The English Garden

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Victorian Garden, by Henry John Yeend King, undated

The Victorians inherited from the Georgians a glorious tradition of landscape gardening, both in the Neoclassical and the more naturalistic Romantic styles. The landscape gardens of the eighteenth century had been projects of the nobility, located on the great country estates. These projects were of course ongoing in the nineteenth century, but the Victorian period witnessed a blossoming of horticulture in the commons, characterized by the proliferation of public gardens and small-scale formal gardens in middle-class homes.

According to English Heritage, “An extraordinary number of innovations in the study, cultivation and display of plants were made during the Victorian period. At the same time there was an explosion of interest in gardening, which became a national obsession.” Most notably, “Advances in the way plants were transported and transplanted meant that botanists were able to raise specimens imported from all over the world.”

Early Victorian gardens were characterized by formalism and artifice. The influential garden designer, botanist, and writer John Claudius Loudon led fashion away from the Romantic style which had accentuated and imitated nature. Loudon believed that garden design should be asserted as an art with bold use of exotic plants and geometric design. He popularized the term “landscape architecture.”

Loudon was an advocate of public gardens and greenbelts. Like his American counterpart, Frederick Law Olmsted, later in the century, he believed that parks should be incorporated into cities through urban planning. Loudon designed what is often described as Britain’s first public park, the Derby Arboretum. According to English Heritage, “Urban parks” were “created in response to concern about overcrowding and the condition of the poor.” These public gardens were similar to their private counterparts in “layout and planting, but with amenities such as bandstands and tea houses.” Loudon coined the word arboretum for a botanic garden in which trees, both indigenous and exotic, were cultivated and studied.

The systematic cultivation of plants became a serious endeavor throughout the British Empire in the nineteenth century. Botanic gardens were established in colonies throughout the world to meet agricultural, medicinal, and economic needs. The earliest of these had been established in the eighteenth century. Jim Endersby writes, in The Financial Times, that

St Vincent, in the West Indies, was the first colony to found such a garden (in 1765), and Britain’s East India Company decided it would be profitable to found one at Calcutta soon after (1787).

Eventually, there would be a network of gardens that spanned the globe, which would prove vital to the British Empire, allowing vital crops like rubber and cinchona (the tree from whose bark quinine was extracted) to be collected outside the empire and moved to colonies where they could be grown profitably. (Think about all those rubber trees that now form forests in southeast Asia; their scientific name is Hevea brasiliensis, meaning “from Brazil”.)

Back in England around the same time the royal pleasure gardens at Kew were being transformed into a center for scientific cultivation under King George III. That great monarch (much maligned by the wicked) appointed his horticultural advisor Sir Joseph Banks to the directorship of Kew Gardens in 1797. Banks envisioned Kew as the “great botanical exchange house for the empire.” To that end he coordinated ambitious programs of exchange between the many fledgling botanic gardens throughout the colonies.

By the time Queen Victoria ascended to the throne Kew Gardens had fallen on hard times. After King George III they had been neglected. The government was considering a plan to close Kew in order to save money. Endersby writes,

In 1838, the botanist John Lindley was asked to report on the plan, but instead of closure, he proposed the government should remove the garden from royal control and run it directly. His rationale was that there were already “many gardens in British Colonies and dependencies . . . in Calcutta, Bombay, Sahranpur, in the Isle of France [Mauritius], at Sydney, and in Trinidad, costing many thousands a year”. Yet, the value of these gardens “is very much diminished by the want of some system under which they can all be regulated and controlled”. Yet if proper co-ordination could be established, the empire’s gardens were “capable of conferring very important benefits upon commerce and . . . colonial prosperity”.

The government accepted Lindsey’s recommendations and in 1840 Kew was adopted as a national botanic garden. Under this arrangement it flourished as the “great botanical exchange house for the empire” first proposed by Banks. The scale and efficiency with which exotic plants were imported during the nineteenth century made them available to individual home gardeners as well as professionals.

The style and philosophy of landscape gardening changed subtly at the fin de siècle. The gardens of the Late Victorian period emphasized the vernacular and domestic. Designers eschewed the extreme artifice of both the Classical and faux-natural Romantic styles in favor of the homely, practical, and lovely. “Let there be some formalism about the house to carry on the geometric lines and enclosed feeling of architecture,” advised Henry Avray Tipping, the architectural editor of Country Life magazine, but let us step shortly from that into wood and wild garden.” Tippering was speaking in 1928 but he was describing an ideal that had been established in the 1880s and 1890s. The primary influence was the Arts and Crafts movement associated with John Ruskin and William Morris.

