Category Archives: Planting Design

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

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John Rea’s Jewel Gardens

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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.

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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/

Georgian Gardens for Women

What kind of garden did women want in the late Georgian period?  Maria Elisabetha Jacson (1755 – 1829) thought she knew, and using a lifetime’s interest in botany, wrote this book about designing gardens. The Florist’s Manual, or, Hints for the Construction of a Gay Flower-Garden was published in 1816 and sets out the author’s philosophy of garden design with coloured illustrations showing model garden layouts and lists of plants that could be used in the borders.

The book, which ran to three editions, is aimed at women and Jacson encourages her readers to take an active role in directing how their garden should look, from the shapes of the borders to the choice of plants, rather than leaving it to their gardeners:

A Flower-Garden is now become a necessary appendage of every fashionable residence, and hence it is more frequently left to the direction of a gardener, than arranged by the guidance of genuine taste in the owner;

Two hundred years on, the book remains a valuable resource for information about the design of gardens in the late Georgian period, and which plants were available and fashionable. In terms of scale, these are not gardens for stately homes, but for the aspirational middle classes.

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Jacson’s recipe for successful planting is a ‘mingled flower-garden’ in which plant species are combined for their beautiful and naturalistic effect and for ‘a succession of bloom’. This a break with the common practice she describes of grouping the same species of plants together in formal beds. Jacson explains the disadvantage of this form of planting, which is that once the flowers are over there is a gap.

.. in some gardens this appearance of a whole is entirely destroyed by the injudicious taste of setting apart distinct borders for pinks, hepaticas, primulas, or any other favourite kinds of flowers;

.. these distinct borders, although beautiful in themselves, break that whole which should always be presented to the eye by the mingled flower-garden; as single beds, containing one species only, form a blank before that species produces its flowers, and a mass of decaying leaves when the glow of their petals is no more.

The book contains extensive lists of colour co-ordinated groups of plants with times of flowering from February to August so that readers could apply her plant selections to their own gardens.  From her list of plants ‘red shade from pink to scarlet’ we might choose Hyacinths and primulas for February to May followed by Cistus, Gaura (red and white striped flowers) and Mondara didyma from May to October.  Interestingly Jacson prefers to group similar colours together rather than mixing contrasting colours together.

Jacson suggests using groups of the same plant so that the planting scheme doesn’t look fragmented, advice which feels startlingly contemporary;

.. without frequent repetition of the same plant, it will be in vain to attempt a brilliant flower-garden

Jacson admits that designing a garden or border is quite a difficult thing to do successfully, which, for anyone who has tried, is hard to disagree with?

It is more difficult than may at first appear, to plan, even upon a small scale, such a piece of ground; nor perhaps, would any but an experienced scientific eye be aware of the difficulties to be encountered in the disposal of a few shaped borders interspersed with turf. 

The Florist’s Manual is available online at the Wellcome Library and The Biodiversity Heritage Library.

Wellcome Library

Biodiversity Heritage Library