It has been said that if something is good enough to inspire a song then it will live on forever, or if I’m mistaken it certainly has now. The idea of the classic English country garden is no exception to this rule, not just because the genre of design has captured the hearts and imaginations of gardeners the world over, but because the entire concept is literally about time and age.
Originally conceived in the mid-18th century, the idea of designing a garden to look less formal and in tune with nature would have appeared bizarre to many. After all, why would you spend vast amounts of money having your estate grounds designed and landscaped, just so they would look like they hadn’t been designed or landscaped? The whole point of having grand gardens at that time was to show off just how ridiculously wealthy you were. Such was the mentality behind the formal French gardens of the period; grand boulevards of immaculate planting, pristinely manicured topiaries, huge marble fountains and statues hand crafted by famous artisans, it was all designed to exhibit wealth and majesty. In that respect it would have seemed downright rebellious for garden designers to start building these more naturalistic gardens, even scandalous, and if there is one thing the gentry of that time loved more than a show of wealth it was a bit of scandal.
So what was so new and strange about these gardens? Simply put, they weren’t formal. In fact they were an open challenge to the very idea of a formal garden in that they effectively depicted not just an idealised natural landscape, but one that had reclaimed the land from lavishly appointed formality. In place of the ornate sculptures and mirror ponds, there appeared strange ruins, overgrown with climbers and hidden amidst trees as though long forgotten. Weathered faces of once proud cherubs peeked out from under lush bushes, while the grand water features were replaced with springs trickling through natural rockeries and miniature lakes popped up out of nowhere. The whole ethos of the design was meant to evoke the ruggedness and natural splendour of the countryside, with lawns that rolled like hills and deceptively tiny forests in the distance.
Naturally, and rather unsurprisingly, this was all affectation. A garden of this type would probably have cost considerably more than the formal French status symbol, both to build and to maintain. One has to keep the deshelled look just so to avoid it looking scruffy, in fact it wouldn’t be a huge leap to say these gardens were to the English countryside what Disney Land is to the rest of the world. Still, that doesn’t negate the ingenuity of the designers who first came up with the idea. If any type of garden were a tribute to agelessness of nature and indeed the mortality of humankind it would be this. “We’re amazing and we’re going to live forever!” proclaimed the French formal garden, well, “No you’re not” said the English country garden. One just has to look at those ruins, usually designed to look Greek or Roman, great empires that fell victim to time, now overgrown and returned to nature, mortality in landscaping. The English country garden, for all its obvious conceit and occasionally tacky incarnations, is more than just an enduring genre of garden design. It is a solemn truth; no matter how great and impressive you are, no matter how much money or how many gardeners you have, time always wins.