Informal & formal characteristics of landscape design reach back to the beginnings of civilizations in China and Egypt. Gardens developed gradually within China, beginning about 2000BC, with practice of the naturalistic and graceful principles that harmonized so well with the varied richness of its land. Botanists speculate that the north China plain at this time had trees, shrubs and herbaceous vegetation from almost every plant family. So, the initial gardens surrounding hunting lodges of the early Chinese emperors were nothing more than simple spontaneous enclosures around this lush fertility. As a result, what we now label “informal gardens” were created.
Meanwhile in Egypt, about 3000-2000BC, order and places of utility and beauty were being produced from the desert and the River Nile. Here, straight-edged and architectural standards attuned to the ancient Egyptian principles of ma’at – order, balance, harmony – were implemented.
Ancient Egyptian gardens were cool, shady havens of order. They were symmetrical and precisely planned around canals or square reservoirs filled with fish for eating and the sacred lotus. Fruit trees sensibly planted in straight rows that followed the lines of the canals also offered shade. While these gardens celebrated the harmonious and ordered lives of the Egyptians, they also originated the axial patterns, the straight lines, and the formality of all Mediterranean-inspired gardens.
Moving forward to more recent times, from the late 18th century and onwards, emphasis in design and gardening laid more on plants for their own sake than on the design itself. Exploration brought previously unknown plants into the lives of gardeners and designers while by the end of the 19th century technology advancement allowed designing and use of apparatus such as glasshouses and lawnmowers. The Victorian belief was that plants were made for man. Some commentators feel that at this point the methods and craft of gardening, as opposed to its design and passion, had reached a high point.
Despite the “chop and change” approach of the late 18th and then 19th centuries, the basic principles of formal landscape design are defined even today as:
- Man dominating his landscape with perfect symmetry;
- Geometry, balance and proportion are all part of this style;
- And, the axial plan – everything along a straight central line.
By tracing the evolution of several national styles it’s simple to see how these principles have historically been applied and how we might use them in our own garden designs. Through careful consideration, it’s also easy to see where and how the principles have been misused to the detriment of garden design.
Most formal-style western gardening has its origins in Persian / Mediterranean style gardens which were probably copied from the Egyptians. The Persian-style pleasure garden stretched eastward to India and westward to Spain with the spread of Islam.
The Romans also adapted Egyptian-style gardening, which spread throughout the Roman Empire. The first to make gardens in Britain were Romans and apparently the earliest monastery gardens were made in a simple, utilitarian but similar Roman style. Simple castle gardens, when there were any, followed the medieval monastic style as did the significantly more ample gardens of the Tudor monarchs.
Slowly but surely, new ideas and variations in architecture and art were picked up and adapted by the Italians from Roman designs and developed into a distinct and at times grandiose style of garden design. Beginning in the 14th century, this fashion moved steadily east and westward from Italy and by the 17th century had spread throughout most of Europe. The French and Dutch followed these trends with variations of their own and the most notable were, of course, for royalty. The most prominent French garden of the time was Versailles, fashioned by Andre Le Notre, gardener to Louis XIV. It followed that every European monarch of any self-importance had to have his or her own Versailles although admittedly in a reduced fashion.
The Dutch, like many others, imitated the French. However, in the course of copying their ideas, a distinctly Dutch style of cozy and elaborate gardens with canals for drainage emerged. The recently refurbished Het Loo Palace and Gardens, originally fashioned toward the end the 17th century for the Stadtholder-King William III and Queen Mary II in the woodlands of Apeldoorn, as well as many of the smaller Dutch gardens in and around Amsterdam, show these fashions.
A modern Dutch interpretation of a formal garden.
Design of the formal English gardens “borrowed” from the French and Dutch, with French designers working in England and English designers visiting France. The ascendancy of the Dutch William III and his English Queen Mary II in 1689, after their invitation to rule England, brought Dutch garden fashions to England full-force.
Hampton Court, although often identified with Henry VIII, was influenced just as much if not more by William and Mary. Although Mary never lived to see or make use of it, the recently restored Royal Privy Garden is a superior example of an English Dutch garden. The English National Trust also maintains a Dutch-style English garden at Westbury Court.
The basic principles of informal landscape design are a little more imprecise but can be characterized as:
- Simplicity and sensitivity to “organic” or natural appearing growth;
- Curves and gentle lines
- Naturalistic arrangements of planting.
A modern intimate spring garden based on informal design principles. The setting could be Paris, London, Amsterdam, New York, San Francisco or Boston.
Once more, although somewhat less precisely than with formal styles, we can trace the evolution of informal design principles through several national style developments. The Chinese, as population increased and cities became larger, kept for the most part to their original naturalistic ideas, but scaled them down to “Lake and Island Gardens,” nature in miniature. The Japanese, emulating the Chinese, developed very structured and controlled gardens of romantic naturalism.
The wonderful highly architectural and tightly controlled Italian Renaissance gardens were literally let go in the 17th century. They began to be overshadowed by areas of wild wood and the naturalistic grottoes that were all the rage.
By the middle of the 18th century, ideas were drifting into France from Asia where nothing in a garden was symmetrical, and from England where gardens were being remodeled on naturalistic lines. However, after the French Revolution, the style that can be termed Anglo-chinois hit France with force. No mingling of styles was too bizarre. The English style, le jardin anglais, has co-existed, for better or worse, with the French style ever since.
Meanwhile, in England, the Landscape Gardening Movement was gathering force and in about 1730, William Kent figuratively “leaped the fence.” The point of view was that there was neither beginning nor end to a garden; it was all to be idealized as an earthly paradise with flowing lines and a strong appreciation to what should appear to be the natural landscape. This technique was then overlaid with strong classical suggestions. As a result, a fairly simple formula was worked out to mold the English countryside to this ideal, the most famous of these gardens is Stourhead in Wiltshire.
Lancelot “Capability” Brown worked at Stourhead with Kent and began his career in 1751. The list of his works includes half of the great country houses of England, and he has been ostracized as a destroyer both during his time and now. Interestingly, Brown’s vision of the English parkland is now accepted as natural and right.
Brown’s successor Henry Repton “allowed” terraces and flowers to edge into the foreground from which Brown had banished them. His writings on design theory, The Art of Landscape Gardening (1807), are still among the best. However, in the before and after paintings Repton executed for prospective customers, Victorian romanticism appears to be creeping in.
William Robinson, along with the partnership of Gertrude Jekyll and architect Edwin Lutyens with their “not-so-grand” late 19th century approaches, have probably influenced more modern gardeners and garden designers than any other writers and practitioners of the garden arts. With the Jekyll-Robinson Tradition we see the epitome of the rustic English-cottage-garden-style and plantings in a naturalistic manner. With all that this era offered to practioners of the garden arts, love of plants and their almost compartmentalized use was the key of the Jekyll-Robinson philosophy.
How does this discussion of formal versus informal affect you, the homeowner or designer of residential landscapes? These explanations and their expansions will hopefully allow you to look closely and define the characterization of your property and your house style. You should begin to think about what kind of a scheme and basic principles might be suitable for your situation. Once you’ve chosen a scheme, stick to it! No scheme when correctly chosen is ever humdrum, but mixing schemes creates chaos. Remember, that for the most part gardening in the 19th century in gardening was a time of muddle. No matter how small property was, no opportunity for display was lost. In that era, like the present time, there was so much garden material to choose from that excess rather than thoughtful moderation was the rule.
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