Category Archives: Garden Design

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Other people’s houses (and gardens) have always excited our curiosity. Today’s books and magazines dedicated to the latest styles in domestic architecture, interior design and gardens give us ideas, inspiration, aspiration. As visitors they allow us into houses we will never live in, guests of owners we will never know. In these worlds everything is perfect; there is no dust, no unfinished decorating projects.

De Zegepraalende Vecht  (the triumphant Vecht) could be seen as an interesting precursor of the modern lifestyle publication. Published in Amsterdam in 1719 it records the most notable houses and gardens on the river Vecht, illustrated in meticulous detail by Daniel Stopendael.

The Vecht, a branch of the Rhine originating in Utrecht, was already home to medieval castles but in the 17th century became the place for the newly wealthy from Amsterdam to build lusthooven or recreational houses. Whilst not on the scale of a royal palace, these are grand houses, by most people’s standards, which would have been used by their owners in the summer months.

Daniel Stopendael (1672 – 1726) was an artist and engraver based in Amsterdam producing architectural drawings and maps.  His father Bastiaan followed the same profession.

In his book, we don’t see inside the buildings, but the exteriors and the layouts of the gardens give a fascinating insight into the styles of architecture and garden design that were fashionable in the Netherlands at this time.  Larger houses, such as Hoogevechts, command several pages depicting all the features of the garden, while smaller houses have just a single page.

The influence of French garden design is everywhere, in the formal avenues, parterres, the hedges, topiary and the symmetry. The captions at the foot of each illustration are in Dutch and French.  A commentary on Gunterstein (one of the smaller houses mentioned in the book) describes how the French born owner Magdelena Poulle would ‘use prints of the latest French gardens to create designs, garden furniture, statues and features’. It seems likely this book might have been used in the same way, by those looking for ideas for their gardens.

Alongside the gardens Stopendael supplies glimpses of ordinary life on this stretch of waterway; people fishing, travelling, visiting; sometimes gardeners can be seen at work.  Many of the gardens use water from the river which is diverted to form canals and feed elaborate fountains.

The symmetry of the double fronted houses is repeated in the design of the gardens, with their lines of trees, hedges, and spaced topiary. The planting is precise and controlled. The trees are spaced evenly and pruned so that their naturalistic shape is preserved, and their height is maintained in a close relationship with the house (at least, at this point in the garden’s development). The hedges and topiary are meticulously clipped into solid geometric shapes in contrast to the looser form of the trees.

Wooden trellis supporting a line of espaliered trees together with a gardener and wheelbarrow.

Climbing plants are supported by wooden trellis on the wall of the house and the roof of the smaller building.

Interesting wooden seats either side of the garden gates.

Do you think these animals were allowed off their rectangular island from time to time?

I’m intrigued by Groenevechts (pictured below) where the planting becomes an extension of the building. On either side of the house are green ‘walls’ with a parapet and openings suggesting windows and a door.  A man passes through one of the green doorways to the garden beyond.

This text can be found at archive.org where you can also enlarge the illustrations and inspect them more closely – link below:

De Zegepraalende Vecht

Many of these houses still survive and can be identified via http://rijksmonumenten.nl/

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Rabel’s Parterres de Broderie

Livre de differants desseings de parterres by Daniel Rabel was published in Paris, in 1630 and these plates show a series of designs for his elaborate parterres.

Daniel Rabel (1578 – 1637) was an artist whose work included portraiture, botanical illustration and set designs and costumes for ballet.  He also published several books and established a botanical garden in Blois in the Loire valley.

Rabel’s sophisticated designs are representations of intricate embroidery with plants used as coloured threads to create the overall appearance of a piece of richly decorated fabric.

The scrolling design of these parterres could be made out of low growing herbs; Rabel suggests rosemary, lavender, camomile and thyme.  Sand would have been used for the compartimens or spaces in between the planting. Planning and constructing one of these parterres would have been a major task, making them an option for the wealthy. The embroidery effect could best be appreciated from an elevated position, from the windows of the house (or palace).

The French broderie parterres were developed at the beginning of the 17th century by Claude Mollet. The style was brought to England by Henrietta Maria after her marriage to Charles 1 in 1625, when she employed Mollet to modernise the royal gardens.

