This brightly coloured scene, with its band of male and female gardeners preparing the ground and planting, is a garden themed paper diorama designed and published by the studio of Martin Engelbrecht (1684 – 1756).
The highly organised and productive garden is framed by a pair of fig trees planted in narrow raised beds, trained tightly against a wall and supported by a framework of wooden trellis. Further back, cold frames with wooden lids are propped open and plants in terracotta pots are arranged on shelves and stands, adding height and interest to the garden. A gardener appears to be pruning a tree planted in an avenue, and an ornate looking glasshouse is visible in the distance.
Rich in detail, the composite image is formed from a series of six engravings, each containing elements of buildings, plants, people and landscape features. These were designed to be cut out, arranged in the correct sequence, and attached at intervals to a wooden frame. When viewed together from the front, an illusion of perspective is created, forming a three dimensional miniature world into which an imaginative guest is invited to enter.
This diorama is one of dozens produced by artist and engraver Martin Engelbrecht’s studio in Augsburg, Germany during the mid 1700s. According to the Houghton Library at Harvard University, Engelbrecht was the only publisher to be given royal permission to publish these miniature scenes. His project was a success with public, enabling Engelbrecht ‘to employ several artists, including Jeremias Wachsmuht and Johann David Nessenthaler, who were mostly involved in developing the peepshow series’.
Despite their ephemeral nature, and great fragility, examples of Engelbrecht’s dioramas still survive in museum collections around the world. Many of these depict grand houses, gardens and Biblical tableaux, but Engelbrecht’s studio also produced scenes more connected to ordinary life, such as trades.
The extensive diorama collection held at the Deventer Museums in The Netherlands include scenes from a bookbinder’s shop and a printer’s studio, as well as this working garden. There are also scenes from a coal mine, a shipwreck and a field battle. Engelbrecht’s dioramas are fore-runners of miniature paper theatres, which became hugely popular in the 19th century, both as toys and souvenirs of a trip to a performance.
There are several elaborate garden dioramas in the Deventer collection, full of interest for those curious about historic gardens as destinations for entertainment. Featuring ornate statues, fountains, orange trees in containers and long avenues of clipped hedging with topiary, these formal gardens are populated with fashionably dressed visitors. Engelbrecht’s artists always pay close attention to details of their clothes, and even their pet dogs.
Engelbrecht’s dioramas present a challenge for the production of images for online viewing. Some institutions place all the layers together on top of each other – which is effective, but results in some details being obscured or appearing to be cut off.
Here, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has photographed each level of their Italianate Garden diorama separately, which shows clearly how the final composite image is built up and draws attention to features such as the parterre and canal (see below).
This garden diorama from the Smithsonian Libraries is assembled in a wooden frame, and the edges of its cut-out layers are clearly visible. This enables the photographer to explore the texture of the paper, as well as to demonstrate the depth of field created in the diorama. Some detail in the engravings at the sides and towards the back is lost, but the image somehow captures very successfully the heady atmosphere at this garden party.
All these garden dioramas possess an abundance of charm, but my favourite remains the behind the scenes glimpse of Engelbrecht’s gardeners, working together to make a beautiful garden.
Martin Engelbrecht (1684 – 1756) artist, engraver, publisher of prints
Deventer Museums’ Collection of Engelbrecht’s Dioramas here
Houghton Library blog re. Engelbrecht’s Miniature Theatres here
Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Italianate Garden here
Garden Scene with Dancers (Smithsonian Library here