Formal Gardens, Restoring Order to a Chaotic World

The rising interest in plants was accompanied by a wish to cultivate them, and private gardens became increasingly popular from early in the 16th century. Borrowing the basic design of the medieval monastic garden, these gardens were usually walled and were tranquil places where people could relax, enjoying the shapes, colors, and perfumes of the flowers. At first, it was only the wealthy and powerful who could afford these gardens. They were laid out in the grounds of palaces and stately homes, and they came to reflect the artificiality of courtly manners. The following illustration shows a Tudor garden at Hampton Court Palace in London. The palace is situated on land that in the 13th century belonged to the Knights Hospitalers of St. John of Jerusalem, and in 1514 Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (ca. 1471–1530) obtained a 99-year lease on the site from the Knights Hospitalers.

Wolsey transformed what had been a stately home into a magnificent palace, where foreign dignitaries would be entertained and impressed by the opulence, and important negotiations would be conducted. As well as being a cardinal, Wolsey was lord chancellor of England, and in the 1520s he failed to persuade the pope to grant Henry VIII (1491–1547) the divorce from Katherine of Aragon (1485–1536) that the king needed in order to marry Anne Boleyn (1501 or 1507–1536). Wolsey fell from favor, and in 1528 he lost Hampton Court, which then became the property of Henry. The Tudor garden was replanted in the 18th century, but it is in the style of palace gardens during the Tudor period, which lasted from 1485 to 1603. It is, literally, a garden in which Henry VIII once strolled.

Beautiful though they are, these grand gardens were not an attempt to recreate the biblical Garden of Eden; that would have been blasphemous. Nor were formal gardens of this kind meant to be natural in the sense of imitating natural landscapes. The countryside was where food, fibers, and industrial raw materials were produced, and it was aesthetically pleasing only insofar as it was productive. Hunting was popular with the aristocracy, but it took place in carefully managed hunting forests and the animals the hunters killed went to the kitchens; hunting was a type of food production as well as a sport. Beyond the farms and the hunting forests, the wilderness was an unruly and dangerous place. A garden demonstrated not a love of nature, but the total mastery of nature. It was where nature, represented by plants, was carefully positioned and strictly controlled.

The Tudor garden at Hampton Court Palace, London. The beds were replanted in the 18th century. (Jim Steinberg/ Photo Researchers, Inc.)

Parterres—extensive level areas with flower beds—were fashionable, in which low box hedges, clipped to a severely rectangular cross section, defined geometrically shaped beds growing arrangements of colorful flowers separated by straight paths.

Those ordinary citizens who were prosperous enough to own a town house with ground around it also designed and cultivated gardens. The designs were based on the parterres and lawns of the grand gardens, and in a very real sense they were the precursors of the modern suburban garden. Formal gardens also contained stone sculptures—another fashion that endures, though now with figures made from concrete or plastic.

Topiary—the art of clipping trees and shrubs to make sculptured shapes—was also popular. It had long been practiced in China and Japan, but European topiary began in Roman times and fell out of favor until it was revived in the 16th century. By the end of the 17th century, all grand gardens and most smaller town gardens had examples of lovingly clipped and trained plant sculptures. Its popularity began to fade when the English poet and satirist Alexander Pope (1688–1744) decided he could stand it no longer. In his 1713 Essay on Verdant Sculpture, Pope wrote the following:

Adam and Eve in yew;
Adam a little shattered by the fall of the tree of knowledge in the great storm;
Eve and the serpent very flourishing;
The tower of Babel, not yet finished;
St. George in box; his arm scarce long enough, but will be in condition to stick the dragon by next April; and a quickset hog, shot up into a porcupine, by its being forgot a week in rainy weather.

In the same essay Pope also wrote:

A citizen is no sooner proprietor of a couple of yews, but he entertains thoughts of erecting them into giants, like those of Guildhall. I know of an eminent cook who beautified his country-seat with a coronation dinner in greens, where you see the champion flourishing on horseback at the end of the table, and the queen in perpetual youth at the other.

Nothing could withstand such withering ridicule, and topiary fell out of fashion. But the whole concept of the garden was changing. Pope was an enthusiast for the new style of landscape gardening. A wide terrace separated a formal garden from the house and the garden was at a lower level, so someone standing at a window or on the terrace had a view of a long sweep of parterre and lawn, extending into the distance. To enter the garden it was necessary to descend a flight of steps. The new style was to bring the garden right up to the house, remove the geometrical flower beds, and instead give the entire area over to grass, with meandering paths, clumps of trees, small lakes, and views that revealed themselves only when the visitor turned a corner. A new profession of landscape gardener emerged to cater to the new fashion, one of the most famous practitioners being Capability Brown.