design, without understanding the subtleties and balance require to create a great building.

One of the showy marble panels (left).

One of the showy marble panels (left).

View of the mausoleum.

The strangely scaled vertical elevations of the mausoleum.

Despite its central Delhi location, Safdarjung’s Tomb is today little-visited. The garden has that typical combination of lawn and little clipped shrubs that bears no relation to the orchards and scented flowers that were once essential features of a Mughal garden. Much of the stonework is rather shabby, some of the pathways are uneven and overgrown, and all the water channels have long been empty. But it undoubtedly remains important as a late, decadent example of Mughal funerary design.

Poorly maintained plaster around the site's library.

Poorly maintained plaster around the site’s library.

One of the derelict water channels.

One of the derelict water channels.

Sandstone slabs.

Sandstone slabs, stacked among weeds in the garden.

This week the Archaeological Survey of India (the Government agency that maintains the tomb) has announced plans to restore the fountains and water channel at the entrance to the site. The original Mughal drainage system has been unearthed and apparently the water should soon be flowing again. Similar work may be possible in the other three channels. It is hardly full restoration but, in a country keen to look forward, and where heritage is often viewed as an unnecessary relic of an irrelevant past, it is still encouraging to see state intervention such as this for a great example of decadent Mughal design.

The water course at the entrance, soon to be restored.

The water course at the entrance, soon to be restored.

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soiled_and_seeded_issue_09I am delighted this month to have co-authored an article in Soiled and Seededa splendid on-line garden magazine that aims to provide “a rich and eclectic source of ideas, learned practices, history and heritage… to dig deep to offer a refreshing and engaging take on garden culture.”

My co-author is Saima Iqbal, a conservation architect working for INTACH in Kashmir, and in the brief article we explain plans to establish authentic planting patterns at the Mughal gardens in Kashmir.

Please do go and take a look.

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Tuileries signThis year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of André Le Nôtre, and the great designer is being honoured with an exhibition at the Tuileries in Paris and at events throughout France.

I am pleased to be celebrating the anniversary with an article in the Journal of the Garden History Society.

ghsTitled “Recollections and Hopes,” the article explores the history of the Le Nôtre gardens at Vaux le Vicomte, southeast of Paris – not through plans and layouts and analysis of physical changes, but through people’s personal memories and impressions of the gardens over time.

The article argues that preserving people’s recollections of a garden is just as important as conserving its physical properties; indeed, as John Dixon Hunt has declared, given the propensity of all gardens to change and ultimately disappear, chronicling our responses to them “becomes the only true form of historic preservation.”

For those who have not been to Vaux, I would urge you to go – and add to the memories and associations of this magical place.

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The year 2016 will mark three hundred years since the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and plans are being put in place to celebrate this greatest of England’s landscape designers. Today I visited his birthplace, at Kirkharle. It was here in this small corner of Northumberland that Brown first learnt to appreciate and understand the countryside that was to inspire his work.

First signs at Kirkharle aren’t promising. The small house where Brown was born is now a car park. The grand Hall, for which he designed the grounds, was largely demolished in the nineteenth century, leaving just a wing that became a farmhouse. Since then, a major road has sliced the small estate in two. In any event, Brown’s  design was never installed.

And yet Kirkharle proved a delightful half-day visit. The old agricultural barns and byres that surrounded the farmhouse have been saved from dereliction and turned into the Kirkharle Courtyard, a collection of small workshops, galleries and a nice little café all branded under the Capability Brown name, and accompanied by a small but informative exhibition about Brown’s work at Kirkharle and elsewhere. Kirkharle courtyard 1 Kirkharle courtyard 4 Kirkharle courtyard 3 Kirkharle courtyard 2Most interestingly for me, the unrealised Brown plan for the grounds at Kirkharle has now been installed. Starting in 2010, his distinctive proposals for a serpentine lake, groups of broadleaf trees and conifers, undulating turf and carefully composed vistas were finally laid out in the fields behind the courtyard. Unlike the painstaking installation of another unrealised Brown plan at Heveningham Hall, the work at Kirkharle is more a modern interpretation of his intentions than a close rendering of the original plan. But it seemed to me a commendable exercise to take a fairly slight Brown project and consider how the great place-maker might have laid out the grounds if he were alive today. The site is developing well and a circular walk encourages its exploration, with helpful – if woefully ungrammatical – signs.

