by Margaret Powling
Often referred to as the golden age of gardening, the Edwardian period saw the English country garden come into its own, with wealthy owners of large country gardens investing in exquisite structure and planting. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and the work of architects such as Edwin Lutyens, the gardens benefited from strong architectural frameworks softened by exuberant planting.
There were two main styles of gardening, wild and formal. Victorian gardener and prolific writer on the subject, William Robinson (1839-1935) decided that it was time to go back to the source of inspiration - the plants themselves - in the making of a garden. Even the word ‘design’ was rejected by him. In short, he advocated the wild – or plantsman’s – garden.
Meanwhile, Sir Reginald Bloomfield (1856-1942), a distinguished architect, advocated the formal garden (it is said he was the first person to use the term ‘formal’ with regard to gardens). To him gardens were high art: the hand of man must be everywhere, with plants doing little more than supplying the filling between the various architectural features. Each school of gardening had its devotees.
Meanwhile, a third style of gardening in which the area might be divided into a number of unequal size garden ‘rooms’ - the larger ones devoted to wild (or natural) gardening, the smaller ones laid out along formal lines, each connected by paths and vistas - was also being created.
A fine example of this kind of garden is Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire, the creation of Lawrence Johnston who arrived in there in 1907, aged 35. As well as admiring the exponents of the Arts & Crafts movement, he was also a great plant collector, subscribing to expeditions and travelling great distances in search of unusual and exotic species to add to his ever-growing collection. Several plants have been named for him, including a climbing rose, a fuchsia, a verbena, a penstemon, a lavender, and Hypericum ‘Hidcote’.
The Edwardian gardening era was, however, dominated by a rather unlikely partnership - architect Edwin Lutyens and the much older plantswoman and gardener, Gertrude Jekyll. Their friendship and their architectural/horticultural collaborations are now legendary.
One such collaboration was at Hestercombe in Somerset where a *Landscape garden had been created by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde in 1750.
In 1903 Sir Edwin Lutyens was commissioned to design a new Formal garden and in a relatively small area he developed an extraordinarily intricate design which created a garden that is both intimate and stately.
Jekyll skilfully relieved the flatness of the Great Plat with, in early summer, elegant white lilies, blue delphiniums and peonies, superceded in July and August by red cannas and gladioli under-planted with vibrant phlox.
Typical Lutyens features include raised walks bisected by rills, and straight lines are broken by stone-edged pools which control the water flow and provide planting places for water-loving plants.
American writer Edith Wharton - a neighbour of Lawrence Johnson when he stayed at his other home in France - said in her book, Italian Villas and Gardens (1904): “The inherent beauty of the Italian garden lies in the grouping of its parts, in the converging lines of its long ilex walks, the alternation of sunny open spaces with cool woodland shade, the proportions between terrace and bowling green, or between the height of a wall and the width of a path.” It is easy to see the Italian influence on Lawrence’s ambitions Long Walk at Hidcote.
Another exponent of the Italian style was architect-gardener Harold Peto (1854-1933) who was particularly attracted by the charm of old Italian gardens where flowers played a subordinate role to majestic cypress trees, statues and pools, and these influenced his design for the Peto Garden at Iford Manor in Wiltshire, his home from 1899 to 1933.
High demand for houses in the first part of the 20th century resulted in many more homes for the middle-classes being built on the fringes of towns. Furthermore, concern was growing for the numbers of people being squeezed into town and city and this gave rise to the Garden City Movement.
In Garden Cities of Tomorrow, Ebenezer Howard explained his philosophy for a Garden City, with fresh air, sunlight and breathing space and, in 1902, the first garden city was built: Letchworth, in Hertfordshire, where low-density building, avenues of trees, and country greens surrounded by cottages complemented the rural theme.
Gardening was now a pastime for all, no longer the preserve of the wealthy for pleasure or the poor for necessity. Greenhouses and conservatories were popular, practical gardening books proliferated, and nurseries (such as Veitch Nurseries of Exeter, Devon, the largest group of family-run plant nurseries in Europe in the 19th century) and seed merchants (such as Suttons, founded in Reading and now in Paignton, Devon) dare I say, mushroomed.
Today, garden visiting is on the increase, gardeners seeking inspiration as well as simply enjoying an afternoon out in someone else’s green plot, often accompanied by a cream tea. Gardens regularly top the National Trust’s list of most-visited sites. The National Gardens Scheme has been opening private gardens for charity since 1927, their famous Yellow Book listing 3,500 gardens, castle to cottage, county by county.
In A Little History of British Gardening, historian Jenny Uglow says: “A hundred, a thousand years from now, people will walk out in the morning, looking at the dew on the leaves, watching to see if the lily has flowered overnight, wondering if the slugs have eaten the new plants – just as Pliny did in ancient Rome, as Friar Henry did in his garden in the 14th century, as Gertrude Jekyll did at Munstead Wood, rejoicing in the arrival of June. We may think we are tending our garden, but of course, in many different ways, it is the garden and that plants that are nurturing us.”
Organisations and Societies
Gardens to visit
Hestercombe Gardens and Margaret Powling