Rude rocks and mossy
caverns: A grand tour of English gardens
mind what the end of civil war and 1688 meant for the British
monarchy and Parliament-it's what happened to gardens that Kimerly
Rorschach wants her students to consider on this drizzly February
we move into the 18th century, the monarchs are less central to
what's going on in landscape gardening," explains the associate
professor in art history. In 1688 Parliament firmly established
a constitutional monarchy, "and the great land-owning noble
families moved to the top of the food chain." Under their
well-financed trowels, the great gardens of Europe began to look
very different from the vast, highly geometric, intricately planted
gardens overseen by Louis XIV, France's "Sun King,"
at the palace of Versailles, which Rorschach's students have just
the beginning of week seven in Rorschach's art-history course
Gardens in Italy, France, and England, 1500-1800. In today's lecture
Rorschach sticks to broad themes-with a paper due on the impact
of Italian Renaissance art and theory on French and English gardens,
the students could use a little coddling. "No guys yet, huh?"
she'd joked before dimming the lights, and one of the five punctual
women informed her, "I did see Patrick in the library, so
at least he's surfaced." Sure enough, within minutes the
blond Patrick, three other men, and the rest of the women appear,
duck under the beams of two slide projectors, and slip into chairs
around the rectangular tables in the first-floor room of the Cochrane-Woods
Arts Center. One guy clutches a fresh double-spaced printout titled
"Birth of the Wild."
her black turtleneck with a teal-and-black plaid blazer, the small-framed
Rorschach recedes into the shadows. (She's used to surrendering
the limelight to artworks-she is also the Dana Feitler director
of the David and Alfred Smart Mu- seum of Art.) All eyes focus
on the west wall, where the red dot of her laser pointer trips
along tree-lined avenues and circles the classical pediments and
columns of country estates. There are lush landscape paintings,
blueprint-like bird's-eye views of designs, and pen-and-ink sketches.
the next three sessions, she says, the class will study examples
of what Tom Williamson in Polite Landscapes: Gardens and Society
in 18th-Century England calls "late-geometric" gardens,
for the natural irregularities that crept into otherwise controlled
geometric designs. Unlike Versailles, where every flourish has
a mirror image, in these designs "the symmetry can still
be seen, but irregular features are shoehorned in." The gardens,
Rorschach believes, feel less "gardeny." Instead, emphasis
is on architectural accents, reflecting the artistic ideals the
English gentry brought back from increasingly popular "Grand
Tours" of Italy, with its classical villas and gardens. Slides
depict temples and stone grottoes as garden focal points.
this is a period," Rorschach notes. "There's a tendency
to look back at this time from the informal notions that followed
or to analyze it as a breakdown of formality. But let's tease
out the characteristics of the gardens in their own right, rather
than as a whistle stop before heading on to someplace else."
thing that's new in this period is land ownership itself: the
gradual parceling off and enclosure of the English countryside,
ending centuries of commonly held rural areas. Hedgerows sprouted
like thick green walls, and "ha-ha's"-peripheral trenches-sank
into the earth, keeping grazing sheep in and trespassers out without
spoiling the view. (The name comes from the surprised "Ah!
Ah!" uttered by visitors who came upon them during garden
the rest of the session Rorschach gives a quick slide tour of
late-geometric gardens. There's the Duke of Marlborough's Blenheim
estate in Oxford, in the very early 1700s the first to break from
the "bastion style" of formal gardens. East of Oxford,
there's Stowe, with statues, topiaries, and temples and a visible
lack of "small-scale fussy elements." Just outside London
is Lord Burlington's Italianate garden at Chiswick, with its orangery
and three long avenues branching from a point off-center of the
class ends. As a pile of stapled pages grows on the table, the
lights come up and the students head out into the rainy chill.
the next class, Rorschach arrives bearing seeds for
thought: passages written by contemporary authors Anthony Ashley
Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713); Joseph Addison
(1672-1719), whose essays in the fledgling periodical Spectator
are still famous; and the Augustan poet Alexander Pope (1688-
1744). Nature is what the class will consider today: how English
landscape gardens "used" it, compared to how the Sun
King and other European royalty controlled it in their gardens.
woman with dark tendrils of hair framing her face and almond-shaped
eyes volunteers to read Shaftesbury aloud:
the rude Rocks, the mossy Caverns, the irregular unwrought Grottoes,
and broken Falls of Waters, with all the horrid Graces of the
Wilderness itself, as representing Nature more, will be the
mare engaging, and appear with a Magnificence beyond the formal
Mockery of princely Gardens.
could argue that he is referring to Nature in the Platonic sense,
but I think this is something new to us," Rorschach interjects
excitedly. She gives the next passage to Patrick, and Addison
waxes poetic on the "natural embroidery of the meadows"
and an estate that's both a profit and a pleasure, that "a
man might make a pretty landscape of his own possessions."
read by a woman with a mass of golden curls, calls on garden designers
the Genius of the Place in all;
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th' ambitious Hill the heav'n to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the Vale,
Calls in the Country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks or now directs th' intending Lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.
as you plant" is the perfect lead-in for the day's leading
man: William Kent (1685-1748), the landscape designer who defined
18th-century informal gardens. Rorschach flashes a Kent design.
It's one of the rough pen-and-ink sketches she'd shown the previous
session. Drawn from the perspective of someone standing in the
garden, its feathery lines are in contrast to the precisely scaled
bird's-eye maps of past weeks' study.
Rorschach tells the class, was a landscape painter, and he designed
gardens as a painter: "entirely with views in mind,"
sketching out foreground, middle-ground, background. She returns
to slides of Stowe, that "palimpsest of 18th-century garden
evolution," showing artistic renderings aside present-day
photos. Rorschach is right about the period's asymmetry: the gardens
jut out into a ha-ha-bordered triangle on one side, and pools
and waterways follow their natural shapes. The architectural influence
of Kent's own Grand Tours is unmistakable. In an area dubbed the
Elysian Fields, the Temple of Ancient Virtue is a replica of the
Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. Across the meandering River Styx sits
the Temple of British Worthies, with busts of political figures
such as Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Edward the Black
Prince. The Temple of Modern Virtues, a short walk away, was designed
as a ruin ("implying there was no such thing").
up at the richly colored slides, an Asian-American woman named
Danielle asks, "How solid are those temples?"
the classical temples look flimsy don't they? I'm glad you brought
that up," Rorschach replies. Kent, it seems, built as a painter
too: the buildings have the fragile look of a drawing, despite
the solid stone masonry that survives to the present day.
on the day's tour is Stourhead-not a Kent design, but a clear
example of gardening-as-painting. The slides lead away from the
house, on a "circuit walk" around a pond with vistas
of classical temples and an underground grotto. "There's
been a lot of speculation about the garden's iconography,"
says Rorschach. The son of Henry Hoare, who owned and designed
the gardens, died while on his Grand Tour. "Some say the
gardens recast the dead son's life as the journey of Aeneas."
The underground grotto, it's said, represents Aeneas's journey
to the underworld.
up a view of Stourhead, its Temple of Apollo posing against a
backdrop of pond and distant hills, Rorschach flicks through several
works by the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain, lingering
on one depicting Aeneas at Delos. The similarity between the painting
and Hoare's garden is remarkable: the temple and water are almost
identical, and the "foreground, middle-ground, background"
approach is immediately apparent. The students bend their heads
and furiously take notes. Rorschach waits, ready to show them
the next garden, with its classical temples, embroidered meadows,
and willing woods.