A “Georgian Garden” is defined by the UK National Trust as one which dates from 1714 to 1830. In my blog post on May 16 — Regency Servants ~ Keepers of the Grounds — I not only talked about the men and women who designed and maintained these massive parks, I also gave a historical overview of landscape styles during this period of time. Today I am writing an adjunct essay (with LOTS of photos) on the plethora of structural features unique to the Georgian garden.
“The park and garden merged into one, this was successfully achieved by the innovation of the ha-ha, a stock-proof boundary invisible from the house. Circuit walks around the landscape park were designed to evoke a variety of emotions with dark enclosed tunnels of evergreens opening into bright sunny glades. Walled kitchen gardens were sited out of view or screened by the latest craze, the shrubbery. The concept of the landscape park was ultimately a British style which would influence gardens throughout Europe.” —National Trust introduction to Georgian Gardens
Georgian garden style at a glance:
- Informal layout designed as a classical place offering peace and simplicity
- Lakes created to reflect the landscape as well as for recreation
- Cascades adding drama and animation to the scene
- Temples, grottos, towers, and other follies doubled as tearooms and shelters
- Clumps and shelterbelts to provide shelter and privacy
- Shrubberies planted with the newly introduced exotics from abroad
- The Ha-ha, an invisible boundary to keep livestock away from the house
- Circuit walks designed to tour around the park
“The contiguous ground of the park without the sunk fence was to be harmonized with the lawn within; and the garden in its turn was to be set free from its prim regularity, that it might assort with the wilder country without. ” – Horace Walpole
As noted in my previous post on groundskeepers, roving, grazing sheep and cattle were beneficial in keeping the extensive grassy areas under control. The problem was in how to control where the animals roamed without erecting fences which would mar the natural flowing landscape. As Walpole says in the above quote, harmony was a key to Georgian garden design, as was curved, irregular asymmetry. A rigid fence, no matter how lovely, built in straight lines and sharp angles simply would not do!
The answer was an ingenious invention of a sunken wall and ditch. English garden designer Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738) is generally credited for introducing the idea, although remnants of a ditched wall had been installed at Levens Hall in Cumbria in 1689. Whoever dreamed up the idea initially, it wasn’t commonly used until the 18th century when garden design necessitated such a solution.
Simply put, a deep trench was dug (some up to 8 feet deep) and a solid wall (typically of brick or stone) was built against the side of the trench toward the house. The top of the wall was flat and smooth, the height perfectly level with the ground so that when one gazed across the park it was completely invisible. The other side of the trench gently sloped upward until at the same level as the ground on the wall-side of the trench. Grazing animals reaching the trench were unable to cross, and thus kept away from the protected lawns and gardens!
No one truly knows where the name Ha-Ha originated. Walpole surmised that the name derived from the response of ordinary folk on encountering these strange sunken walls, “…they then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Has! to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk.”
In architecture, a folly is a building constructed primarily for decoration, but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose. Ofttimes follies are so extravagant that they transcend the range of garden ornaments usually associated with the class of buildings to which it belongs.
The term folly began as a popular name for any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder and were often named after the individual who commissioned or designed the project. The connotations of silliness or madness in this definition is in accord with the general meaning of the French word folie. Another older meaning is “delight” or “favorite abode” and this sense included conventional, practical buildings that were thought unduly large or expensive.
The concept of the folly is highly ambiguous, the definition ultimately subjective or one could say it “lies in the eyes of the beholder”. The guidelines of what constitutes a folly are blurry at best. Most sources agree on these general descriptions: 1) no real purpose other than as an ornament, 2) they are buildings or parts of a building (to distinguish from statues, fountains, mazes, etc.), 3) often eccentric or unusual in design or construction, 4) an element of fakery exists.
As you will see in reading through the list and definitions below, and in looking at the slideshow of images classified as 18th to 19th-century follies in England, the above guidelines aren’t strict. For instance, a tower does serve a purpose, even if that purpose is merely to enjoy the view, but in many cases the design of the tower fits the “eccentric or unusual” idea.
The first rush of folly construction in England seems to have been precipitated by Sir Thomas Tresham’s Rushton Lodge in the late 1500s (in slideshow below). Rushton Lodge was an exercise in expressing Tresham’s views on the symbolism of the number three as in the Holy Trinity. Hence, there are three sides to the lodge, three floors, three trefoil windows on each floor, and three smoke-holes in the chimney. Other such structures popped up here and there in England and France, but not until the elaborate garden parks of the 18th century did the concept flourish. Styles and types of follies ran the gamut and often melded differing cultural or period influences. That clarified, the categories and descriptions below give a general classification that is quite helpful.
CHINOISERIE – Garden buildings which used Chinese motifs in their decoration. Pagodas, steep Chinese bridges, and a few summer houses were built in this style.
DRY BRIDGE: A real bridge is a construction to enable one to get from one side of a river or lake to the other without getting wet. A dry bridge is a landscape object, built at a carefully considered location where it can enhance a landscape view, but spanning only a dip in the ground or shallow man-made waterway.
