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In What Gardens Mean, Stephanie Ross draws on philosophy as well as the histories of art, gardens, culture, and ideas to explore the magical lure of gardens. Paying special attention to the amazing landscape gardens of eighteenth-century England, she situates gardening among the other fine arts, documenting the complex ...
In What Gardens Mean, Stephanie Ross draws on philosophy as well as the histories of art, gardens, culture, and ideas to explore the magical lure of gardens. Paying special attention to the amazing landscape gardens of eighteenth-century England, she situates gardening among the other fine arts, documenting the complex messages gardens can convey and tracing various connections between gardens and the art of painting.
What Gardens Mean offers a distinctive blend of historical and contemporary material, ranging from extensive accounts of famous eighteenth-century gardens to incisive connections with present-day philosophical debates. And while Ross examines aesthetic writings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, including Joseph Addison's Spectator essays on the pleasures of imagination, the book's opening chapter surveys more recent theories about the nature and boundaries of art. She also considers gardens on their own terms, following changes in garden style, analyzing the phenomenal experience of viewing or strolling through a garden, and challenging the claim that the art of gardening is now a dead one.
Showing that an artistic lineage can be traced from gardens in the Age of Satire to current environmental installations, this book is a sophisticated account of the myriad pleasures that gardens offer and a testimony to their enduring sensory and cognitive appeal. Beautifully illustrated and elegantly written, What Gardens Mean will delight all those interested in the history of gardens and the aesthetic and philosophical issues that they invite.
Gardens and Poems
In what follows, I shall describe and discuss four gardens from the first half
of the eighteenth century: Twickenham, Stowe, Stourhead, and West Wycombe. In
each case I shall argue that, in important ways, these gardens function like
Alexander Pope was the preeminent poet of Augustan England; he also wrote
about gardens, advised his friends on the disposition of their estates, and
created his own garden at his estate at Twickenham, beginning in 1719. He is
an especially appropriate figure to discuss in connection with the comparison
between gardening and poetry because he helped to formulate the doctrines of
both disciplines. Yet Pope was also an amateur painter, and so his writings
and his garden are relevant as well to the second of Walpole's two
Pope's garden at Twickenham has an interesting commercial connection to
poetry. The poet acquired his estate with profits derived from his successful
subscription translation of Homer's Iliad. He leased a small villa on the
Thames and eventuallycultivated a surrounding five-acre plot. The villa was
about fifteen miles from London, and the area was decidedly rural in feeling.
In creating a garden there, Pope was clearly and self-consciously echoing
themes and forms from his poetry.
Though Pope wrote poems of many kinds throughout his career, all his writings
are distinguished by their ties to the classical world. Never schooled in a
systematic manner, Pope acquired his learning first at the hands of a Catholic
tutor, and then through a self-guided course of reading. He told his friend
Joseph Spence that during his "great reading years" he read "all the best
critics, almost all the English, French and Latin poets of any name, the minor
poets, Homer and some of the greater Greek poets in the original, and Tasso
and Ariosto in translations." During this time Pope also exercised himself
with projects of translation and imitation. He thus emerged familiar with the
great authors of antiquity and conversant with a variety of genres. One critic
lists the many kinds of poetry Pope attempted as follows: the mock epic, the
georgic, the pastoral, the dream vision, the didactic, the heroic epistle, the
elegy, the familiar epistle, the formal verse satire, the moral epistle, the
prologue, the epilogue, the ode, the epigram, and the epitaph.
Many writers see parallels between Pope's poetry and his gardening. Just as
Pope's poems treat classical themes, utilize classical forms, and imitate
classical exemplars, so too his garden combines themes from classical poetry
and forms from classical architecture with the learned allusiveness of the
arts of its day. Consider the features of Pope's estate. His three-story house
was set alongside the Thames, a grassy lawn running down to the river. Behind
the house, the main road to London separated the house from the garden. An
underground tunnel-Pope's grotto-ran beneath the road and led to the garden,
which occupied a rectangular plot about twice the width of the front lawn.
Maynard Mack, in his study The Garden and the City, lists the garden's
features as follows: "a grotto, three mounts (one of these quite large), some
quincunxes, groves, a wilderness, an orangery, a vineyard, a kitchen garden, a
bowling green, a shell temple, and an obelisk." He also calls attention to the
poet's "striking use of openings, walks, and vistas, each terminating on a
point of rest, supplied by urn or statue."
