The English Garden: History and Meaning (part 1 of 3)

Note: A large part of this article is taken from Quest-Ritson (2003). This book is different from many others on the British garden in that it places the development of gardens within a historical and social framework. Many books revert to simple description of garden styles and architecture and often lack any further analysis on why gardens developed in the way they did.

The oldest known gardens in Britain were developed for food but ornamental gardens are generally thought to be almost as old; beyond 1,000 years ago it is hard to know much about gardens but their trajectory over the past 500 years can be more accurately portrayed (Quest-Ritson 2003). Over these past five centuries the basis of power has rested in controlling and owning land, the creation and shaping of garden styles as noted by history was therefore particularly influenced by aristocrats and royalty (Quest-Ritson 2003). For the majority of people, however, the garden has represented and remained a place to grow vegetables and herbs on a small scale for subsistence. Medieval gardens were predominantly the home of monks and were sanctums, places for relaxing and contemplation, for music, herbs, flowers, and fruits, surrounded by walls, enclosed and protected from the outside (Solnit 2001).

From the 15th century onwards land in Britain was enclosed by the wealthy with ownership passed through families (Quest-Ritson 2003). This enclosed space was opened up as aristocratic palaces and estates grew and a focus on cultivating the landscape emerged (Solnit 2001). Influxes of various plant species also occurred from the 16th century onwards satiating people’s desires for exotic and rare plants and products; ‘Tupilomania’ occurred during the 17th century and in the 16th century plants arrived such as snowdrops, lavendar, marigold, sage, rosemary, sorrel, spinach and many others (Quest-Ritson 2003). All of these plants created new possibilities for gardening. Technological advances allowed for the development of plant growing in various ways; exotic fruits were grown, and greenhouses and orangeries became possible in the 17th century especially by the time charcoal burners allowed for year-round heating (Quest-Ritson 2003). In conjunction with this growth in technology the birth of The Royal Society in 1660 meant that science began to take an interest in gardening; it became expected that horticulture should take precedent in the garden and that experience and observation should take precedent over non-scientific practices involving ritual or astrology (Quest-Ritson 2003). Practices which reflected and enforced the scientific paradigm therefore became popularised.

"Drummond has all the characteristics of a courtly, 17th century Scottish Renaissance garden" (

“Drummond Castle has all the characteristics of a courtly, 17th century Scottish Renaissance garden” (

There was a style of formality, of straight lines and geometry, that signified many of the large gardens of the period before the 18th century. This changed, however, over the 18th century and a reaction against formality occurred which emphasised more ‘natural’ landscapes (Solnit 2001). The garden wall, once a symbol of the division between the garden and the outside world, began to dissolve (Mawson, n.d.). During this period views of nature developed alongside art and poetry and a fusion between creative expression and the garden developed, these spaces were seen more and more as artistic endeavours (Solnit 2001). This was a time when Alexander Pope said “All gardening is landscape painting” (Calder 2006, p.24). Nature itself became the focus instead of sculptures or architectural items, but it was a specific version of nature in which plants and water and the space they inhabit was considered a serene thing, something to be contemplated (Solnit 2001). Of course, nature can be this, but it can be many other things as well.

At the start of the 19th century the Royal Horticultural Society was formed (in 1801). The remit of this organisation was to promote an understanding of ‘useful’ plants and ‘ornamental’ plants, something which fitted well with the ever increasing desire to ‘improve’ plant species, yields, and cultivars (Quest-Ritson 2003). Furthermore, the industrial economic period at this time was striking; it saw increases in free trade along with a doubling of the population, falling national debt, low inflation rates, low taxation, expanding markets, and improved transportation (Quest-Ritson 2003). The abolition of paper tax in 1861 also meant new periodicals and journals on gardening and garden design could be made accessible to many more people (Quest-Ritson 2003). The mid 19th century growth in railways was important, it allowed movement of flowers fruit and vegetables to London from all over the country. The provision of economic garden plants became more diffuse throughout Britain, especially with the introduction of the Penny Post of the 1840s, which allowed plant and seed catalogues to be sent across the country (Quest-Ritson 2003). All of these factors influenced the state of the British garden.

Finally, I would finally like to note the work of J. C. Loudon who, during the 19th century, became the pre-eminent designer of English landscape gardens and did much to alter British conceptions of the garden. Loudon generated a style that fused desires that the garden should look more ‘natural’ yet still represent the artistic hand of humans. In 1838 he

suggested that it was not good to have a garden that appeared to directly imitate nature because an onlooker might suspect that the hand of nature had created the garden, not humans. His solution to this problem was simple, he claimed you can have a garden that appears natural but at the same time does not for one moment represent anything but art. This can be done if foreign trees and shrubs are used to replace indigenous ones, something that can also be done with water plants, with stones and gravel, and grasses used in the lawn. In this way, everything would look natural, but on closer inspection many of the plants you saw would be exotic, non-native plants. Furthermore, he promoted the idea that every plant should be given adequate space and attention to allow it to express all of its features; an oak tree, for example, should not be enclosed by other plants and should have space to spread its crown. Loudon qualified his views in a revealing sentence:

It is evident, that a landscape so produced might have all the beauties proper to landscapes…and might be selected by a landscape-painter to copy from, and yet never for one moment be mistaken for a work of nature” (Loudon 1838, p.234).

As gardens moved into the 20th century, and with the patenting of the lawn mower, things would continue to change.


Calder, M. (2006). Experiencing the garden in the eighteenth century, Peter Lang.

Loudon, J. (1838) The Suburban Gardener and Villa Companion, In: The English Garden: Literary Sources and Documents Volume III Chronological Overview 1772-1910, (Ed.) Charlesworth, M. (1993), Helm Information Ltd.

Mawson, T. (n.d.) The History of the English Garden, In: The English Garden: Literary Sources and Documents Volume III Chronological Overview 1772-1910, (Ed.) Charlesworth, M. (1993), Helm Information Ltd.

Quest-Ritson, C. (2003). The English Garden: A Social History, Penguin.

Solnit, R. (2001). Wonderlust: A History of Walking, Verso.


One response to “The English Garden: History and Meaning (part 1 of 3)

  1. The garden of Drummond Castle is very fascinating. The place is so serene.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s