Identify the Unique English Garden Objects from the Past

Identify the Unique English Garden Objects from the Past

Spring is in the air where I live amongst the rolling bluegrass hills of Kentucky. In between the frequent rain showers, we have gotten the boat onto the lake for serious fishing and enjoyed a number of bike rides along the trails in our neighborhood. All of the rain which falls on my home state also means my perennials are bursting with leaves and flowers. It also meant the weeds shot sky-high! Anyone who works in their garden and yard knows that no matter how small the plots, after a snowy and very cold winter, getting everything into tip-top shape takes a great deal of time and back-aching labor. Luckily, since this is our sixth summer in Kentucky, the plants are well-established so it wasn’t nearly as difficult and the end result is exactly as I planned when we moved in. I am proud of my garden so before turning to the main topic of this blog, I have to share a few pictures.

Lathan succulent garden. Watch out for the bullfrog!
Right outside the backdoor: Pink Primrose, Orange Dwarf Coreopsis, Fringed Pink Dianthus, and more.
Timmy Turtle and his small buddy surrounded by assorted Dianthus, Argula, Bee Balm, Pansy, and a Stokes Aster.
Lots of plants and decor. I like decor! I made the sign post, which are all mythical places.
Close up of the middle area with 2 Hydrangea, a purple Climbing Clematis, 2 Rose of Sharons, ferns, and various ground cover.
Detail collage: I LOVE my sign post, potted flowers by door, peeking snail, happy frog, and my garden motto “Love Blooms Here.”

Isn’t my garden fabulous? I am very proud of what we have created. Gardening is something I have always enjoyed immensely, but between working full time, busy raising kids, and living in the hellaciously hot California central valley with earth of hard clay, managing to have a flourishing, manicured garden was nearly impossible. The climate in Kentucky is SO much better and the plethora of plants that thrive here is amazing. The hardest part is limiting myself!

Anyway, thanks for sharing in a slice of my real life joy.

For today’s blog post, as I continue my series theme of “What is that Thing?” with a historical twist, I figured it made sense to look at interesting architectural structures unique to Regency/Georgian gardens. I’ve blogged on this topic a number of times on my website, so for some of you guessing these objects will be easy-peasy. For others they might be a challenge. As with the previous posts (links to all four of them below) try to guess what the things in the image collage are before clicking the dropdown reveal. Let me know how many you knew in the comments below and your thoughts on the history.

Links to the previous four blogs, if you missed them:

Intriguing Historical Fashion Objects

Fascinating Objects From The Past

More Unusual Objects From The Past

Intriguing Historical Objects

What are these things?

A hallmark of the Georgian garden was the folly. By definition, an architectural folly is a structure primarily for decoration but suggesting through its appearance some other purpose. Whether simple or extravagant, a folly consists of these general traits: 1) It serves no real, significant purpose other than as an ornament; 2) They are buildings or parts of a building (to distinguish from statues, fountains, mazes, etc.); 3) It is eccentric or unusual in design or construction; and 4) They contain an element of fakery.

The OBELISK was one of several common types of garden folly. Although some could be short — such as the obelisk duo to the right from Holker Hall in Cartmel, Cumbria — true folly obelisks were exceedingly tall. They were designed to impress, and are counted as amongst the most extravagant of these useless buildings because their solidity requires vast blocks of stone but their lack of any interior space meant they had no actual function.

An OBELISK, by definition, is tall, thin, and pointed at the top. Unlike many follies that were purposefully located to blend into the environment or feel as if an accidental part of nature, an obelisk was a focal point. Some were real memorials to a famous or beloved person, or to mark an important event, but many were etched with fake inscriptions, fulfilling the “joke” aspect of all follies.

Above obelisks, L->R: 118 BC Egyptian Obelisk found in Philae in 1815 and erected at Kingston Lacy in Dorset; the Rose Tower Obelisk at Barwick in Somerset; General Wolfe’s memorial obelisk, date 1759, at Stowe; and the Conolly’s Folly obelisk, date 1740, in Kildare, Ireland.

What are these things?

Of all the bizarre garden follies that sprang into existence during the heyday of Georgian garden architecture, the HERMITAGE is the most curious. These specialized mini-buildings were inspired by a merging of religion, druidic, and secular naturalism philosophies arising during this period. The Regency Era desire to reach into the ancient past, as seen in the fashions of the day, included revisiting literary tales of Merlin the Magician from Arthurian legends and mythical creatures who lived in dark grottoes and caves.

A HERMITAGE was always small, usually just one room or possibly two, and was typically open although some had doors and tiny windows. They were primarily built from stone or wood with a rustic, rough design and situated as if emerging organically from its surroundings. Natural caves, serendipitously located, were also incorporated at times and might be used “as is” or enhanced with a facade, a doorway, and perhaps a window or two.

Primarily meant as a purely ornamental structure for a garden stroller to happen upon unsuspectingly – adding to the amazed impressiveness to a well-designed Georgian garden – a hermitage could serve a purpose as a cool refuge to rest before continuing down the meandering pathway. To enhance the air of authenticity, it was very common for the estate owners to pay real beggars to live in their fake hermitages.

Above hermitages L->R, top to bottom: Ossian’s Cave at Perthshire in Scotland; the Root House, 1760, at Badminton in Gloucestershire; the hermitage at Brocklesby Park in Lincolnshire; the restored hermitage at Painshill Park in Surrey; and the Witch House, 1761, at Hestercombe in Somerset.

What are these things?

It was essential for a Georgian garden to appear as natural as possible. It was largely an illusion since these gardens were as finely designed and maintained as the symmetrical, precisely linear gardens of the Baroque era. The trick, and skill of the landscape architect, was to create an illusion of nature so real that even though everyone knew the truth, they were fooled. One thing that would surely destroy the effect would be a rigid fence built in a straight line with sharp angles, no matter how lovely.