Helena Gerrish in The English Garden writes, “Beyond the formal ‘outside rooms’ that were viewed from the house, the Arts & Crafts garden gave way to the landscape, with rock gardens leading to woodland glades, and wild areas with rustic paths and water gardens.” According to English Heritage, “The interest in vernacular architecture encouraged by the Arts and Crafts movement led designers to imitate cottage gardens by reviving long-neglected plants…It embodied the respect for the past which the Victorians maintained, even at their most innovative and experimental.”

The closest thing to an artistic manifesto of Victorian horticulture can be found in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel The Secret Garden. Written at the end of the Edwardian era, it tells the story of a young English girl, Mary, who is sent to live with her uncle at his estate, Misselthwaite Manor, in Yorkshire, after her parents die in India. Her uncle, Mr Craven, is frequently absent and Mary is left to her own devises. Exploring the grounds of the house she discovers a walled garden that has been locked. She learns that her aunt died in an accident in the garden years before and her uncle had it closed off in his grief. With the help of a local boy named Dickon, she opens the garden and begins to tend it. Meanwhile at night Mary hears mysterious cries coming from somewhere in the manor. She searches the halls by candlelight and discovers her cousin Colin, a sickly boy confined to his bed, and treated as a hopeless invalid by the servants.

What thus begins as a Gothic novel with all the classic elements of the genre soon blossoms into something entirely different. In her essay, “Re-Reading The Secret Garden,” Madelon Gohlke writes, “The conversations between Mary and the uncanny Colin in which she systematically opposes his conviction that he is going to die parallel the coming of spring and the awakening of life in the garden.” Mary and Dickon draw Colin out of his sick bed and into the garden where the three children spend an idyllic season and nature works to restore them body and soul together with the vegetation. Mr Craven returns to find his son healthy and the garden in bloom. Gohlke write, “At the center of this image, of course, is the garden, the place where the secrets of life, growth, and all the richness of feeling are located and then revealed.” The garden “is both the scene of a tragedy, resulting in the near destruction of a family, and the place of regeneration and restoration of a family.”

These were the ideas associated with gardening, then as now: the symbiotic relationship between man and nature, its cycles, and its latent spirituality.

Sources:

Burnett, Frances Hodgson. (1911) The Secret Garden. New York: Frederick A. Stokes.

Endersby, Jim. (July 25, 2014) “How botanical gardens helped to establish the British Empire.” Financial Times, https://www.ft.com/content/dcd33da0-0e69-11e4-a1ae-00144feabdc0

Gerrish, Helena. (September 1, 2016) “Edwardian Garden Style.” The English Garden, http://www.theenglishgarden.co.uk/expert-advice/design-solutions/design-edwardian-garden-style/

Gohlke, Madelon S. (April, 1980) “Re-Reading the Secret Garden.” College English. Vol. 41, No. 8.

Various. (2017) “Victorians: Landscape.” English Heritage, http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/learn/story-of-england/victorian/landscape/

The Protestant Mysticism of Caspar David Friedrich

From Caspar David Friedrich and the Subject of Landscape by Joseph Leo Koerner:

A devoutly Protestant painter, Friedrich was a distant heir to the iconoclasts of the Reformation…His endeavor to void his canvas of all subjects except one—the believer or Christian subject vis-à-vis the hidden object of belief—obeys this pious imperative to negate. Friedrich’s Protestantism is more confessionally specific than this, however. His effort to create landscape painting as a new kind of religious icon, one resolutely in and of the secular world yet reaching beyond, transcendently, derives from the specifically Lutheran settlement on images. Although Luther repudiated church pictures as instruments of salvation, he condemned—more vehemently—violent iconoclasts, observing that their fanatic war against images made them the idolaters.

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Cross and Cathedral in the Mountains, 1812
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Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818
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Two Men Contemplating the Moon, 1825-30
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Walk at Dusk (Man Contemplating a Megalith), 1830-35

Renovations at the Frick

Renzo Piano’s 2006 addition to the Morgan Library in New York has to be one of the most egregious examples of inappropriate parasitic architecture in the world. The modernist steel-and-glass box that forms the new entrance and atrium to the complex is a jarring contrast to the original building, designed in 1906 by McKim, Mead, and White.

The Frick, which houses the collection of another Gilded Age financier, is preparing to renovate and expand its gallery space over the next two years. So how do the two approaches compare?