Kirkharle lake 1 Kirkharle lake 3 Kirkharle lake 2

Of course such a project does not come cheap, and a mass of sponsors and supporters has been necessary to fund everything from the restoration of the barns and the exhibition to the newly laid-out lake. I wish the Kirkharle Lake and Courtyard project well. The tercentenary of Brown’s birth in three years is an important opportunity to revaluate Brown’s contribution to British, and indeed international, landscape history; this thriving little venture at his birthplace in Kirkharle can only help the celebrations.

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One of the best and most beautiful expressions of Mughal culture is its gardens. Sadly, few examples survive, but among the finest are the terraced gardens in the Kashmir valley. On a visit earlier this month I saw how these exquisite sites are being restored to something approaching their seventeenth-century glory.

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Dr Jan Haenraets, an expert on the restoration of historic landscapes, is advising on the work in Kashmir and I am delighted that he has agreed to be interviewed here.

Jan, what makes the Mughal gardens of Kashmir so important?
First, they are just exceptionally beautiful. They also provide irreplaceable physical evidence that helps us understand Mughal – and Mughal garden – history. People think of the great garden tombs such as the Taj Mahal when they think of Mughal garden history, but in Kashmir the gardens were created just as gardens, not to accompany a tomb. The mountainous topography also produced a specific type of design – the terraced garden.

It feels as if Kashmir was the ultimate gardening playground of the Mughal Emperors; indeed it is said that, during the height of Mughal glory in the mid-17th century of Shah Jahan’s rule, the Kashmiri city of Srinagar boasted around 700 gardens.

They also represent a pinnacle in the long gardening tradition of Kashmir, although the horticultural influence from Kashmir on the Mughal tradition still needs much research.

When I think of the Kashmir gardens, places like Kyoto, Japan and Suzhou, China, come to my mind. Both places are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites, with dense numbers of gardens playing a key role in these UNESCO listings. The Mughal gardens heritage of Kashmir is, in my opinion, of no lesser significance. For me, they are one of the peaks of Islamic garden art.

How did you get involved in the project to restore them?
I had been aware of some ongoing conservation planning for the Mughal gardens in Kashmir since 2004, when the Jammu and Kashmir chapter of INTACH [the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage] started their first management planning surveys. In 2010 I had the chance to help for some months on additional research and management recommendations. The INTACH J&K team wanted some expert advice to help with more detail, especially in relation to the horticultural and soft landscape aspects, as their expertise was mainly architectural conservation.

What state were the gardens in when you first got involved?
The gardens were managed and open to public, with many people visiting, mainly locals and Indian tourists. 2010 was a turbulent summer in Kashmir, with almost three months of strikes, daytime curfews and protests in the valley, meaning that places were closed down most of the season. Although by 2010 INTACH J&K had already started some architectural conservation works, they stopped when unrest occurred.

At Achabal Bagh the central water channel and pools had been repaired, with work ongoing on the main baradari [pavilion] and the side channels. In Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh work had started on the water features and, although it was not complete, they were working. The main work in these two gardens was on some of the buildings, including the hammam in Shalimar Bagh and the baradari in the Zenana at Nishat Bagh.

What has now been achieved?
INTACH J&K continues step by step to restore architectural features. The Department of Floriculture maintains the gardens, and aims to keep the key six gardens presentable.

One success was that we managed to get the key gardens [Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Achabal Bagh, Chashma Shahi, Pari Mahal and Verinag] as a serial nomination onto the Tentative List for UNESCO World Heritage. Now we are developing a project that hopefully can result in a holistic conservation approach. It feels like now the gardens have largely been stabilized, with architectural features being partly restored, but with the real challenges only starting.

