Monday, February 7, 2011

Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art and Landscape Design

The Horticultural Society of New York

Elizabeth Barlow Rogers
Romantic Gardens * Nature, Art, and Landscape Design

George Pisegna, Director of Horticulture at The Horticultural Society of New York introduced the featured speaker, Betsy Rogers Rogers. George said she was a leader early on in the public/private partnerships that took root in New York City in the last 20 years to much success, most notably in Central Park.    
Rogers is also the founder, president and instructor of the Foundation for Landscape Studies.  Not that long ago, the Foundation offered a graduate program in Landscape studies.  It remains an amazing resource for historic and contemporary landscapes and has an almost unsurpassed digital library through its affiliation with ARTstor.

After her talk, the two of us spoke about the closure of the school and lamented the loss of opportunity and exploration and discovery embodied in the curriculum.  I had long intended to attend the school.  I was happily envious of Nancy Seaton, horticulturist extraordinaire, who I know from working at botanical gardens, as she went through the program, graduating successfully before the school was shuttered

Betsy opened the lecture with the notion of romanticism and said we’d focus on some elements of the book that was the basis for last year’s Morgan Library exhibit that she co-curated.   The book is a piece of art unto itself and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in gardens, history, the arts and well, just beautiful things.

Rogers proceeded to demonstrate how landscape architecture gets played out internationally. “The Romantic concept occurred simultaneously in different western countries.”

She explained that we would look at literature, art – and I might add, politics – besides parks and gardens to understand the differences in the concept of mise en place – or a sense of place. 
The culinary world refers to mis en place as a cooking term meaning “everything in place” such as the ingredients and utensils: having everything ready to cook. 
However as it started in landscape design, it was meant to suggest the landscape design is natural to that particular place. So no palm trees in the Long Island landscape or native prairie grasses in the Netherlands. (hint, hint, Piet Ouldolf J

“Here we will talk about designed landscapes that are intended to mimic natural landscapes – in the English countryside for example.  New York’s Central Park is another example of 19th Century scenery.
“The use of boulders in the Park recreates what people thought of as natural,” she added.

She illuminated the design concepts as seen through the prism of national heritage and culture.
She took us through the examples of romantic landscape designers in England, France and Germany before detailing the new world of North America, which is New York City.  (It was all a very euro-centric perspective)

Romanticism in England
She told us important elements of landscape design are: mise en place as well as the Genius of Place, first identified by the Englishman Alexander Pope, who wrote about the “spirit of the place” that must be “consulted” before making a design, in his poetic epistle counseling gardeners.
His advice left an enduring and important impact on gardeners and landscape designers and one that is a defining principle of garden and landscape design.
Pope admonished gardeners to design with nature as a partner.

This ushered in an era that effectively put an end to the prissy, French, Le Notre Versailles-style gardens.
Think of a lazing English country house where it was all the better to see nature as an artistic muse. The scenery of a Romantic landscape was inspirational especially for the free spirits who could indulge in creating such landscapes. 

Ruins played a particularly important role – their imagery was a prevailing feature in Romantic Gardens, Rogers noted.

She talked about the landscape architect Humphry Repton, a much revered 18th Century British landscape designer in the style of Capability Brown which was the natural, mise en place style.
Repton also coined the term “landscape gardener” to describe his work. 
Repton was the first to present his garden designs with watercolors, drawings, and text to show the “before” and “after” looks.  His work was eventually produced into bound Red Books, so named for their binding. 
Rogers said he showed for the first time how property could be developed and designed. 

Repton was born in Bury St. Edmunds, a garden-scape of a village that I have some historical connection to.  In 2004 I donated some of my lightweight flower pots I design and have made: The Garden Pendant Collection.  It seems the town, Bury in Bloom, was to have been eliminated from the national Anglia in Bloom contest because their pots were deemed too heavy and dangerous. You can only imagine the hand wringing that this caused! The Brits are just mad for their gardens and flowers…
I read of this situation and offered to donate some of my Garden Pendants.  I ended up doing some newspaper interviews and a BBC radio interview. Subsequently, I was invited to Bury St. Edmunds for the awards ceremony and spoke to the townspeople and garden aficionados.  It was an energizing experience to a delightful part of the world.  I made some great garden friends too.

Rogers next spoke about William Wadsworth the American poet and his influence on Romantic gardens.  Wadsworth believed in and advocated for a personal and experiential experience with gardens.
This was a Spiritual vs. an Aesthetic approach to gardens. 
Rogers read some of Wadsworth’s poetry to highlight his sublime effort to try and capture the beauty of nature – the sense of the garden as a soul and moral being.

This is all so dreamy – and heady stuff. 

She showed one landscape design that I couldn't help but think was the inspiration or blueprint for the Princess Diana memorial - an island in a very naturalistic setting.... striking similar, no?  hmmm. 

