For those of us in northern climes, February is a season of snow and ice and cold. A season when gardeners start looking in flower catalogues and dreaming of spring and summer. Hence, it’s a perfect time to invite Renaissance Woman Margaret Evans Porter to talk about English historical gardens. Margaret, the floor is yours! (Chorus of trumpets!)
MEP: In ancient days, the beauty of gardens was appreciated as much as their utility, which is why illuminated manuscripts often feature flowers. In medieval monasteries and convents, the faithful cultivated crops for the table, herbs for healing and flavouring food and making medicines. They raised hops for ale, grapes for wine-making. Even roses had their purpose, as is obvious from the name given an old gallica—the Apothecary Rose.
Secular folk grew food, too, but they created the pleasaunce, where plants were grown purely to pleasure the senses rather than the palate, on walls and trellises. Gardens became associated with romance—troubadours fingered their lutes in flowery arbors. Henry VIII courted most of his six wives in garden settings!
Extensive and well-landscaped grounds—like a fine house—signified a man’s influence in the world. Monarchs and the nobility imported, at great expense, French and Dutch gardeners and landscapers. Charles II brought Le Notre of France, famed for his work at Versailles, to re-arrange St. James’s Park, with formal avenues of trees and a canal. Hothouses kept tender plants warm; orangeries supplied blooms and fruit in cold seasons. After the tulip craze of the early 17th century, the auricula became all the rage. They were grown in narrow clay pots—Long Toms—arranged tier upon tier, for decorative effect. (And are still, in UK flower shows!)
John Evelyn, a skilled gardener, was an early “garden tourist,” touring famous gardens and the nursery operations that supplied plants. Like her uncle Charles II, Queen Mary II was especially interested in “exoticks”—Dutch and English explorers provided specimens from across the globe. At Hampton Court her orangery for tropical plants was recently restored. Her contemporary, the Duchess of Beaufort, was the greatest plant collector of that era.
At that time Dutch flower painters created lush canvases of “cabbage roses”—the many-petaled centifolia—to adorn fine houses. Virtually all rose species and hybrids bloomed only in late May, June, July. This gives the poetic line, “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,” a significance we overlook. And colour selection was limited to white, pinks, reds, and vari-colored or striped varieties. The ancient “Four Seasons Rose,” also known as the Autumn Damask, bloomed intermittently from May till about October—in England. (And, incidentally, from June till October in my own New Hampshire garden.) It existed centuries before Christ, and in the Mediterranean probably did bloom year-round. With the introduction of China roses into England in the latter 18th century, repeat bloomers could be grown or created.
The greatest rose lover of the Napoleonic era bore the name Rose, although she is more famous to us as Josephine Bonaparte. French hybridists worked constantly to stock her extensive gardens at Malmaison. During her husband’s protracted wars with Britain, despite blockades, the Empress of France could purchase cultivars from the English nurserymen!
The formal 17th and early 18th century gardens were swept away late in the 18th century, when the artificially “natural” landscapes of Capability Brown and Humphrey Repton came to the fore. Repton’s Red Books contained fold-out panels so his well-heeled clients could see “before” and “after” images. (In my novel The Proposal, my rose-loving, garden-designing heroine is highly critical of Repton’s methods.)
Avenues of centuries-old trees were uprooted, replaced by “clumps.” Formal canals and pools were replaced with meandering streams or ornamental lakes. Entire villages were razed to open up an extensive vista, and new housing created at a distance. Certain imports—particularly rhododendrons and fuchsias—naturalized all over Britain. To prevent errors, authors can check dates of introduction for plant species, as well as histories of cultivars.
For every action there is a re-action. The Victorians re-imposed artificiality and—typically—fussiness. Repton the eradicator was himself eradicated, so nowadays his landscapes are few and far between. The latter 19th century became the great era of carpet bedding to achieve a massed effect of similar or contrasting colours. The hybridisation of roses, especially in France and Germany, ran rampant from the 1830’s onward. Blossoms grew ever larger and the plants bloomed more and more abundantly.
In closing, I admit my preferences. As my mother does, I tend to grow old plants—often hardier and more reliable than hybrids. I grow many roses of the 17th and 18th and 19th centuries. Their fragrance is unmatched, their soft, ruffled beauty, to my eye, is preferable to the rigidity of the modern florist-style hybrid tea rose.
Because old garden roses don’t re-bloom, I spend June and July frantically photographing and picking and sniffing. Fortunately, the English hybridist David Austin has done an admirable job propagating “old look” re-blooming roses, which almost match the fragrance of the originals. Eglantyne, pictured below, is a dead-ringer for a 17th century centifolia!
Just for the Wenches, I’ve created a site to share flowering plants and bloom times for the 17th-18th-19th centuries, with illustrations from my own gardens. www.margaretevansporter.com/gardeninfo.html
I also feature my personal collection of historic roses on my website. www.margaretevansporter.com/roses.html
Many thanks to the Wenches for inviting me back to indulge in my love of flowers, at a time when my own are dormant and covered by several feet of snow!
MJP: And many thanks for visiting again, Margaret! (If we’re really, really good, maybe someday she’ll return to tell us about French and Italian historical gardens. <g>) Be sure to click on Margaret's links–the flowers are gorgeous!
Anyone who leaves a comment between now and Thursday at midnight will be eligible to win the copy of Margaret’s Regency historical romance, The Proposal. (And what a lovely, garden-y cover it is, too.)
Mary Jo, thinking flowery thoughts