What remains to be done?
The main focus now must shift towards the wider gardens and landscapes. The management so far has focused on the central channel areas only, and so the wider landscape features are frequently damaged and much at risk. Most visitors only see the central parts of the gardens for a short time, and enjoy that. But mostly they do not realize the layout and importance of the wider gardens and landscape. For instance the Shalimar canal between the garden and Dal Lake is of key significance, but is in a dire state. The surrounding cultural landscape and the lake are also at risk.

The Department of Floriculture needs to be more skilled at managing heritage gardens, rather than presenting them in a typical urban park style. Plus, maintenance needs to be better, to tackle the wear and tear in the gardens from visitor pressure, with for instance lawns compacted and central parts in a poor state, and the less-known gardens generally need more maintenance. Horticulture and planting schemes need to improve in the gardens: for instance there used to be many orchards on the terraced side wings of the gardens, but little remains of these plantings.

We basically need now to develop actions such as archaeology, conservation propagation, interpretation, conservation skills training, restoration planting schemes, legal protection, a Kashmir Mughal gardens database and buffer zone protection.

Which is your favourite of the six gardens? and why?
All the main gardens have something very special. I believe that for instance Shalimar Bagh should be seen as a ‘cultural landscape’ – different periods of history have created historical layers in the garden with distinct markings, and its wider setting and features are amazing.

If I must highlight one garden, then maybe I’d say Nishat Bagh because its terraces are so extensive. Most visitors only see the central axis, but the ‘side wings’ in Nishat are incredible. I don’t feel that anyone truly recognizes the sophistication of these terraces, and how ingenious the making of them must have been in Mughal times.

Remember that there used to be over 700 Mughal gardens in Kashmir; today we speak often about the six main ones that are open to the public. Just to illustrate, I’ll mention a seventh, and that is Jharoka Bagh at Manasbal Lake. It also is struggling conservation-wise, but still worth a visit. Its location on a hillside next to the lake makes beautiful use of the genius loci.

What has been the biggest challenge in the project?
Convincing the management authorities of the need to have a conservation management approach and stop the ongoing damaging developments. Awareness remains low and it is hard to see people put much time into the safeguarding of the project while damage continues to occur.

And what is the greatest joy?
Doing so much work on the historical survey, sometimes the greatest joy lies in finding that one new previously unknown photograph, to experience how we slowly start to understand the gardens. For instance, when I gave a talk in London about the gardens, someone had brought to the lecture unseen early 20th century photographs that his mother had made of the gardens. That often is what keeps the motivation alive.

In the gardens there is also always joy to experience. For instance just watching the local kids play cricket in the Zenana under the ancient Chinar trees is fantastic, or strolling through the gardens and being offered fresh berries or fruit from the garden by the locals.

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With many thanks to Dr Jan Haenraets for this interview. For more on the Mughal gardens in Kashmir, see Jan’s article here and the UNESCO World Heritage entry here.

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I wrote here about the fascinating experience of working on a television history of French gardens, presented by Monty Don.

The programme, called Gardens of Power and Passion, will air this evening on BBC2 for UK viewers. I’d love to hear what people think.

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One of the pleasures of landscape history is the often surprising places where information can be found. Trainspotters’ model drawings,  last wills and testaments, records from a convent, romantic novels, legal opinions, photographs on Facebook – all have in their time helped me understand and interpret historical landscapes. And this month I was shown another unexpected example.

A couple of years ago, I published a book on Fresh Pond, a historically rich landscape in Massachusetts, now the main source of the water supply for the city of Cambridge. No central archive exists on the landscape, and so I had spent several years digging around in obscure places for information and images. The task was made harder because in the late 1800s, to protect the purity of the water, the city had rapidly cleared the land of all its historical buildings, and quarried the surrounding glacial hills for gravel to make the shoreline more regular. This left steep, raw wounds over much of the landscape, ugly gashes of exposed rock and sand, much criticised by the Olmsted firm of landscape architects which was subsequently brought in to ‘beautify the borders’ of a new park planned on the shores.

