Documents: Special Interest: Gardening In England:

Garden Design - The Gardenesque Style
by Kirk Johnson
by Kirk Johnson


I have a strong foundation in art history, this really helped me to grasp the history of garden design, the two are very closely related. I am not an extreme traditionalist about garden design, but I am always very aware of precedents and traditions.

My garden is dominated by water, I am especially interested in aquatic and moisture-loving plants. I also have a rather large collection of rhododendrons, they are one of the few plants that I can plant outside of my garden’s fence because the deer don’t bother them.

Contributing Editor - Suite 101 (all articles first appeared Suite 101)

December 5, 2010

This plan for a garden was drawn by John Claudius Loudon (1783 – 1843) in the style which he called "gardenesque". Note the round and comma (or tadpole) shaped beds on the triangular lawn below the side of the house. Loudon felt that such shapes were perfectly suited to gardenesque gardens because they were obviously created by man rather than nature.

By the end of the 18th century, landscape gardens in the English style were being created throughout Europe. Capability Brown had been the dominant figure in the landscape movement for 30 years until his death in 1783. Brown’s designs were composed of lawn, water, and groups of native trees. The many plants which were being introduced from around the world were mainly grown in walled gardens which, like the walled vegetable gardens of the period, were usually located in a sheltered spot well away from the main house. Brown’s successor, Humphrey Repton, designed gardens in a style very similar to Brown’s, but he did introduce formal elements, such as flower beds and planted terraces, next to the house.

After Repton’s death in 1818, none of the major garden designers or writers were promoting landscape gardens in the style of Capability Brown. His smooth lawns studded by clumps of trees were felt to be unnatural and rather boring. There were now three main approaches to garden design: some wanted to return to the formal tradition which had dominated the gardens of Western Civilization since ancient Egypt, while others wanted gardens to evoke the beauty of untamed nature, but with a landscape painter’s sense of composition. A third group wanted to continue an informal approach to garden design, but they didn’t see why gardens needed to imitate nature.

John Claudius Loudon (1783 – 1843) embraced all three approaches during his 40 year career as a garden designer and writer. He began as a passionate champion of picturesque gardens. He almost seemed to feel that gardens should be designed by landscape painters rather than garden designers or horticulturists. By 1811, Loudon had saved enough money to finance a tour of European gardens. After visiting many of Europe’s great formal gardens, he could appreciate that formal gardens were as beautiful as informal gardens. In his Encyclopedia of Gardening, which was published in 1822, Loudon expressed his feeling that “to say that landscape gardening is an improvement on geometric gardening, is a similar misapplication of language, as to say that a lawn is an improvement of a cornfield, because it is substituted in its place. It is absurd therefore, to despise the ancient style, because it has not the same beauties as the modern, to which it never aspired. It has beauties of a different kind, equally perfect of their own kind as those of the modern style.” A year after Loudon published his encyclopedia, he read an “Essay on The Nature The End and the Means of Imitation in the Fine Arts “ by Quatremère de Quincy, in which the French Neoplatonist criticized English landscape gardens, especially picturesque gardens, when he wrote that landscape gardens were not works of art because “What pretends to be an image of nature is nothing more nor less than nature herself. The means of the art are reality. Everyone knows that the merit of its works consists in obviating any suspicion of art. To constitute a perfect garden according to the irregular system of landscape gardening we must not have the least suspicion that the grounds have been laid out by art.” de Quincy believed that while landscape paintings were works of art, landscape gardens were just raw nature - suitable as a model for painters, but not works of art in themselves. Loudon expressed his his agreement with this point of view when he wrote that “forms perfectly regular and divisions completely uniform immediately excite the belief of design and with this belief all the admiration which follows the employment of skill”.

Formal gardens and landscape gardens are both about design - designers use plants to create those gardens, but neither style is well suited to displaying collections of plants. During the 18th century enormous numbers of plants had been introduced into Europe from around the world and this was greatly accelerated by the invention of the Wardian case in the 1830s (the wardian case was a glass box which allowed plants to recirculate moisture without being affected by salt spray during long ocean voyages). The 19th century was the great age of plant collectors and horticulture was becoming more important than garden design. There was a pressing need for a new style of garden.

In 1826, Loudon published the first edition of his Gardeners Magazine and his numerous articles about formal gardens strongly influenced the return to formality during Queen Victoria’s reign, but he remained aware of the need for a style which could accommodate plant collections. Loudon kept thinking about this problem and then in the December 1832 issue of his Gardener’s Magazine he proposed a new style which he called “gardenesque”.

Loudon’s idea wasn’t so much about design as it was about a style of planting. He advocated the planting of nonnative trees, shrubs, and flowers; he even felt that lawns “should be composed of grasses different from those of the surrounding grass fields”. Each tree and shrub was to be given enough space to develop into perfect specimens which didn’t touch each other. The idea was to create informal gardens which were as obviously man-made as formal gardens, so that they would be instantly seen as works of art. This is also a perfect way to display a collection of plants from around the world. Exotic plants don’t seem out of place when a garden is obviously intended to be different from nature.

The term “gardenesque” didn’t catch on during Loudon’s lifetime. It was only adopted after Edward Kemp used the term in his book “How to Lay Out a Small Garden” (1850) when he wrote that “There are three principle kinds of style recognized in landscape gardening: the old formal or geometrical style; the mixed, middle, or irregular style, which Mr. Loudon called the gardenesque; and the picturesque.” It was Kemp’s definition of the gardenesque style as a style of garden design rather than a style of planting which entered the English language, but if you look at Loudon’s plan at the top of this article, you can see that Kemp’s definition does fit Loudon’s style of design, which is neither naturalistic or formal. This style of garden remained fashionable into the early 20th century, but very few such gardens have survived unchanged. I suppose that they may be appreciated at some time in the future, but to me they are just bad designs - neither formal nor naturalistic.

Bibliography for The Gardenesque Style

The Garden Triumphant: A Victorian Legacy, by David Stuart. Copyright 1988.
The Principles of Gardening, by Hugh Johnson. Copyright 1979.
The Oxford Companion to Gardens, Oxford University Press, copyright 1986

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