A Brief History of the Landscape Garden

By: david m james

The English garden designer was really born in the 18th century, when garden designers such as William Kent and Capability Brown started introducing landscape garden features such as hills, lakes and trees into previously, very much untouched, countryside.

By the 1790s, taste in landscape garden style had veered towards the more picturesque, and was based on beautiful landscape paintings by talented and well-loved artists. The leader of this landscape garden movement was William Gilpin (who himself was a very accomplished artist). Landscape gardeners of this picturesque style also began to incorporate architectural detail into their designed gardens and landscapes – features such as castles and cottages, follies and ruins.

Humphrey Repton was also a garden designer originating from this picturesque school and Repton was a major force in developing it a little more in the 1820s into a style of landscape garden called 'Gardenesque'.

In a Gardenesque landscape garden, all plants, trees and shrubs were positioned so that the character of each plant could be properly appreciated. Then, as botany and travel became more interlinked toward the middle of the 1800s, so too did the varieties of flora develop in garden design – landscape garden design suddenly saw the arrival of grasses from South America for example, or strangely surfaced monkey-puzzle trees.

In complete opposition to these very structured and ‘engineered’ gardens if you like, were the ‘wild’ gardens of the 1880s and 1890s. The garden designers most influential in this school were William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll. And Vita Sackville West’s garden at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent is probably the most famous landscape garden ever created in this, very romantic, style.

In the 20th century, Garden designers, inspired by the modern architecture movement, naturally followed in the same modern architecture philosophy – that of "form following function”. And form and function are still two of the most key words in even the most contemporary and cutting edge or avant-garde garden design.

Of course one of the very best places to see form and function in garden design in close quarters and in absolute perfection is the Chelsea Flower Show.

The first Royal Horticultural Society Great Spring Show was held in 1862, at the RHS garden in Kensington. Now, the RHS Chelsea Flower Show as it is known takes place each year in the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea and attracts thousands of visitors and every keen amateur garden designer from all over the world.

The avant-garde show gardens are the biggest attraction at Chelsea, principally as the landscape gardeners and garden designers behind them are faced with the challenges of creating perfect form and perfect function in tiny structured spaces or plots. And in a matter of days too - from temperature controlled lorry to a perfectly growing blooming garden that looks years old!

Highlights from the 2011 RHS Chelsea Flower Show included The Irish Sky Garden by Diarmuid Gavin that was based on the idea of a restaurant in the sky. Other show stopping gardens included the HESCO Garden, by Leeds City Council who reconstructed an impressive working water wheel in the grounds of the Royal Hospital.

Over the years, many garden designers and landscape gardeners have really made their names at Chelsea – garden designers such as Tom Stuart Smith, Andy Sturgeon, Lennox Boyd, Sarah Eberle and Randle Siddeley.

From Capability Brown to Diarmuid Gavin, garden design and landscape gardeners have come a very long way. But as our very busy lives develop, and as space becomes a more rare commodity, what we do with it becomes more of an art and more of a science, so that those who practise those arts and sciences are even more in demand than original great works of landscape art that started it all.

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David James looks at how the role of the garden designer has developed, from emulating the great masters paintings to the modern day landscape garden.

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