To celebrate this Year’s Royal Horticultural Society Hampton Court Palace Flower Show, the Yale Books Blog is in conversation with David Jacques about his recent publication Gardens of Court and Country (published in association with the Paul Mellon Centre). The book surveys the evolution of English garden design between 1630 and 1730 – so with RHS Hampton Court on the horizon, we took the opportunity to ask the author if he could highlight any links between garden design of this period and our contemporary gardens, as seen at the flower show and around the country today.
Gardens of Court and Country has been praised for bringing ‘a new, heavily documented and informed treatment’ to the history of gardens (John Dixon Hunt), and Hampshire Gardens Trust calls it ‘a landmark in Garden History studies’.
Read on for the author’s insights, as well as an exclusive look inside the book.
David Jacques in Conversation about Gardens of Court and Country
Yale Books Blog: You have said that one might consider the garden as one of England’s largest works of art. Do you always approach gardens with this in mind?
David Jacques: My personal approach is to write of gardens and garden-making through the eyes of those living at the time I am writing about. Gardens are certainly our largest works of art, but that is the modern world speaking.
YBB: You note architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner’s vested interest in architectural history, and how this shaped his studies of the English garden. What would you say your intention is with ‘Gardens of Court and Country’? Does your research come from a similarl perspective?
DJ: I address modern academic concerns in the introductory chapter, but my aim is to be a narrator, rather than commentator. Inevitably my modern preconceptions prevent this being fully possible, but I try to be neutral and balanced.
YBB: You talk about the quest to uncover the history of gardens being significant as we seek new relationships with our environment. Why do you think garden history is important to readers today?
DJ: I hold the view that gardens (other than purely productive ones) are representations of Nature, simplified and idealised to reflect the mindset of the maker. That is as true today as ever, and a study of garden history shows us how the relationship between people and the natural world has played out in different contexts.
YBB: Can you highlight some of the innovations to be seen in a seventeenth century formal garden that signal the broad rethinking of how gardens functioned within society? Do we still maintain any of the formalities established during this period?
DJ: The most significant difference between seventeenth and eighteenth-century gardens is that in the earlier century gardens were expressions of power and instruments of statecraft, whereas later the garden and park were for the private pursuits of the owner and his circle. Taste in the gardens and privacy in the park became paramount.
YBB: Can you summarise the idea of the ‘domestication of the lawn’, and why – as you explore in the book – there was a transformation of gardens into large rustic parks?
‘One might say that garden was treated as park, whilst park was treated as garden.’
DJ: In the 1720s the garden was stripped down to the essentials and expanded outwards, whilst the new garden areas were often set out as parkland miniaturisations, e.g. the lawn. One might say that garden was treated as park, whilst park was treated as garden.
YBB: We’re interested to know what you consider to be the motives of a seventeenth century garden maker, and how this might compare to the priorities of landscapers and designers now. Do you think there are seventeenth century practices that remain today?
DJ: The overwhelming motive of the seventeenth century garden maker was to impress, and even humble, his fellow landowner as a prelude to political advancement. Whilst this motive is not so nakedly apparent today, there are certainly examples of clients wishing to impress their peers.
YBB: You signal aspects of garden design that are representative of a period. Can we see examples of this today?
DJ: We are used to the idea of connoisseurship amongst art critics, whereby certain tell-tale signs reveal the identity of the artist. Similarly, a period of garden design (usually less than a generation) will have characteristic design features, and analysing those in any garden can suggest when it was made, and often that a garden was composed of two or more ‘overlays’.
YBB: In ‘Gardens of Court and Country’ you introduce the prominent figures of seventeenth-century English garden design. Do you have a favourite, either from this period, or any other?
DJ: When you study historical figures they became known to you, in other words acquaintances. Each has their good qualities, so it would be invidious to choose between them.
YBB: Can you identify any contemporary garden-makers and designers that stay true to elements of design that were brought about by seventeenth-century advancements in garden design?
DJ: One wouldn’t expect contemporary garden designers to cleave to garden designs of centuries ago. On the other hand, they are at liberty to re-interpret old ideas in a modern context. Kim Wilkie, for example, has used earthworks to great effect, and is a second Charles Bridgeman, though he never simply copies.
YBB: Lastly, what do you think every garden (or open space) should have?
DJ: One noisy, bustling, place, and one place for quiet and contemplation.
Gardens of Court and Country is available now from Yale University Press – or order from your local bookshop.