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HISTORY OF IDEAS – French & English Gardens

September 26, 2019


There have been two central traditions in European gardening. Each one associated with a great European nation. The first originated in 17th century France, and became known as the “Jardin à la française” or “formal French garden”. The most sublime example of this school of gardening is to be found in the chateau of Vaux-le-Vicomte which is about 50 kilometers southeast of Paris. It was laid out in the late 1650s by André le Nôtre the most important figure in the history of the French Garden. And the son of the gardener of Louis XIII. The idea was to arrange everything
around symmetry, flattening the existing natural landscape so as to create
perfect arrangements of borders, flower beds and reflecting pools. A grand perspective, a thousand five hundred meters long extended from the foot of the chateau to the end point: a statue of Hercules. The alleyways were decorated at
regular intervals by statues, basins fountains and carefully sculpted
topiaries. It was in an extremely logical precise
unyielding way perfect . Another masterpiece of French
gardening was then constructed at Versailles also by André Le Nôtreto. Here to there was
astonishing symmetry and a will to bend the unruliness of nature to the designs
of man. The French gardening tradition achieved
enormous popularity and was widely copied in far more modest homes across
Europe for a century at least. But the dominance eventually gave way to a new theory of gardening that developed in England in the 18th century. And was known as the “Jardin à l’anglaise” or “English Garden”. The central figure in
this tradition was Capability Brown, a gardener of genius responsible for a
170 gardens up and down the United Kingdom, including Petworth in West Sussex, Chatsworth and Darbyshire Bowood in Wilshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. The Jardin à l’anglaise couldn’t have been more different from the Jardin à la française. In the English tradition everything was about working with rather
than flattening natural features . Wildness of nature wasn’t the enemy. It was the starting point which the
skilled English gardener would enhance and work with. A good English garden
relish the raw impulses of nature it was about accommodating and
delighting in nature even though this was nature that was
tampered with in order to get it to look just that bit more natural. The English garden usually included a
lake, sweeps of gently rolling lawns and groves of trees. The English tradition reign supreme for
a century at least. These are two historical traditions of gardening but
they are also along the way two modes of being. The French style is about a
confident rationalism and willpower. This is how we might feel when we want
to change the world through thought and planning. The English tradition is about
accommodating ourselves to what already exists, bending with what is there, trying to
make the most out of what we’ve been given and to see its beauty and its charm. It looks like a battle but ideally we
need the two attitudes, the French and the English in our lives in order to
call upon them in diverse situations. Each of us is probably a bit biased
towards one or the other and could benefit from seeking out the distinctive
wisdom of either the French or the English style. The opposition of the to
gardening styles is stark but in truth we need integration, the Jardin à la française and the Jardin à l’anglaise, rational willpower and acceptance of
nature. There are in fact a few places that do
show the two integrated like Sissinghurst Garden in Kent which
borrows from both traditions. This shows us the model of how an ideal
individual might be, someone with a French and an English garden sight to
their nature. Ready to call upon either faculty depending on the occasion. That would be interesting gardening and
wise psychology.

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