Romanticism in France
We moved on to the introduction of Romantic gardens in France.
One might argue that is redundant J 

Romantic French landscape design, Rogers told us, came from philosophy. Jean-Jacques Rousseau who as a “leader in the French revolution and the Romantic period. He believed man was “essentially good and equal in the state of nature.” His most celebrated theory was the “natural man.”
He too promoted experiencing nature through the senses but with a reverence. It is part of his philosophy to see reform as complete immersion in nature.  A garden experience would immunize children against vices of words. 
This could sound far-fetched and fancy, but if you think about it, exposing children to gardens early has proven to prevent a phenomenon we refer to as “Plant Blindness” where people are unaware of the plants in their surroundings.
Children also will eat more vegetables if they can grow and harvest them.  Not to mention the quality of air they breath and the calming effect of green plants in one’s surroundings.  All scientifically proven.  So Rousseau was on the mark.

Rogers treated us to Maria Antoinette’s take on gardens.  “Just think about this young girl, forced to move to France and marry an older man.”  (Umm, that would be the King, Louis XVI…) 
“It was through her garden that she could create a new place – a ‘paradise’ as a way to overcome bad.”  The Queen could carry on a torrid affair in the otherworldly garden.  (I knew the French-ness would kick in eventually!)  And not to disappoint, here Rogers reads from some letters where her lover says he “can grow passion.  Eden is easy because nature is his partner.”  What a guy…

Parks that were being designed then were, for the first time, not just for the monarchy.  The Romantics infused the landscape design with a moral, spiritual quality.

Romanticism in Germany
Rogers then moved the talk to Germany. She showed the purity of a glowing peasant life, saying they revered those who worked close to the land. 
The Germans were characteristically introspective and all encompassing about nature.  Think, the Fatherland… The Homeland… and both are synonymous with nature.
They believed their countryside set them apart – “There is a soul and a spirit that elevates them from France and England. There is a sense of the Divine for them,” she says not altogether persuasively.
There is the underlying presence of the Nordic myth: primordial woods.
“We don’t have time to go into music here, but we can’t not mention Bach,” Rogers notes by way of explaining this Germanic feeling for the land.  Their philosopher Goethe  often called genius was a Romantic who was also a naturalist, a botanist and a scientist.

Rogers showed paintings of German landscape design of parks and castles that were located near industrial plants. They were proud of the science and technology and wanted industry to be showcased in the background. It wasn’t a negative thing but rather industry and its smokestacks evoked a sense of pride.  The paintings of the time – and quite a few from the show at the Morgan Library, depicted the duality of scenic landscape views.

Romanticism in America
Concluding with America, Rogers reminded us that the United States was founded on the principles of democracy and liberty – a belief in the principles of the Romantics.
There was a new attitude toward the individual.

Jeffersonian Enlightenment ascribes to this “God’s mastery.”  The view of Monticello alone is pure Romanticism.

The art and writing of the time underscores this sense of American transcendence: the spirit of Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s works, as were AJ Downing and the Hudson River School of painting, whose aesthetic was influenced by the Romanticism that reflected the American themes of “discovery, exploration and settlement.”  The search for arcadia in our cities and in the exploration of the continent…
When I view these works, I most often think of God and the sense of Manifest Destiny.

She said some of the first public landscape areas in the New World of the Romantic period were the cemeteries.  As America’s population grew rapidly, there was no longer room to bury its citizens in town next to the church, so cemeteries were built in the more rural areas that would soon be suburbia.  She cited the beauty of Green-Wood cemetery, Shady Grove and showed images of the Queens Cemetery. 
This was the second time in the same amount of months that the speaker cited the beauty of America’s cemeteries. (See earlier post from NYBG with Double Feature -- 
I think we’re on to something here.

Rogers segued to the making of Central Park   and Prospect Park with Calvert Veaux and Frederick Law Olmstead and their Greensward Plan.

The two were influenced by Romanticism and its expression of hearkening back: expressions of literature, music, fine art and the value placed on the senses, as is the nurturing spirit of the place.    The ruins of Belvedere castle are iconic. 
“The hope was that both Central Park and Prospect Park – (Olmstead and Veaux always referred to Prospect Park as their masterpiece), would help achieve peace, socialization, personal restoration, joy and rapture as nature and the two landscape designers – intended. Further, they believed the parks should provide spiritual nourishment.” She said.

Rogers concluded the talk with a Q&A, coming right into the audience to answer the questions.  
When asked about Chinese gardens, she did point out that they are in the book, but we just didn’t have time for all of it this day, she remarked. 

It was a fascinating talk – a class really.  And it made me wish the school was still up and running for all to learn from.  Here’s hoping they bring it back.

In the meantime, be sure to get Rogers’s book.  It’s a wonderful read and superlative resource.  I got Betsy to autograph my book.

 You can get yours here: 

And you can learn more about her work at:


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