Formal gardens were entirely swept away by the designers of the landscape school and superb parkland layouts created in their space. Far from the mastery of nature this was an attempt to improve and idealize her and for the new few hundred years anything small was considered unworthy. In the hands of first William Kent, who pioneered the movement, followed by ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton, contours were altered, hills built and valleys excavated; straight paths and avenues were abandoned and straight canals turned into serpentine lakes. Nature was triumphant – though in fact the freedom and naturalness were very carefully contrived the sense of vast space could be very deceptive as landowners planted trees at boundaries to obscure where an estate ended. There were no walls or hedges but instead the device of the ha-ha, a sunken ditch, was invented to keep animals out.
The style of this new movement spread all over Europe. In Germany, as in England, the earlier grand formal gardens were actually destroyed to make way for the new landscape parks. The French, however, instead of destroying their formal heritage, simply set a pastoral landscape alongside or within the formal garden.
While Europe was following the fashionable style of the English landscape garden, the quite different Victorian age of gardening began in England. There was a general return to a classical and geometric layout but it was distinguished by cluttered ornamentation and over-patterned, brightly coloured flower beds. The villa garden really came into its own in the second half of the nineteenth century with rapid growth of urban, industrial civilization. An emergent middle class began to move out into the suburbs or even the country, which meant that many more people had gardens of their own and an interest in gardening greatly increased.
Gardening publications and an unsurpassed interest in plants were the greatest influences on the design of the first suburban gardens. The book and magazines of John Loudon and his wife Jane first brought ideas on gardening to the middle class, particular the Gardener’s Magazine which first appeared in 1826 and their book, the suburban gardener and Villa Companion, published in 1838. The era of plant-breeding had begun in Europe – a ‘tulipmania’ was dominant in Holland and in England the Royal Horticultural Society had been founded in 1804. The many new plant discoveries at this time included conifers, anemones, winter jasmine, forsythia, primulas, rhododendrons and azaleas. The most significant aspect of this era of gardening is that it established the prime importance of plants in the creation of a garden.
The English garden as we know it today owes most to two Victorians, William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, and the influence of their ideas. William Robinson wrote a book, The Wild Garden, which called for natural gardens planted with shrubs and trees from other countries and then left to themselves. He was greatly influenced by having seen plants growing naturally in alpine meadows on his travels abroad. Gertrude Jekyll planted gardens as well as writing on the subject. She has a strong sense of colour, planting flowers and foliage for particular colour effect, but called attention also to leaf shapes and texture, especially of grey-leaved plants.
Many of the gardens planted by Gertrude Jekyll were for large country houses (often designed by the architect Edwin Lutyens) and were tended by gardeners. But the writings of Miss Jekyll and William Robinson also coincided with restoration and rehabilitation of long-neglected smaller country houses, farmhouses and cottages and their ideas appealed equally to these self-sufficient gardeners. Gertrude Jekyll invented the herbaceous border, planted with roses, shrubs and hardy plants, which an element of romanticism has always associated with the traditional English cottage garden.
Gertrude Jekyll even had advice for the owners of terraced town houses with only a dingy yard at basement level. She advocated that even the most modest scheme should contain at least one distinctive ornament, a fountain or a raised bed, as a focal point of interest. She suggested vines, Virginia creeper and a few ferns as the plants most likely to survive but it was generally considered at the time that soot and dirt made town gardening impossible.
The twentieth century has seen large gardens become economic impossibility and small ones multiply. Garden cities have been conceived and built, each house having its own individual garden. No one style has emerged as representative of the age but influences from different counties and different movements can quite easily be traced.
The garden is again part of the living unit, as it had been in ancient Roman times, rather than merely a showcase. At the same time economic pressure has revived the interest in cultivation vegetables and herbs that was shown in medieval gardens. Perhaps the most significant change is that increased leisure time for everybody has at last made the garden a hobby or interest, to be enjoyed by all, and no longer the prerogative of the rich and privileged.