Stylistically, Pope's garden combines both forward- and backward-looking
features. The entire ensemble was arranged axially, though not in line with
the underground passage leading from the Thames. Upon emerging from this
passage (i.e., the "grotto,") the visitor passed the shell temple and a large
mount, traversed first a wide alley flanked by groves and then a circular
bowling green, walked between two smaller mounts, and finally approached the
obelisk to the memory of the poet's mother, which Mack describes as the
"visual and emotional climax" of the garden. The linearity of the garden was
countered by its bowers, hills, and thickets, as well as by the surrounding
"wildernesses"-quincuncial groves penetrated by serpentine paths. Urns were
arrayed in various parts of the garden, and over the grotto entrance was
inscribed a line from Horace, "Secretum iter, et fallentis semita vitae,"
translated by Spence as "A hid Recess, where Life's revolving Day,/ In sweet
Delusion gently steals away."
Two other features of Pope's garden must be described before we can consider
its likeness to a poem. The first is Pope's grotto-more technically, a
cryptoporticus, or subterranean portico. It consisted of several chambers
through which trickled a small stream. The walls and ceilings were decorated
with a collection of rocks, spars, flints, and shells, which Pope had gathered
on his travels or been given by friends. The poet had also attached small
pieces of mirror to the pebbled surfaces, and so his grotto multiplied both
sounds and sights, the murmur and splash of the stream and the flash of flames
and lamps. From the grotto, a view extended in two directions. Visitors
glancing up into the garden could see the shell temple, while turning the
other way, they could glimpse boats sailing on the Thames. In a letter to
Martha Blunt, Pope explicitly mentions how the grotto functioned like a camera
obscura once its doors were shut: "on the Walls ... the River, Hills, Woods,
and Boats, are forming a moving Picture in their visible Radiations."
Grottos are associated with creativity and contemplation. Inhabited by nymphs,
oracles, divinities, and muses, the grottos described in classical literature
are loci of poetic inspiration. Maynard Mack links Pope's grotto to caves
described by Homer and Ovid; he also situates Pope's move to Twickenham and
his creation there of garden and grotto against the tradition of retirement
stemming from Virgil's Georgics.
Though Pope's entire garden is allusive, recalling both literature and ideals
from the classical past, one section of his estate bore an even stronger
likeness to a poem. This was a plan for a series of monuments to adorn the
riverfront. The sculptural ensemble, as described by Pope's friend Joseph
Spence, combined a swan flying into the river, two reclining river gods
holding inscribed urns, and busts of Homer, Virgil, Marcus Aurelius, and
Cicero. Explaining the significance of this ensemble, Mack states that it is
"a more elaborate work of the associative instinct than at first appears. Like
some of the allusions in Pope's verse, it spreads in circles of analogy that
one hardly knows how to follow." One of the inscriptions is from Politian's
Ambra. It reads: "Here softly flows the Meles, and silent in its deep grottos
listens to its singing swans." As Mack explains, this alludes to the poetic
enterprise (the singing swans), as well as to the preeminent poet associated
with the river Meles, namely, Homer. The second inscription-"Where the
Mincius wanders with great windings"-is drawn from a passage in Virgil's
Georgics where the poet writes of taking home spoils and trophies from
conquered Greece to his Italian home. In using this quotation, Pope alludes to
his own career. He too has brought home artistic "spoils," namely, the poetry
and learning of the ancient world which, through his imitations and
translations, he has secured for Augustan England. Hunt writes "This elaborate
contrivance, properly decyphered, would lead the spectator to recall the birth
of Homer from Politian and the poetic conquest of Greece from Virgil and so to
identify Pope's own role in rededicating this classical literary heritage to
his own age."
To "read" Pope's garden ensemble requires the very same skills as reading a
poem. The viewer must recognize the quotations, recall the context from which
they are drawn, and realize their relevance to Pope's situation. Considerable
background knowledge is required, not only about Ambra and the Georgics but
also about conventions in the various arts-for example, the fact that in
classical times rivers were often personified by reclining figures pouring
forth water from urns. Viewers must also understand that the meaning to be
extracted from the riverside ensemble is cumulative-that is, that the busts
of Homer and Virgil reinforce and complement the meaning to be teased out of
the statues and inscriptions. How such meaning is conveyed by ensembles of the
sort just described is a problem for art in general, not one newly raised by
gardens and by the claim that gardens must be read. Paintings and poems are
allusive in similar ways-thus the doctrine of the sister arts-and the
example of Twickenham shows that gardens can function in just the same manner.
I said earlier that Pope's garden combined innovative and traditional
elements. If the sculptural ensemble placed on the banks of the Thames must be
unpacked much like Pope's denser poems, the meaning of Pope's grotto can be
viewed differently. The shells and minerals affixed to the ceiling and walls
evoke personal rather than emblematic associations, while the implicit
connection between the flowing spring and the poet's (and viewer's) mind
anticipates later romantic conceptions of artistic creativity. John Dixon Hunt
argues that the varied acquatic effects in Pope's grotto-pools, rills,
torrents, fountains-"provide a machinery of meditation, various landscapes
where the expressive character of water determines mental activity."