Could Rabel’s designs be used as inspiration for a garden today?  Certainly they would be invaluable if you were recreating a parterre in a historic garden specific to 17th century France. But the formality and artificiality of the embroidery concept together with tight control of plants necessary to create such intricate patterns seems out of step with current taste which favours a naturalistic look and lower maintenance planting.

The charming, if romanticised, gardeners pictured at the front of the book have secured a good view of the parterre garden.  She seems to have been gathering fruit while he poses with a spade and other gardening equipment including a large scissors, small sickle, watering can, rake and a line.  He seems to be wearing loose cut culottes, a bit like plus fours.

http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/33324#/summary

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_Rabel

The Making of the English Gardener

John Rea’s Jewel Gardens

J Rea 01

To understand how a gentleman’s garden might have looked in the mid-17th century, John Rea’s book is a good starting point.  The gardens described are intended for the gentry and possibly the upwardly mobile, (maybe someone of the means and career trajectory of Samuel Pepys). Rea gives instructions for the construction of a fashionable garden to complement a country house, with areas for fruit, vegetables and flowers, which can be scaled up or down depending on the size of the building.

Rea describes himself as a ‘florist’; not an arranger of cut flowers as we understand the term today, but more of a horticultural expert who grew plants for sale and knew how to plant up gardens.

As well areas for growing plants, Rea recommends two essential buildings; an octagonal summer house for entertaining, sheltering from the rain, or sorting through tulip bulbs and a separate store for tools.

The ‘Draughts for Gardens’ which follow are designs for a flower garden, and show geometric beds (the darker areas, which Rea calls ‘Frets’), with gravel pathways between them.  The beds would have been edged with painted wooden boards or with French box, which Rea points out would take about three years to reach maturity and would need to have their roots pruned from time to time, to stop them taking too much goodness from soil and the rest of the plants.

For those who already have an enclosed garden, Rea explains that these designs can be altered to fit the space available

‘And because divers have Gardens already enclosed, that the measure of the forementioned Fret will not fit, I have therefore designed Draughts of several sizes, that every one may take that which best agrees with his ground, and is most proper for his purpose;’

Do the patterns suggested for the flower gardens have a meaning?  According to Rea the arrangement of the flower beds are supposed to represent jewel boxes, with the flowers as the jewels. Reas describes the ‘draughts’ as fashioned ‘in the form of a Cabinet, with several boxes fit to receive, and securely to keep, Natures choicest jewels.’  

Rea’s planting suggestions for the ‘jewel box’ gardens appear throughout his text and include the flowering plants that were most prized at this time.  Rea encourages the garden owner to consider the balance of plants when planting the beds.

‘Now for planting the Beds in the Fret, you must consider every piece, and place the Roots so as those of a kind set in several Beds may answer one another; as in the corners of each Bed the best Crown-Imperials, Lilies, Martagons and such tall flowers; in the middles of the five Squares great Tufts of the best Pionies, and round about them several sorts of Cyclamen; the rest with Daffodils, Hyacinths and such like: the streight Beds are fit for the best Tulips, where account may be kept of them: Ranunculus and Anemonies also require particular Beds; the rest my be set all over with the more ordinary sorts of Tulips, Fritillaries, bulbed Iris and all other kinds of good Roots, in such sort you will find directed where they are described.’

Could these designs be used as inspiration for a modern looking garden in a historical setting? The designs have a scale and authenticity which would match a 17th century house, and there’s no reason why the planting couldn’t be updated, using the perennials and grasses that we like now.  Or perhaps elements could be used; the edging of one of the designs could be introduced somewhere in a modern garden making a link back to the jewel gardens of the past.

JR Parterre 01

JR Parterre 02

JR Parterre 03

JR Parterre 04

JR Parterre 05

JR Parterre 06

JR Parterre 07

JR Parterre 08

A link to Rea’s book at the Biodiversity Heritage Library:

http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/bibliography/50878#/summary

Brian Stephens’ biographical essay on the life and work of John Rea:

http://www.wyreforest.net/2014/01/02/john-rea-florist-of-kinlet-1605-1677-brian-stephens/