The quarrying left the landscape unattractive and unloved. Virtually no photographs seemed to exist from this period, and my book had to rely largely on descriptions and occasional 2D plans. Then last week a colleague in Cambridge sent me a link to a cache of rediscovered photographs put on line by Harvard University, 23 of them of Fresh Pond, all from the winter of 1887/88. It turns out that the exposed gravel and sand had appealed to a new group of visitors: the Harvard geology department had sent professional photographers to capture images of contorted glacial gravels, shored kames, faulted sands, and upturned and overfolded shore-strips of ice at Fresh Pond. The man-made structures caught by the lens were of no interest to the geologists, and were left unlabelled and unremarked, but for many of the historical buildings at Fresh Pond these long-forgotten images serve as the only known photographs. Within five years all such structures had been swept away by the city.

I spent a couple of very enjoyable hours matching the dwellings, icehouses and bridges suddenly brought alive in the photographs to the plans so familiar to me from years of research. And I thought again of the unexpected reasons why people document and photograph the land, and how we landscape historians need to seek out and relish every example.

1888 map

An 1888 map of Fresh Pond, showing the ice houses and dwelling owned by the Fresh Pond Ice Company. Image from the Massachusetts Archives.

A newly rediscovered image from 1887/88 of the Fresh Pond Ice Company’s properties on the shoreline, from the George Augustus Gardner collection of photographs, Cabot Science Special Collections, Harvard University.

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One of my more exciting projects over the past few months has been providing consultancy advice to a forthcoming BBC TV programme on the history of French gardens, presented by Monty Don.

Monty Don filming at the Jardin Plume for his French Gardens series. Photograph by Historic Gardens Review editor, Gillian Mawrey, who worked with me as consultant on the programme.

As a writer and lecturer on historic gardens, it has been fascinating to work on familiar topics in an utterly different medium. I’ve come (grudgingly) to accept that the BBC understands what looks good on screen. They had pressed for more flowers, more colour, more prettiness, and I had resisted, thinking that the sumptuousness and scale of Vaux or Versailles did not not need tulips to enliven it. But then seeing the first cut of the film, I suddenly understood how the camera loves detail – how single roses and fountain spouts and statues and potted orange trees just play so much better than mile-long vistas and vast canals that, however much they dazzle in real life, seem flat and unimpressive on screen.

I’ve come to appreciate the luxury of writing a book or an article where, if at any point you find a gap in your narrative or a fact that starts to seem questionable, you can undertake more research and expand or amend your material. But for television, once the visits are complete, the filming done, that’s it. If, as you edit the film, you realise that an important trend is not sufficiently captured, or a mistake occurs in a key piece to camera, or indeed if spectacular monsoon-style rain has all but scuppered your efforts at outdoor shots of Versailles, there is little prospect of supplementing or correcting the material. You have what you have, and the programme has to emerge from that.

One other thought. It is easy to criticise such programmes as simplistic, as not offering enough detail or background. But I saw how television requires you to sum up complicated ideas and concepts in a sentence or two. It is a skill I struggled to acquire. How to explain the gradual, late eighteenth century shift from Le Nôtre’s structural and geometric gardens to the quirky French interpretations of informal English style? In a book, you could linger over the impact of pre-revolutionary fervour, discuss Republicanism and Romanticism, muse on Rousseau and Ermenonville, describe and display the influence of chinoiserie, and in this and other ways slowly tease out the gradual evolution of those characteristic jardins à l’anglaise. But, in an television programme that needs to cover 500 years of gardening history in an hour, you have only a few seconds of voice-over to make the link. I admired the production team’s willingness to work and rework such moments until we all felt comfortable with what was being said.

It’s not the programme I would have made – and doubtless no worse for that. It’s prettier, and simpler, and occasionally missing information that might have been useful. But it’s also an admirable attempt to capture the history of some of the finest gardens ever made, and I look forward to seeing the final version broadcast next Spring.

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