The HA-HA was the solution to the dilemma of how to keep the wildly roaming animals vital to the natural theme from intruding into areas where they could do damage or frighten humans without an unsightly fence. Credited to English garden designer Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738), a Ha-Ha was simply a sunken wall and a ditch. As the drawing to the right shows, a deep trench up to 8 feet deep was dug and a solid wall of brick or stone was built against the side of the trench toward the house. The top of the wall was flat at a height perfectly level with the ground, making the wall completely invisible when gazing across the park from the grounds closest to the house. The other side of the trench gently sloped upward until at the same level as the ground on the wall-side of the trench, the gap perfectly measured to maintain the illusion of an unbroken flat lawn but also wide enough so that grazing animals were unable to cross. Brilliant!

No one truly knows where the name Ha-Ha originated. On theory, put forth by Horace Walpole, is 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.”

What are these things?

A ruin is a real, once-useable building that is so old it has fallen into disrepair and is being consumed by natural elements. A SHAM RUIN is a new structure with no useable purpose that is built to look like an ancient ruin. That is rather obvious, but WHY build a structure that is crumbling?

Beginning in the 16th century and peaking in the latter decades of the 18th century, the focus upon classical themes from ancient Greece and Rome gained popularity. Extensive tours of Europe, mostly by wealthy young men, almost always included visiting Italy specifically to admire Roman ruins. The desire to duplicate those ruins, coupled with the rising romanticism and emphasis on natural landscaping, created another folly category. The majority of the sham ruins built during the Georgian period were in the Gothic style so extremely popular. Therefore, stone gothic windows, broken battlements, turrets, and partial walls of many wings were universal characteristics.

As with most follies, a sham ruin served no purpose other than to conjure feelings of nostalgia, awe, whimsy, and possibly fright. Like a true ruin, sham ruins blended into the vegetation. Landscape planning and careful planting of vines, moss, and so on might be done initially, but the idea was to present a picture of decay, devastation, and neglect so there would be little in the way of maintenance.

Above sham ruins, L->R, top to bottom: Mount Edgcumbe ruins, 1747, at Torpoint in Cornwall; the Gothic Arch at Belvedere in Scotland; the castle sham ruins, 1769, at Dinton Hall in Buckinghamshire; the Lake Temple ruins at Larchill Arcadian Garden in Ireland; and the Jealous Wall, 1760, also at Belvedere in Scotland.

Was that a fun installment in my guessing-game series?
Tell me how many you were able to guess correctly
before clicking the spoiler box!
If I can unearth more oddities from the past, I’ll have another group next month.

10 Responses to Identify the Unique English Garden Objects from the Past

  1. I’ve read about all of these things, but most I’d only pictured in my head. Thank you for actually bringing them to life for me. (Don’t know why I didn’t just google them!) anyway, beautiful garden! I used to really enjoy gardening until the heat started bothering me so badly. Now I just admire other’s gardens, and say “some day…” I love your posts of old things!!! Thank you!

  2. Your garden looks really beautiful and your post was really interesting, I enjoyed seeing and reading about all the different structures and ruins that you showed.

  3. I got them all! Amazing. Your garden looks lovely. Want to come work on mine? I love these random items posts. I wish I could build a ha-ha. They’re probably my favorite of all the Georgia’s garden things. I have to admit follies are odd, and the sham ruins are the oddest of all. A prime example of conspicuous consumption to me. Thanks!

  4. I didn’t do as badly as I thought I would. I knew the obelisk as we have one in KY … the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site… over near Hopkinsville. We also have a rather famous hermitage not far from you [Thomas Merton’s at the Abbey of Gethsemani]. I remembered seeing your previous post with the Ha-Ha but could not remember the name to save me. I only knew it started with the letter H. The last was obviously a ruin of some sort but I didn’t know they were called Sham-ruins. Wow! I love these quizzes and look forward to them. Some of those are very expensive ventures and I cannot imagine spending that much simply for the aesthetics of a garden walk or pleasure path. It amazes me.

    Your garden was amazing. You are right that KY is a perfect planting zone for a plethora of plants perfect for gardens such as yours. We have had a rather mild spring so far. Many years in the past the frost bit the blooms and it would diminish fruit production. Looks like we will have fruit this year. I never buy outside plants until after Derby. That usually is a safe time from the threat of frost. I learned my lesson the hard way many years ago. I love walking through the garden centers and create beautiful designs in my head. Your garden had many whimsical features and I loved how you used old plates to highlight and delight certain areas. Your little creatures were a surprise feature. Thanks for the fun post and enjoy your garden.

  5. Love your garden. I’m afraid I rather let mine go last Summer and so far. I love gardening but after Mam died last year I couldn’t quite conjure up any interest in it. The Ha Ha was the only one I got. Sham Ruins!!! They hadn’t much to bother them obviously.

  6. Your garden is beautiful. Due to allergies, I love to look at gardens but cannot stand to be in one for very long. I had never heard of sham ruins before and although I knew the purpose of it, I could not remember the term “ha-ha.”

  7. I got the others but failed on the sham ruins I’m afraid.
    I love your beautiful garden Sharon, I’m afraid I have black fingers and am allergic to gardening ?. When I used to cut my lawn I would itch until I almost drew blood so I have a gardener once a fortnight who keeps it under control.
    Thank you for this lovely post.

  8. Definitely had no idea about any of these structures but very interesting.
    Your garden is lovely – don’t have a green thumb but appreciate others that do.

  9. I didn’t guess any. these are interesting structures esp the ha-ha. I had to re-read that part many times to understand its concept. thank you for sharing. I learned a lot of things today.

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