Grand designs for the grounds

The Tudor House and Garden
July 15, 2005

16th-century architects, who 'saw the landscape as their domain', created gardens to impress monarchs - and money was the manure, writes Timothy Walker

The full title of this book, The Tudor House and Garden: Architecture and Landscape in the Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries , may appear to be an oxymoron, but houses, and to a lesser extent their gardens, live on after the crown has changed hands or lineages, and so Tudor houses and gardens existed after Queen Elizabeth had died. It is very frustrating that many of the greatest houses, such as Theobalds, have proved to be as ephemeral as the landscapes that surrounded them thanks to Oliver Cromwell et al. However, what must be noted from the title is the inclusion of both "garden" and "landscape". Landscape may be an adjective when applied to the orientation of paper in a printer, but it should not be used to describe a garden. There may be gardens in the landscape, but the landscape is not the garden any more than the house is the landscape; it is just one element of the landscape. The purpose of the text is "to consider the relationship between the house and its setting, both constructed and natural", and it remains true to that purpose.

By the end of the book you are in no doubt that 400 years ago, as now, architects "clearly saw the landscape as part of their domain". If this is allowed to happen, then you can end up with a landscape as rigid as the buildings. The notion that there could be an "'ideal' plan that placed the house in complex geometric designs" shuns the most important principle of gardening - that a garden is a process, not a product, unless of course you are just trying to impress the monarch. The most extreme example of this has to be the stage created at Elvetham by the Earl of Hertford for one performance only in September 1591 of a naumachia depicting the victory over the Spanish Armada. After the Queen had left, the landscape was abandoned. However, what Elvetham does show is the Tudor skill for earthworks and water features. The creation of mounds or terraces from which one could look down on the sunken gardens is traceable back to the writing of Pliny the Elder.

However, Paula Henderson believes that "the inspiration for water gardens was largely indigenous". A fine example from this period can be seen at Tackley, where geometric ponds are augmented by a viewing terrace. This garden is particularly beguiling because John Harbourne, the garden's owner, was unable to persuade a neighbour to sell him more land and only three quarters of the scheme was realised. The interest in water went further than ponds and lakes and extended to a plethora of fountains, many of which were operated by the gardeners to shower visitors as they walked past.

Henderson makes a strong case for a link between the demise of the gatehouse and the development of pleasure gardens adjacent to the house.

She also shows how gardens in these extravagant landscapes were used for dining. The variety of banqueting houses is wide ranging, from temporary structures of timber and fabric to integral parts of the house. An example of the former was built by Queen Elizabeth to entertain the Duke of Alencon in 1581. It had a roof painted with clouds and hung with ivy, cost £1,800 and survived for 25 years before it was replaced by Inigo Jones's banqueting house in 1619. Many of the banqueting houses, such as the room built in 1550 at Lacock Abbey and the later room at Hardwick Hall, were on the roof of the house, which offered a good view of the gardens.

The contribution of architects to the landscapes of this period could be considerable. Particularly charming is the trimerous Warrener's Lodge at Rushton. This is full of religious significance, following as it did Sir Thomas Tresham's brave conversion to Roman Catholicism. The lodge was both sanctuary and religious metaphor, but as Henderson so correctly states, "the garden is one of the most ancient and compelling metaphors". However, she laments the modern trend in gardening to give precedence to colour, line and form, with ideas and meaning coming a poor second. If one looks for meaning or a message in the gardens of this period, the most common message is that the owner is very rich and wants to impress the Queen; Edith Wharton was quite right to assert that money is the best manure.

In her introduction, Henderson challenges Gertrude Jekyll's view of Tudor gardens as tawdry and thin to 20th-century eyes. Yet in the ensuing 220 pages of text and descriptions of gardens and landscapes there is not one botanical Latin binomial. This may have been a conscious decision on the part of the author to prevent the plants distracting the reader from the architecture of the landscape. Alternatively, it could be a manifestation of the contempt in which Tudor and Stuart architects held plantsmen and gardening. For example, Henderson states that John Tradescant the Elder did "(no) more than provide plants and supervise work" at Hatfield. Later, she describes weeding as a "menial chore"; if by menial she means precise and vitally important, then I agree with her. Just five pages, less than 2 per cent of the book, are devoted to the plants that clothed the gardens.

The emphasis of the book is explicitly "on the greatest houses built by the wealthiest patrons", and there is one very clear take-home message: if the Cecils had not been interested in gardens, this country's horticultural heritage would have been very thin during this period, for the family's contribution continues to the present day. However, if one were to produce a book on the present crop of Elizabethan gardens, it would still include Hatfield, one of just a handful of survivors described here. What has changed in the four centuries is that an account of Hatfield today would be full of Latin binomials. Today, the contents of the borders and beds are as important as the structure of the landscape.

This is a serious book; almost a quarter of the pages are taken up with the gazetteer, notes, bibliography and so on. Although this is a scholarly work, it is lavishly illustrated with 251 images. These plans, paintings and photographs of extant houses and gardens make some of the text redundant, but they bring the book to life and provide a visible connection with the present.

Nowhere is this more true than in the last plate. Ostensibly, this has been included to show how vines planted on the outside of a room could be trained into the house. However, the horticulture has been added as background to a depiction of the 1604 Somerset House Conference leading to the signing of a peace treaty between Spain and England, with Robert Cecil as host and secretary to the negotiations. It is a summit meeting that, with the faces changed, could be taking place in Brussels 400 years later.

Happily, one more thing has not changed in 400 years: as Sir Francis Bacon so succinctly put it, "nothing is more pleasant to the eye than green grass finely shorn".

Timothy Walker is director, Oxford University Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum.

The Tudor House and Garden

Author - Paula Henderson
Publisher - Yale University Press
Pages - 287
Price - £38.00
ISBN - 0 300 10687 4

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