garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
It can be hard to grasp the shift in France from the great classical, geometric gardens of Le Nôtre and his followers to the so-called anglo-chinois style which swept the country in the years leading up to the French revolution. It is possible to write at length and with some pretension (as I have done) about Republicanism and Romanticism, Chambers and Rousseau, to try and tease out the evolution from one to the other.
But to get a real sense of the shift, you can do no better than browse Jardins anglo-chinois à la mode, a wonderful collection of almost 500 detailed drawings published in the 1770s and 80s by George Le Rouge. Most of the featured gardens are French, but there are a good few from England, Prussia and Germany, as well as dozens of representations of Chinese gardens.
What the drawings show so well is how the great structural French gardens were gradually influenced by the English landscape movement, with its naturalistic layouts and follies, including classical temples and Gothic buildings. Overlaid on this was the craze for Chinese-inspired gardens, which meant the introduction of rocky hills and pagodas and walks that offered contrasting experiences and sensations. Stated baldly like that, in a couple of sentences, the shift sounds clumsy and improbable. Yet the drawings capture it beautifully.
The drawings are all available on line in very high resolution, thanks to a digitisation project by the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art. They seem to be in no chronological or geographical order (although there is an index of sorts at the end of volume 12), with some gardens (such as Chambers’ enormously influential work at Kew) appearing randomly at various points in the folders. New gardens created in the anglo-chinois style also feature, such Ermenonville, Monceau and a whole volume on the Désert de Retz.
Volume seven contains a fascinating list of trees and other woody plants categorised by size, which are recommended for this “modern” style of garden. Many are exotic species but considered hardy in the French climate. The introduction to the list stresses that, unlike the uniform specimens used for tree-lined allées in classical gardens, trees in anglo-chinois gardens should be planted in groups of varied size, form, colour and leaf-shape. The recommended species range from pines, poplars and walnuts to blackberries and clematis.
For those interested in garden structures, this collection is also a great source of detailed architectural drawings of temples, towers, pavilions, kiosks and pagodas.
Many gardens drawn by Le Rouge still exist and it would be fascinating to examine how many of the anglo-chinois features remain in place today. Some of these gardens are no more (the parc de Roissy for instance is I believe lost under Charles de Gaulle airport), but are preserved here in wonderful detail at a particular point in time.
What extraordinary drawings! The fineness of the detail you can see when clicking on each pic for the larger version is exquisite. It made me realise how much is overlooked in a garden photograph; how the eye sweeps over fine detail and around the bigger picture but in these, you’re drawn in (so to speak). I hadn’t realised the extent of the chinoiserie influence. Were there writers at the time who decried the changes to the original gardens?
Catherine, thanks for the comment.
When I worked for a landscape preservation firm in the US, my boss would make me write out detailed descriptions of historical photographs, so that I really examined and thought about every element. As you say, otherwise our eyes just skim over so much important detail.
You ask a great question about resistance to the new style. The eighteenth century was a time of great debate about gardening, art and ‘taste’. Books, poems, dialogues, philosophical treatises etc were published by some of the great thinkers of the age, discussing the role and meaning of gardens. So there were certainly serious discussions about the differing styles, but the context is not about preserving gardens for their historic significance, as it might be today. To put it very crudely, arguments focussed on the different values of “simple nature” as against the “ornaments of art.”
There was also a good deal of patriotic pride involved in the debate: the French for instance judged that the English landscape garden was really just an adaptation of Chinese style (hence the term anglo-chinois). Some Englishmen, like Walpole, got very cross about this and played down the Chinese influence so as to claim full credit for England in creating this new style of garden.
Some argued that the English style was the “point of perfection” – an evolutionary step-up from geometrical French gardens – and so a path that everyone should follow. Others believed that gardens without fountains and statues were barely gardens at all. There was certainly some resistance in France to the replacement of geometric gardens with “bizarre compositions … with a multitude of buildings placed without order, distributed without taste, principles and intention.”
Even in England, more naturalistic designs were sometimes decried. Chambers, in arguing for Chinese style, claimed that otherwise English landscape gardens “differ very little from common fields… rather the off-spring of chance than design” with “nothing to excite [the visitor’s] curiosity.”
It was a complex, serious debate, one I can’t hope to summarise in a blog comment!
Well there’s nobody better than you for describing and explaining questions in garden history, so it sounds like a job for Landscape Lover…..
I’d love to see these. Fascinating.