The Morgan and the Frick are both among my five favorite museums in America (the Met, the Morgan, and the Frick in New York; the MFA and the Gardner in Boston) so like all regular visitors I feel a sort of protective instinct toward them.

The Frick has selected Annabelle Selldorf to design the new work, a 160 million dollar project that will open up the second floor (once the private living quarters of the Frick family), renovate the entrance hall, add an auditorium, education center, and new galleries.

A few days ago renderings of the design were published in The New York Times and Curbed. My feelings are mixed. The façade of the seven-story addition is a little too stark in its modernism, though it is tempered by cornices and stone matching the rest of the building. Steel-and-glass boxes have been snuck in unnecessarily. But the interiors appear remarkably sensitive to the Beaux-Arts vernacular of the mansion. The spaces are open and spare but the details are in harmony with the original Carrère and Hastings design of 1912.

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How William Morris Printed Wallpaper

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William Morris’s quintessential Victorian wallpaper patterns—lush, verdant, botanical—were printed using simple wood-block presses and a maximum of human craftsmanship. This was in accordance with the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, which he founded, advocating workshops over and against factories.

The Victoria and Albert Museum, which holds a fine collection of Morris prints and textiles, produced a video to demonstrate how Morris’s patterns were (and in some cases still are) printed. The process is painstaking and impressive. Watch below.

Queen Victoria and the Arts

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The Royal Family in 1846, by Franz Xaver Winterhalter, 1846

The Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace hosted a superlative exhibition in 2010, entitled, Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. The exhibition brought together works commissioned and collected by the royal couple. To be in the midst of a collection so vast and personal was to be brought into a sort of rare proximity to Victoria and her age. Or so it felt to me when I toured the gallery. One of the revelations of this exhibition was the extent to which the royal couple not only encouraged but guided the development of British and European art in the nineteenth century.

Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were passionate in their patronage of the arts. The contemporary painter William Powell Frith observed that their “treatment of artists displayed a gracious kindness delightful to experience.” They both had substantial training in the field. Queen Victoria had received drawing lessons for almost ten years from Richard Westall, an RA famous for his portraits of Lord Byron. She subsequently learned oil and watercolor technique from the Scottish landscape painter William Leighton Leitch, with whom she studied for over twenty years.

For his own part, Prince Albert was among the best-educated patrons of his day. As explained in the curatorial notes for Art & Love, His Royal Highness

belonged to the first generation of students to hear lectures in the new discipline of Art History. Visiting Italy as a nineteen-year-old he had steeped himself in Renaissance painting and made contact with leading scholars, many of them German expatriates. Ludwig Gruner, an engraver from Dresden famous for his prints after Raphael, became the Prince’s artistic adviser in 1842. Gruner acquired for Prince Albert twenty-seven Italian pictures of the kind then known as ‘Primitives’…

The Prince was an avid collector of Medieval and Renaissance art, and a champion of modern practitioners of the style, including the painter William Dyce, to whom he awarded the commission to paint the interior of the Palace of Westminster. Frith’s daughter, Jane Ellen Panton, recalled that, “[Albert] honestly loved art for art’s sake, and…did more for artists than any king or prince ever did before or since.”

The royal couple often met artists and visited their studios in person, an unusual practice for royalty. They were known to offer frank critiques and even suggestions. Frith commented on their extensive knowledge. He was specifically impressed by Albert’s ability to discuss the composition, light, and shading of a painting. Frith afterwards followed some of Albert’s suggestions, as did the painter John Martin, who affirmed that they were thoughtful, valuable, and reflected well on the Prince’s understanding of art.

Victoria cannily worked with Franz Xaver Winterhalter and other court painters to portray the royal family in such a way as to reflect both the Queen’s political supremacy and the Prince’s authority as pater familias. From the same curatorial notes quoted above:

Queen Victoria was the first Queen Regnant, and Prince Albert the first male consort, since the early 1700s. This presented a challenge to portrait painters, since the conventions that had been appropriate for Victoria’s male predecessors no longer applied.

Winterhalter looked for inspiration to the Dutch and Flemish old masters, especially Van Dyck, but his Royal Family in 1846 was a brilliant and original response to the challenge. The viewer is left in no doubt that the Queen and her eldest son represent the royal line, while Prince Albert rules the family.

Winterhalter’s family picture quickly became famous through public exhibition and engraving.

