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garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad

The essence of gardens

Sometimes the most poignant qualities of a site come not from what is actually there, but from what is connected to it, through time and space, by our recollections and hopes.

The Poetics of Gardens

It is all too easy to think of gardens as consisting simply of physical stuff — of plants and paths, walls and terraces.

But increasingly landscape historians are focusing not on the fabric of a historic garden, but on its essence. Some call this value, or genius loci, or sense of place, or character; Fergus Garrett at Great Dixter talks about atmosphere or spirit. I’d define it as the distinctive elements that make a garden special.

Recently I undertook a piece of research on the impact of sustainable practices on the character of historic gardens. As part of this, I sought to identify the essence of four gardens over time — using archives, memoirs, descriptions, images, surveys and interviews.

As you might expect, I learnt that the creation of character in gardens is complex. It does not come simply or quickly from the choice of plants or other materials, or just from the way the garden looks, and it develops through the engagement and appreciation of visitors over time. In my research, I found that a sense of place had been created variously by memories and stories about a garden’s history, by the experience of movement and change, by contrasts and context, by views, by perceptions of refuge or dominion, by sensory qualities (touch, sound, smell), and by an understanding of the garden’s importance and influence. It became clear to me that a sense of place is possible to preserve, despite deliberate change, as can be seen at Great Dixter, and possible to damage — for instance, with the seemingly innocuous substitution of a single tree species at New York’s Lincoln Center. The research left me optimistic that even major, unexpected events and significant alterations to fabric need not destroy a historic garden’s essence.View of gardenOne of the case studies in my research was Vaux le Vicomte, the extraordinary Le Nôtre garden southeast of Paris. Created in the mid-1600s, it was a garden full of wonders and pleasure, launched by its owner (the financial secretary to the king) at a spectacular fête that was to lead directly to his downfall and disgrace. My research showed how visitors can still feel the resonance of the single day in 1661 on which the estate became a legend, all the developments and intrigue that led to the fête, and the political and cultural repercussions that have flowed from it down the centuries. Still strong is the memory of the ambivalent figure of its first owner—misrepresented hero or scurrilous villain—and the myth-making that surrounded him. People also consistently recognise Vaux, not just as a great illustration of the genius of André Le Nôtre, but as the first example of his work, the kernel that went on to produce Versailles and that extraordinary array of classical gardens that so influenced garden-making across Europe.

It was surprisingly easy for me to trace over time the essential components that define the character of this garden: elements of surprise and delight, a powerful feeling of movement, of being drawn though contrasting experiences, a sense of mastery imposed upon the landscape, with its grand views and prospects providing a sense of dominion and power. Yet there is also a strong perception of informality and playfulness among all the geometry, a sense of the heroic, swashbuckling, almost preposterous magic of the place.

Gardening Gone Wild is currently running a photo competition for images that capture the spirit of a garden. It is difficult to imagine one photograph that sums up the essence of Vaux le Vicomte. My image here expresses something of the garden’s dominion over nature: see how the trees on both sides are kept pinned back by the tightly clipped hedges; how the grand terraces are imposed on the undulating land. The photograph also shows something of the wondrous beauty of the garden, with its restrained palette of cream, green, grey and twinkling pale blue, the vastness and geometry of its layout, the perfect relationship between house and garden. But no photo can capture the delight and surprise of moving through this garden, with its almost mischievous changes of perspective and sudden introductions of sounds and sensations. Nor can an image give any sense of the legends and stories that have always swirled around Vaux le Vicomte.

It is hard to think how any photograph might capture a garden’s essence, given that—as my research showed—atmosphere comes not just from visual impact, but from other sensory qualities, from knowledge and feelings, from memories and associations. Looking through images of the many gardens I have visited, I could only find one shot that came close to expressing the atmosphere of a place. It was a photograph of the Villa Madama near Rome, a magical garden I have written about elsewhere in this blog. The image shows something of the early Renaissance style of the garden, with its terraces, water features and little putti statues. But the viewpoint is unusual, with the photograph taken from behind the water feature, as if I was an interloper in this venerable space. And the moss, quiet light and signs of rain on the water’s surface express something of the yearning melancholy of the garden, long abandoned and abused, and now only partly reclaimed. The photograph reminds me vividly, viscerally of my experience of being there.

French garden philosopher Jean-Pierre Le Dantec argues that we should stop ’embalming’ historic gardens in the bandages of traditional conservation. We should cease the relentless conservation and recreation of physical fabric, and instead let them erode gently into oblivion—their essence perpetuated only in our daydreams, as Vaux le Vicomte and the Villa Madama are in mine…

15 comments on “The essence of gardens

  1. You describe very eloquently the thoughts that I had almost immediately when I read the rules for the GGW photo contest. How can you know if a photo expresses the essence of a place without knowing that place? The essence of a garden is so much more than what it looks like: there are so many things that you can’t capture in a photo (smell, history, personality), and so many things that you can’t include in just one photo. If I were to submit a photo of my gardens, it would be the one in my Joys and Sorrows of Snow post looking down the stairs because that captures the essence for me viscerally as you say, in a way I cannot explain. But I can assure you that 100% of my customers would disagree because they are here in the spring. Who is right?

