Elizabethan Gardening

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Aspects of Elizabethan Gardening and Landscape Architecture

The reign of Elizabeth I was a golden era in English history, a time which abounded in men of genius. Among the many branches of art, science, and economy, to which they turned their attention, none profited more from the power of their wits, than did the art of gardening. Not having shared her father’s personality, nor his desire to not let the people live in more beautiful surroundings than his own, Elizabeth encouraged this art and persuaded her subjects to build delightfully-complex and extravagant gardens by proposing visits. The queen and her retinue would travel across the country and award the proprietors of the gardens she particularly liked. She also encouraged noblemen to support researchers, writers and other great minds who took on the task of contributing to the improvement of landscape architecture in one way or another. Lord Burghley was the patron of John Gerard, a remarkable English herbalist who published a list of rare plants cultivated in his garden at Holborn, still extant in the British Museum, and the famous work Great Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. To Sir Walter Raleigh, a notable poet and aristocrat of the time, we owe the introduction of tobacco and of our most useful vegetable, the potato. An age of navigation and exploring, the Elizabethan era prided itself with the culture of various new flowers and plants (many of which were medicinal herbs) brought from India, America, the Canary Islands and other newly-discovered parts of the world. While re-editing Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles, in 1587, William Harrison states that he has seen over four hundred new species of plants entrusted to British soil and that, day by day, the people begin to think of them as belonging to their country. Lord Salisbury, Lord Burleigh’s son, commissioned a family of highly-skilled and educated Dutch gardeners (the Tradescants) to travel and bring back for his garden foreign species that could have been acclimatized. Written in his lively conversational English style, full of his own personal ideas and fancies, Francis Bacon’s Essay on Gardens is familiar to everyone. Always practical and focused on what it was possible to do, Bacon wanted to put forward a scheme in better taste for the gardens he saw about him. During Elizabeth I’s reign, the persecution of the Protestants on the Continent drove many of them to find a safe refuge in England. They brought with them some of the foreign ideas about gardening, and thus helped to improve the condition of Horticulture. The Elizabethan garden was the outcome of the older fashions in English gardens, combined with the new ideas imported from France, Italy, and Holland. The result was a purely national style, better suited to this country than a slavish imitation of the terraced gardens of Italy, or of those of Holland, with their canals and fish-ponds. There was no breaking-away from old forms and customs, no sudden change. The primitive medieval garden grew into the pleasure garden of the early Tudors, which, by a process of slow and gradual development, eventually became the more elaborate garden of the Elizabethan era. What one currently understands by a “formal” or “old-fashioned” garden, is one of this type. However, as genuine and unaltered Elizabethan gardens are rare, it is generally the further development of the same style a hundred years later, which is known as a “formal old English garden”. The garden of this period was laid out strictly in connection with the house. The architect who designed the house, was also responsible with designing the garden. There are some drawings extant by John Thorpe, one of the most celebrated architects of the time, of both houses and the gardens attached to them. The garden was held to be no mere adjunct to a house, or a confusion of green swards, paths, and flower-beds, but the designing of a garden was supposed to require...
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