It was not only the traditional arts which attracted royal attention and patronage. Prince Albert was interested in how art could be related to manufacturing, making practical items beautiful, and beautiful items available to a broader section of the public. He wanted to encourage the development of good taste even among those whose surroundings and possessions were primarily practical or commercial. The royal couple encouraged the development of electroplating and electroforming as well as ‘Parian ware,’ a type of porcelain made to imitate marble. They often allowed manufacturers to replicate items from the Royal Collection by these new methods.

In her catalogue, Passionate Patrons, Leah Kharibian writes that,

art played a key role in every aspect of their daily lives. As patrons and collectors their tastes were exceptionally wide-ranging, taking in all types of art from early Renaissance panel paintings to sculpture, furniture, jewellery, miniatures, watercolours and the new art of photography. As a couple they took a keen interest in the serious endeavors of cataloguing, conserving and displaying both their new acquisitions and the magnificent inheritance of the Royal Collection. But they enjoyed themselves immensely, too. A large proportion of their purchases were bought as gifts for each other – often as surprises. They took great delight in planning and participating in magnificent balls and fancy-dress parties, musical evenings and theatrical experiences.

Victoria went to the theater or opera on thirty-six occasions during her coronation year alone, and she and Albert were patrons of both. They held many formal dances, including three costume balls. The most famous of these was a Medieval-themed ball at Buckingham Palace in 1842 to benefit the silk weavers of Spitalfields. The royal couple received guests in the Throne Room, on a raised dais under an ornate Gothic canopy, dressed as King Edward III and his consort Queen Philippa of Hainault. Their splendid costumes were based on the real tomb effigies of their predecessors.

The design and decoration of the royal residences also engaged the Queen and Prince. They expanded Buckingham Palace, adding the east wing and the Renaissance-revival ballroom. In Scotland, they erected the current Balmoral Castle, which they decorated in a fanciful Scottish vernacular, with tartan and thistles. Prince Albert contributed to the design of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. This included a sculpture gallery and served as an important showcase for the art that they collected.

The death of Prince Albert in 1861, at the age of forty-two, was a shocking blow for the Queen personally, and for the country. He was in my opinion the greatest public servant that Britain has ever had. Queen Victoria remained in mourning until her own death in 1901. She continued to advance the artistic genres and artists that he had championed, and that together they had cultivated, for the rest of her reign.

Sources:

Jones, Kathryn. (2012) “‘To wed high art with mechanical skill’: Prince Albert and the industry of art,” in Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, Essays from a study day held at the National Gallery, https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/victoria-albert-art-love/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace/contents

Kharibian, Leah. (2010) Passionate Patrons: Victoria & Albert and the Arts. London: Royal Collection.

Marsden, Jonathan. (2010) Victoria & Albert: Art & Love. London: Royal Collection.

Remington, Vanessa. (2012)  “Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their relations with artists,” in Victoria & Albert: Art & Love, Essays from a study day held at the National Gallery, https://www.royalcollection.org.uk/collection/themes/exhibitions/victoria-albert-art-love/the-queens-gallery-buckingham-palace/contents

The Conspiracy Against Traditional Architecture

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In 2011 the fashion house Ralph Lauren built a new store at Madison Avenue and 72nd Street in Manhattan. The building was designed in the Beaux-Arts style that is common in New York, having been favored by the architects and developers who built up most of the city during its greatest period of expansion in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. It is a handsome construction, thoughtfully built, and built to last out of limestone. It looks like the sort of grand private home that McKim, Mead & White, or one of the other Beaux-Arts architectural firms, might have designed in the Gilded Age.

It is not surprising that such a building would face opposition from the modern architectural establishment, which is rigidly intolerant of beauty, but opposition came also from unexpected quarters. In The New York Times, Christopher Gray described the heroic effort required to get the building approved:

Such archaeological accuracy is rarely seen in New York architecture, and is often regarded with suspicion, viewed as silly or even subversive.

Indeed, when it was under review at the Landmarks Preservation Commission, neither the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic Districts nor the Historic Districts Council supported the application, considering the building imitative. That reflects the longtime preservation ideal that any new building should represent “our time,” usually by being modernist in style.

I am an advocate for both the preservation of historic buildings and the design of new buildings in historic styles. I consider these goals to be in harmony with one another. I support them because they serve the holistic vision of a beautiful and humane built environment. But in practice these two goals are often in conflict. Many heritage and preservation groups vehemently oppose the contemporary practice of traditional architecture.

In England, when the eighteenth-century Clandon Park was gutted by fire in 2015, the National Trust selected an aggressive modernist plan to rebuild it. The burnt-out brick shell of the original building would be left as a standing ruin with ultra-modern Structural Expressionist additions interposed throughout.