  2. Chris Upton
    February 11, 2011

    Wow. Wonderful post. Insightful comment. Simple things are complex. Biological things are exponentially more so. When you add our personality and emotion it goes off the scale. There aren’t enough discrete particles in the universe to build a computer that could figure it out.

    I think it comes down to the fact that you have to trust yourself and your ability to understand your clients. Realizing other peoples dreams is tough work.

  3. Garden Walk Garden Talk
    February 11, 2011

    This is a wonderful post citing the indepth insight into sense of place. I was an assistant to a professor that wrote a book called Sense of Place, I am guessing, long before it became a cliche and catch phrase. That is what is wrong with using the term, yet all architects do. It more about sensory perception and innate qualities unique to a location.

  4. Gabriel
    February 11, 2011

    Thank you very much for this post. You know that this garden is one of my favourite as well… I’m glad that you read JP Le Dantec, one of our “livres de chevet” at l’Ecole du Paysage… Vaux is one of the best examples on how architecture and landscape are linked and designed together, with the great “genious loci” that Le Nôtre used with excellence.
    Have a great day.

  5. lifeshighway
    February 11, 2011

    One of the great idea I am picking up on my journey on blotanical is the concept of the historical garden and the concept of “sense of place.

    Being a complete amateur in a field of experts, designers and landscape architects, I have had an awaking of this idea of a garden as a living structure.

    Thank you for introducing me to Vaux le Vicomte.

  6. Natalie Binder
    February 12, 2011

    What a lovely post! I am not a gardener myself, but my parents are (http://cowlickcottage.com) and they maintain a lovely cottage garden that always feels like home.
    The spiritual sense of place & time you experienced at Vaux de Vicomte reminds me a lot of the experience of working with an ancient manuscript or artifact. It almost makes you believe in magic, doesn’t it?

  7. Jean
    February 12, 2011

    Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Jill; and I love that very evocative last photo. And congratulations on winning last month’s photo contest at Gardening Gone Wild.

  8. Donna
    February 12, 2011

    just wonderful what you have captured once again…

  9. Gabriel
    February 13, 2011

    A great thanks for adding my blog on your Landscape History blog list ! I’m really flattered. Have a nice day.

  10. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com)
    February 14, 2011

    Jill you point out in your post one of the biggest challenges for a photographer(worse if about living things): capturing the essence. In the case of a place/garden a photo can mean on memoirs and evocation but for both, the photographer and the viewer. Maybe it is about touching some inner part where nobody else can get and then, you have the magic. The picture helps to remember, and sometimes somehow, surprinsingly, the feeling can be shared …

  11. Kerry Hand
    February 15, 2011

    Wow. So hard to find decent blogs that are about landscape and looking and not just shots of flower varieties. And the landscape blogs i do find are mostly about hard construction features.
    I am in the process of developing a bare field, so there is no history really in the developed landscape, but the bare field has an amazing history from the gold rush days. Both in the wild flora and in the shape of the earth itself.
    Your post will be one I have to think about a lot as much of what you mention resonates with what I think about as I work. ( even said that in my profile ) Thanks

  12. sequoiagardens
    February 21, 2011

    Jill, I’ve really enjoyed this post and your competition entry is lovely and highly suited to the theme! Vaux is also one of my alltime favourite gardens. Your blog is becoming a must for me! Thanks! Jack

  13. landscapelover
    February 21, 2011

    Thanks to everyone for your thoughtful and appreciative comments. It’s lovely to see how many of you write about magic and dreams and history when describing landscapes that are precious to you.
    I plan to write some more about what one critic has called the ‘tyranny of the visual’ – the idea that nowadays, largely as a result of photography, we are at risk of designing and remembering gardens as images, rather than as sensory journeys or places of personal reflection. While the GGW photo competition has produced some fine entries, for me the most interesting are those that also describe in words an individual’s response to the landscape – the feelings of solitude or tranquility, of refuge, pride, sadness, and peace.

  14. Town Mouse
    February 24, 2011

    How interesting! Is that the garden that’s featured in the last of the 4 musketeers novels? Great post, and great photo!

    • landscapelover
      February 24, 2011

      Thanks very much. Yes, Vaux does feature in the Dumas novels. Fouquet, its creator, was arrested by the musketeers, and Dumas weaves a whole narrative around the event. The story of the fabulous property’s creation and Fouquet’s subsequent downfall seems to have captured the imagination of many 19th century French novelists. There was even one who suggested that Fouquet was the mysterious Man in the Iron Mask.

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This entry was posted on February 10, 2011 by in France outside Paris, Gardens, History, Italy, UK and tagged , , , , , , .

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