Friday 21 March 2014

A Salon Guest... An 18th and 19th Century Garden in the Heart of Sheffield

This morning, as I prepare to travel to Chatsworth for games and tea, I received a most thrilling letter from a gentleman scholar. He tells a tale of a garden in the heart of Sheffield and I share it here with pleasure.


TO MADAM G______



Composed by AJ SMITH, under the guidance of Dr J HODSON of Jessop West, Hanover Street, and the support of the good souls of FURNACE PARK. MMXIV



Since I was favoured with your obliging letter, nothing remarkable has happened here, other than the invention and implementation of a new experiment, so preposterous and daring, of which I shall give you an ACCOUNT, as it may divert you a little. The garden of our own age, it seems, is fundamentally interdisciplinary, and that’s what our project is interested in thinking about…

The eighteenth-century has been a period which not only saw the co-existence of many types of garden, but also significant shifts in conceptualisations of what a garden was meant to be. Writing in 1712 Joseph Addison picked up on this in his hugely popular paper, The Spectator, throwing his own opinion into the mix:

Our British Gardeners […], instead of humouring Nature, love to deviate from it as much as possible. Our Trees rise in Cones, Globes and Pyramids. We see the Marks of the Scissors upon every Plant and Bush… For my own part, I would rather look upon a Tree in all its Luxuriancy and Diffusion of Boughs and Branches, than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a Mathematical Figure; and cannot but fancy that an Orchard in Flower looks infinitely more delightful than all the little Labyrinths or the most finished Parterre. (The Spectator 414, 25 June 1712).

The debate over ‘order’ which Addison is here charismatically contributing too largely characterised the first major transition of the century.  When thinking about eighteenth-century gardens the first to come to mind are probably the grand aristocratic estates and it is these gardens which have attracted Addison’s scrutiny. It is in these gardens, largely the product of Britain’s new role as a powerful empire, that many of the design trends were set. In her wonderfully accessible and concise survey, The English Landscape and the Romantic-Era Novel, Marie-Luise Egbert  identifies a progression of two dominant garden ‘types’ throughout the century: ‘emblematic’ and ‘expressive.’

In his essay, ‘Art and Nature in the English Landscape Garden: Design Theory and Practice, 1700-1818’ David C. Streatfield’s work on the ‘emblematic’ garden has argued that for the first half of the eighteenth century gardeners were primarily inspired by the neo-classical landscape paintings of figures such as Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Pouissin and Salvator Rosa. These gardens strove to capture the ideal of rural retirement found in the works of Horace and Virgil. Crucially, as Egbert stresses, these meticulously ordered gardens were designed to have a definitive interpretation:

Directed by the layout of monuments and paths to perceive particular vistas and arrangements of features, the educated beholder could not but read this intricate web of elements in predictable way. Put differently, this was a space laden with emblematic significance which relied on the beholder’s ability to compare and read the features in the way required and to derive from them a moral precept. (Egbert, English Landscape, p. 3)

The early garden was designed to be decoded. The gardener was a prescriptive author with a message to convey: you could view a garden and get it wrong.

As the century progressed the ‘emblematic’ garden was superseded by the new idea of an ‘expressive’ garden, which is largely typified by the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. As John Dixon Hunt identifies in his essay ‘Emblem and Expressionism in the Eighteenth-Century Landscape Garden’, it is now the job of the gardener to provide inspiration for the viewer to determine their own meaning. Rather than withholding a specific interpretation the garden could now reflect the feelings of each individual to behold it. The garden could be experienced differently depending upon the mood and character of its viewer: its meaning is constructed by the speculative reflection that it stirs within each if its visitors.

The idea that a landscaped space could be a canvas with which to elicit and reflect individual human emotions is indicative of a much broader change in thinking which encompassed non-artificial landscapes and literature (although, Egbert goes as far as to claim that these other changes were derived from changes in garden design). The latter of these changes is something that this project can consider. Broadly speaking the poetry of the eighteenth-century begins with the remnants of the country house poem, politicised in poems such as Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest, but concludes with the early days of the Romantic Movement, in which figures such as Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley look to nature as a source of sublime speculative reflection. The novel also becomes a platform to consider the emotional and psychological potential of landscape, with Ann Radcliffe, Matthew Lewis and latterly Jane Austen explicitly addressing such themes.

The garden became central to questions of where meaning should come from, and how an individual should reflect upon their own state of being.

Just as all of this plays out in the estate gardens of the elite, this century also saw the emergence of the private allotment and domestic garden (a trend accounted for here in Sheffield by N. Flavel in ‘Urban Allotment Gardens in the Eighteenth-Century: The Case of Sheffield’). In one sense, individual citizens sought to replicate on a smaller scale the ambitious gardens of the landed gentry; encountering for themselves the very same questions of what a garden should and could do. However, the garden was far more than a space of artistic expression and introspection. It also served a practical function.

As this project will reveal, the garden provided a space to personally grow medicine and herbal remedies. This is a century that saw the birth of print culture as we would recognise it today and this new ability and inclination to create and disseminate information was met by a large market of readers as interested in family health and medicine as they were in gardening and property maintenance. The individual garden is at the centre of the momentous changes to eighteenth century society that paved the way for modernity, affected as it is by the dawn of print, a new era of prosperity and citizen self-awareness, and the gradual popularisation of art, science and medicine.

The eighteenth-century garden (in all of its forms) effortlessly saw art encounter science, the citizen meet the state, literature meet nature and the individual begin to consider and reflect upon itself. Now, in 2014, we’re growing a garden from the long eighteenth century in the middle of Sheffield. 

Ralph Gosling's Map of Sheffield (1736)
Ralph Gosling's Map of Sheffield (1736)

Staff and students in the School of English will be working hard over the next year to fashion a garden from their research; re-creating, re-enacting and re-imagining in equal measure to create a space where all can glean an insight into the domestic world of writers and readers who lived over two centuries ago. We will be keeping a record of our experience on the Furnace Park blog:

There is much to be learnt from how the garden came to be all of these things, and hopefully in recreating such a garden at the impossible plot in Furnace Park we will unlock the secrets of how this could possibly be and apply them in our own future research. In rediscovering what this space meant two hundred years ago we will learn the value of interdisciplinarity today.

As it is high time to conclude this long letter, I shall only add that you can depend upon the truth of the whole story, the several facts being consistent with my own knowledge. Make my compliments to all friends and believe me to be,

Yours Sincerely,

Adam James Smith

To learn more, do gad over and visit the following...

The Garden's Blog and Twitter
Furnace Park Blog and Twitter
Arts Enterprise Blog and  Twitter
The School of English Blog and Twitter

Joe Moore (far right) at the Garden
Joe Moore (far right) at the Garden

The post © Adam James Smith (@elementaladam) on behalf of the Furnace Park Garden project. The project, which is run by the faculty of Arts and Humanities at the University of Sheffield, is directed by Dr Jane Hodson of the School of English and is supported by Arts Enterprise. The garden is one of many exciting and interdisciplinary projects taking place at Furnace Park.


Sassy Countess said...

I just realized that I haven't left you a formal comment. This is very well done! There are several parts here that I will be citing for my thesis on eighteenth century American aristocratic housing.

Fantastic post and information. :D

Catherine Curzon said...

That's absolutely wonderful to hear. I'm thrilled by how well this post has gone down with readers, the project is such an exciting one!

Thomas Gardener said...

A very interesting read. A subject I'm going to do my own research on. Thank you.