I have been arguing that portions of Pope's small landscape at Twickenham give
striking support to Walpole's claim that poetry and gardening are sister arts.
One of the most famous of all eighteenth-century gardens, Richard Temple, Lord
Cobham's estate at Stowe, is another that is frequently cited in support of
Walpole's claim. Like Pope's garden, Stowe cannot be easily forced into a
single stylistic category. A succession of gardeners worked there in the
course of the century, among them Charles Bridgeman, Richard Kent, and
Capability Brown, and different parts of the garden exhibit quite different
styles. I would like to start, however, by briefly recounting the features to
be found in the Elysian Fields, an area of the garden designed by William Kent
in the 1730s.
The Elysian Fields occupies a wooded glade fed by a small stream known as the
River Styx. Three structures are crucial to the overall meaning of this area:
The Temple of Ancient Virtue, the Temple of Modern Virtue, and the Temple of
British Worthies. The first of these is a round classical building modeled
after the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. The Ionic structure houses statues of
Socrates, Homer, Lycurgus, and Epaminondas-the most famous philosopher, poet,
lawmaker, and soldier, respectively, of the classical world. Next to this was
the Temple of Modern Virtue, which no longer stands. It was built in the
Gothic style and was, moreover, built as a ruin. Downhill and across from
these stands the Temple of British Worthies, a semicircular building with
sixteen niches, each containing the bust of a British notable. Included are
philosophers, poets, scientists, and statesmen. Architecture carries much of
the meaning in Stowe's comparison of ancient and modern virtue. The
juxtaposition of Gothic and classical styles creates the visual pun between a
ruined temple and ruined virtue. But the very topography of the garden
contributes to the meaning as well, for the British worthies are placed
downhill, looking up to their ancient predecessors.
The three temples of the Elysian Fields make a moral statement, but Kent and
Cobham added further layers of subtlety to give the ensemble political and
religious dimensions as well. John Dixon Hunt declares the Temple of British
Worthies to be an "ideological building." He states that "the message of these
figures is anti-Stuart, anti-Catholic, pro-British." Lord Cobham had been
dismissed from Queen Anne's army and was among those Whigs who came to oppose
Sir Robert Walpole's ministry. The choice of figures for the temple-in
particular, the omission of Queen Anne-underscores this point. In addition, a
quotation from Virgil is presented with a crucial line omitted. Hunt explains:
"This particular religious hostility is reinforced by a quotation from the
sixth book of the Aeneid ... in which a line praising priesthood is omitted.
... Such is the learned subtlety of [this building] that we must not only
identify our Virgil but recognize how and why it is incomplete."
Note that the Elysian Fields are as demanding intellectually as the section of
Pope's garden described above. Hunt and Willis sum up the challenges this
section of the garden presents to its "reader":
The Elysian Fields present a much more ambitious scheme of associations; they require a
visitor to compare ancient virtue with its modern counterpart ... to register the political
significance of the British Worthies, which in turn required noticing that a line was missing
from a Virgilian quotation, and to appreciate that the Temple of Ancient Virtue called to
mind the Roman Temple of Vesta ... at Tivoli, and the Temple of British Worthies some
other modern Italian examples.
While writers discussing the poetic powers of eighteenth-century gardens tend
to fixate on the small sector of Stowe containing these three temples with
their political and religious connotations, other iconographical programs
could be found in other parts of the garden. Ronald Paulson writes that the
rotondo was the focal point of the garden, since it could be seen from all
parts of the estate. This structure originally held a gilded statue of Venus;
later this was replaced by a statue of Bacchus. Since the grounds also boasted
a Temple of Venus (which, the current Stowe guidebook reports, contained
"indelicate murals") and a Temple of Bacchus, Paulson argues that the overall
theme of the garden was love in all its varieties. He states, "The temples
thus tell of wives running away from their jealous husbands to consort with
satyrs, Dido seducing Aeneas, and even a saint who finds it hard to resist
sexual temptation in his grotto."
One further argument that is supported by the gardens at Stowe is John Dixon
Hunt's claim that eighteenth-century English gardens progressed from the
emblematic to the expressive. In his book Observations on Modern Gardening
(1770), published some fifty years after Pope began laying out his Twickenham
estate and some thirty-five years after Bridgeman and Kent commenced the
creation of Stowe's Elysian fields, Thomas Whately rails against the demands
of emblematic gardens. He writes:
Statues, inscriptions, and even paintings, history and mythology, and a variety of devices
have been introduced [into gardens]....
Excerpted from What Gardens Mean
by Stephanie Ross
Copyright © 2003 by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
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