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Following justified outrage over the design, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, England’s first preservation group, founded by William Morris in 1877, came to the National Trust’s defense. Matthew Slocombe, director of SPAB, expressed “alarm” at the criticism of the design, in a letter to The Telegraph. Restoring the mansion to its original condition, he wrote, would be “a betrayal” and “a lost opportunity.” He cited Morris’s founding manifesto for the society which condemned the “feeble and lifeless forgery” of restorations during his day.

William Morris is not alive to tell us whether he wanted to see venerable old buildings enclosed in glass boxes or impaled with steel and concrete, but I think it is disingenuous to imply that he did. Either way, we are under no obligation to accept such mutilations.

In fairness, not all preservation groups are on the wrong side of this debate. Christopher Boyle QC, chairman of The Georgian Group, spoke magnificently against the proposed Clandon Park renovation, which, he said, “would actually inflict yet further damage upon it with inappropriate Modernist interventions…The nearest equivalent is the now-lamented devastation wrought on our historic towns by 1960s planners unsatisfied by the efforts of the Luftwaffe.”

Restoration of historic buildings should honor the intentions of the original builders. New constructions should respect the vernacular of their surroundings. And we need both. That is my position, anyway. So why are so many influential individuals and groups opposed to this position? And why is their opposition expressed in such hysterical terms? Words like “subversive,” “alarm,” and “betrayal” suggest a genuine fear and loathing of traditional architecture.

I think the answer to these questions can be found in a piece of architectural criticism published in the United States in 2014. In the summer of that year Union Station in Denver, Colorado re-opened after extensive restoration. The building is a fine example of Beaux-Arts civic architecture and an iconic American railroad station. The earliest portion of the building dates from 1881 with the majority completed in 1914. The restoration was understated, tasteful, and almost universally acclaimed. Almost. The Denver Post published an obnoxious tirade against the restored landmark by local critic Ray Mark Rinaldi. He wrote:

Let’s start with the building itself, the actual architecture. Union Station is a neo-classical mix of styles—European styles. The symmetry, arched windows, ornate cornice and stacked, stone walls have their roots in the glory days of France, England, Greece and Rome, in empires that were nearly absent of ethnic minorities and who felt fully at ease invading, exploiting and actually enslaving the people of Africa, subcontinent Asia and South America.

Yes, that’s all in the past; things have changed. But the $54 million renovation of Union Station doesn’t take that into account. It restores the symbols of an old world with no updates. The gilded chandeliers have been rewired, the marble polished, but there’s no nod to the present, no interior walls in the bright colors of Mexico, no Asian simplicity is in the remix. There are no giant sculptures by African-American artists bonused into the lobby, no murals on the basement walls.

Rinaldi’s vision is crude and naïve, but his goal is shared by influential architects, city planners, and preservationists around the world. That goal is to effect a cultural erasure, in this case against old stock America, but ultimately against all people: to obliterate the vernacular and particular from the built environment, to dispel the genius loci, and to impose a rootless global aesthetic that belongs to no one. These groups are more sophisticated and efficient than Rinaldi. They are not interested in “Asian simplicity” (whatever that is) or giant statues of Africans. Their weapons are the elements of modern and post-modern architecture: glass curtain walls, aluminum composite panels, etc. Modern cities and suburbs have been made interchangeable, if not indistinguishable. London, Shanghai, Toronto, Lagos, Bombay, and New York are disappearing under virtually identical skylines. Whatever was native, vernacular, and lovable about these cities is being erased, if it has not been already.

Sources:

Gray, Christopher. (March 10, 2011) “Stirrings of a Throwback Kind,” The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/13/realestate/13streetscapes.html

Hope, Christopher. (December 6, 2017) “National Trust accused of being ‘worse than 1960s planners’ by hiring architect for modernist overhaul of Grade I-listed Clandon Park,” The Telegraph. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/12/06/national-trust-accused-worse-1960s-planners-hiring-architect/

Rinaldi, Ray Mark. (October 16, 2014) “Did diversity miss the train in Union Station’s architecture?,” The Denver Post. https://www.denverpost.com/2014/10/16/did-diversity-miss-the-train-in-union-stations-architecture/

Slocombe, Matthew. (September 27, 2017) “Letter: Plans for building in Clandon’s burnt-out shell,” The Telegraph.

Wodehouse, P.G. (1937) Summer Moonshine. New York: Doubleday.