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18 d'abril de 2012

Visiting gardens: a national obsession

This weekend, garden visitors are following 300 years of sightseers into private gardens to admire, compare and copy the skills of others.


The Telegraph (Regne Unit) [Crōnica]

In 87 gardens this weekend, you can bet no one is reading the paper. Instead, in plots all over England and Wales, a frantic flurry of last-minute weeding and titivation is going on in anticipation of the afternoon's Yellow Book crowds.

Indoors, meanwhile, tables sag under the weight of baked goods. "Actually, the garden's far less trouble than the refreshments," says Simon Mehigan, still reeling slightly from the Easter opening of his Dorset rectory garden. "People will forgive you if they see the odd weed, but woe betide you if you're tardy with their tea."

The visitors Simon most delights in are pairs of old ladies with notebooks. "They walk around and don't miss a thing: you feel your work has been appreciated."

Matt Bishop recalls a time when such indifference would have come as a relief. Newly appointed head gardener at the Garden House in Devon, Matt had the temerity to dig up the famous walled garden, and had regular visitors baying for his blood. "There would be notes in the suggestions box every single week – 'get rid of Matt Bishop'. Now the new planting has matured, I think I've been forgiven, but the lynch mobs were out after me then."

For as long as we have had gardens, other people have come to stare at them. In ancient Rome, the garden was an outdoor dining room, shared with friends; in Renaissance Italy, a salon for cultivated minds; in all countries, a manifestation of princely power, which visitors were encouraged to observe with appropriate awe.

One such visitor was artist Anthonius van Wyngarde, whose sketch of Henry VIII's palace at Hampton Court in 1558 is the first known drawing of a real English garden. From it we learn that the Tudor garden feature of choice was a carved heraldic beast on a stripy pole. And it is here that the story of gardening visiting begins, in a new exhibition opening at London's Garden Museum on April 22.

In the 17th century, garden visiting took a certain stoutness of constitution: roads were appalling, highwaymen legion and accommodation grubby – none of which deterred the redoubtable Celia Fiennes, who in 1697-8 travelled 3,000 miles on horseback (side-saddle, of course) visiting houses and gardens in every county in England.

Further courage was required when entering the garden. The most popular features in the fashionable 17th-century garden were water jokes, whereby the unwary visitor would be suddenly soaked and squirted, to the vast amusement of onlookers in the know.

By the 18th century, garden-makers had rather loftier intentions for their visitors. At Stowe, following the Excise Crisis of 1733, Lord Cobham turned his garden into a political pamphlet, pouring scorn on the ruling Whig government through teasing garden features.

At The Leasowes, the agenda was poetical rather than political: here poet William Shenstone turned a Midlands farm into a scene of Virgilian pastoral, festooning his Arcadia with Latin tags and verses calculated to inspire exalted reflection. All educated folk at the time shared a classical education, and could be relied on to pick up all the references.

Such assumptions, Sir Roy Strong has noted with exquisite pain, can no longer be made of visitors today.

The key thing about these gardens is that they were designed expressly to be visited, not just for private pleasure. And while the 17th-century garden had been open only to cognoscenti, now anyone could enter who was respectably dressed.

At Stowe, Stourhead and Castle Howard, inns were provided for garden visitors (the inn at Stowe is currently being restored by the National Trust). It was at Stowe, in 1744, that the first garden guidebook was produced.

It is Rokeby Park in Teesdale, however, that boasts the first known tea-room.

It was a diffident clergyman from Cheam who really turned garden visiting into a national sport. From the 1770s, the Rev William Gilpin started a craze for "picturesque" travel, encouraging viewers to seek in the landscape "that kind of beauty that is agreeable in a picture". For Gilpin, that meant wildness and ruggedness.

Jane Austen was a Gilpin fan, and when Lizzie Bennet visits Pemberley, Darcy's picturesque garden reveals him to the heroine as a man of refined taste. (We also learn how garden visiting was generally conducted – by applying to the senior servants of the house.)

This new appreciation of wild, natural scenery was conflated with philosopher Edmund Burke's ideas of the Sublime, sparking a voyeuristic delight in melancholy and terror. By the 1770s, garden tourists were demanding craggy cliffs and rushing torrents, gloomy hermits and spooky grottoes, that would inspire appropriately "horrid" sensations: the garden visit had metamorphosed from an intellectual game into an emotional roller-coaster.


In these pages, Anne Wareham has called for garden visitors to set aside their habit of polite admiration and become garden critics, appraising gardens as works of art, as they would with paintings or plays.

This was precisely the approach of gardening guru John Claudius Loudon, who in the 1830s and 1840s undertook eight lengthy garden tours, visiting mansions, cottages and the villas of the newly prosperous middle class, and writing them up in The Gardener's Magazine. No one was too grand to be spared the benefit of his opinion; thus Windsor Castle is castigated for its "shabby, half-starved fuchsias" and Blenheim for its green and slimy lake, while Stowe is pronounced shoddy and old fashioned. What really interested Loudon was plants, which he desired to see displayed with a "high and polished neatness".

The point of visiting a garden, for him (as for many of us today), was to learn new tricks for your own, and employers were urged to furnish their gardeners with a "velocipede" and an allowance of 20 shillings, to "see other gardens as frequently and extensively as they possibly can".

Loudon's reports show how railways made garden visiting an option for a far wider public, and by 1867, Chatsworth was welcoming crowds of "little pale-faced men and women from the cotton factories of Manchester". But others took fright at the prospect of such hordes: at Wilton and Knole, the townspeople were abruptly shut out of parks they had enjoyed for generations, and by Edwardian times, gardens of the wealthy were, once again, overwhelmingly private.


It was Miss Elsie Wragg who prised open the garden gate once more. In 1927, she persuaded 609 garden owners, including the King, to open their gardens at a shilling a time to raise money for the Queen's Nursing Institute. It was such a success that her National Gardens Scheme is still going strong 85 years later.

In 1938, Vita Sackville-West was persuaded to join the fast-expanding "Yellow Book". Fiona MacDonald can still remember accompanying her grandmother to that first Sissinghurst opening: just five years old, she was petrified by the looming giantess in top boots, and the "rather grumpy and snooty" boys who surveyed the visitors from the tower.

Family photo albums from Sissinghurst form a fascinating part of the exhibition, which concludes with a survey of modern garden visiting.

This year's Yellow Book offers 3,800 gardens to explore (see for a full listing online), while 11 million visitors a year flock to National Trust gardens. Some would argue that gardens like Sissinghurst have too many visitors. But then again, they said the same about Stowe, nearly 300 years ago.


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