GAZEBO – A small garden building usually open at the sides or lightly filled with latticework and slightly raised to give a view. Often circular or octagonal with a domed roof, they serve as a simple shelter and a resting place to admire the scenery.
GROTTO: An underground (or partially underground) cave-like room that tries to convey the impression of gloominess and a lost ancient world. Frequently lined with shells and tufa (volcanic rock) and often including statues or masks of water gods. Water flowing through or down from the roof into a pool is quite common.
HERMITAGE: A rustic building, usually built of roots, trunks with the bark left on, thatch, and rough-hewn stone, and made to give the impression that it might be inhabited by a hermit.
ICE-HOUSE: An early refrigerator, essentially a brick-lined hole in the ground filled full of layers of ice (from a nearby lake in winter) and straw, with peat packed between the layers. In order to keep them as cool as possible they were buried below ground, or artificial mounds were created to enclose them. While functional and necessary, (and thus not a true folly) an ice-house opened up landscaping possibilities to double as an ornamented garden building.
OBELISK: A tall thin pointed stone or brick building. Usually a memorial, on estates they are used as focal points at the end of a drive or walk with the obligatory inscription sometimes cooked up to fill the need rather than celebrating a genuinely historic occasion. Designed to impress, they are amongst the most extravagant of useless buildings as their solidity requires vast blocks of stone but their lack of any interior space means they can’t pretend to have a function.
PROSPECT TOWER: A tower with a staircase inside and a platform at the top from which to see the view. Can be any shape but almost always has battlements and gothic windows, as if an old castle. These are often positioned at some distance from the house, a long walk and exhausting ascent to the top rewarded with a beautiful view of the parkland and house.
PYRAMID: The shape is derived from Egyptian tombs and many pyramids were built on country estates as grand tombs or mausoleums, although they didn’t always fulfill their function.
ROTUNDA: A building with a circular base and a domed roof, typically held up with columns. They are usually open but may be partially enclosed, and often feature a statue in the center.
SHAM RUIN: A ruin is a real building that has fallen into disrepair. A sham ruin is built to look like a real ruin in order to conjure feelings of nostalgia or awe. Sham ruins frequently sport stone gothic window openings, battlements, and stumpy towers. Some even use parts of real ruins to give them greater authenticity.
SUMMERHOUSE – Decorative garden building usually with windows, sometimes a door or just an open arched entrance. Ideal for taking tea or reading a book in the garden with sufficient shelter to keep the rain off.
TEMPLE: A building based on an ancient religious building, often a model of a Greek or Roman temple. There are a few standard patterns for these which can be found over and over in estates of the 18th century with variations in size and detail.
Maze, Labyrinth, Cascade, Alcoves, and more…
Random structures scattered around the grounds, no matter how interesting, were designed to enhance and augment the main focus of parklands and gardens: the vegetation and waterways. Landscape designers and gardeners strived to create a unique experience at every turn. A straight flowing river or one that curves and falls over rocks laid to musically babble the water? A flat wide-open gravel path lined with perfect hedges or a lane with natural ascents and descents meandering through a wild wood? Bushes and trees indigenous to England or flora grown from exotic seedlings nurtured in the orangery? In fact, the typical English park of the late Georgian Era included a mix of traditional and “modern” styles. Nevertheless, the desire to create something unique led to an endless number of possibilities, even with those fairly common features, such as a maze of hedges.
MAZE versus LABYRINTH —
A labyrinth has winding, curved passages, forming a “unicursal” or one-way path from the outside toward the center. Walking through a labyrinth, you will change direction often but should not get lost or confused. Often the labyrinth is purposefully engineered so that it takes a long time to get to the middle, encouraging slow, meditative contemplation while navigating many twists and turns. Labyrinths are seen as thoughtful, peaceful spaces for quiet reflection.
A maze is filled with dead ends. Often there are puzzles that help you find your way and alleviate frustration, but the idea is to get lost a few times before figuring out the terrain and finding your way through. Two-dimensional mazes offer the ability to see the entire course at one time, though the hardest ones will take time to solve. Mazes tend to attract those more interested in solving puzzles and facing challenges.
WATER FEATURES —
Technically, there are only three types of fountains: those which have rising jets, those with downward falls, and those with a combination of the two. Diversity came in the thousands, if not millions, of ways to use natural flow and hydraulic pumps. Cascade, or downward fall fountains, have a far greater place in nature as rivers and streams, waterfalls, and rising springs. Man simply contained, rerouted, embellished, miniaturized, and finally emulated them using artificial pumping systems. Most of the great houses were situated to take advantage of water routes at higher levels and natural underground springs, hence waterfalls and cascades being a more common water feature in estate gardens. However, power driven pumps in various forms have existed for thousands of years — the first noted use in fountains dating as far back as Damascus in the 13th century — so jetting fountains were seen as well, especially in the formalized, symmetrical portions of the English landscape garden.
I hope everyone has enjoyed the education and fascinating examples in the slideshows.
Believe me when I say this is a very, very small sampling!
For more images of Georgian Era gardens, fountains, and follies,
visit my Pinterest Board dedicated to Georgian Garden & Landscape.