Working as a garden designer, people often want to know what informs our choice and where the influences come from, or to use that rather hackneyed expression, where we get our ‘inspiration’ from. One source is looking back at the development of garden design in the past, so I thought I would write the first of an occasional series on the history of garden design, starting with the sixteenth century.
The earliest style of garden, or perhaps more accurately ‘pleasure garden’ we know about is the Islamic or mogal garden, dating from the eighth century, the other sort being used to grow food. These were based on the Persian paradise garden and the most important elements were water, sanctuary and shade which provided a refuge from the daily trials of nomaic desert life. Its form, copied in Persian carpet patterns, was based on the four rivers of life which divided the garden into four quarters.
The water was used to cool the air and delight the senses with its sound and appearance. There was always a high boundary fence or wall all theway round to keep out roaming animals, thieves and vagabonds. The gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife created in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in Spain are examples of this type of garden.
The introduction of monasticism after the advent of Christianity laid down the rules for the precise physical setting in which life was to be lived, eg the physic garden for specialised herbs and flowers to be used for medicines, while the cloister garden was used for contemplation.
This pattern of life was standard throughtout the middle ages, and these gardens alone provided the link with the classical style of the past, as reflected in Greek and Roman buildings. The internal quadrangle was universally adopted, itself based on the four-square Persian paradise garden. Botanic gardens would later follow these same style rules.
The Elizabethans were fascinated by formal hedges, knot gardens and mazes and the smaller manor houses of Tudor England would often feature a series of flowered rooms.
With the Renaissance came the concept of space being ordered according to the classic principles of geometry, proportion and symmetry, with man himself centre-stage. This style – a vision of order stamped firmly on the landscape – was adopted and imitated in all the courts of Europe. The early Florentines were responsible for geometric designs with symmetrical planting, based on those of ancient Rome. Le Notre’s gardens at Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte today retain many of these orginal elements. By the mid-sixteenth century patterned planting was common, as can still be seen at Hampton Court today. Box parterres and alleys were also very popular at this time, especially among royalty.
You can see the influence of these styles today in gardens designed by contemporary landscape architects like Gilles Clement, Martha Schwartz and Christopher Bradley-Hole.