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Twentieth-Century Landscapes

An Introduction

Dr Barbara Simms is a garden and landscape historian with a particular Interest in the history, conservation and interpretation of gardens since 1900. Here she provides an introduction to twentieth-century landscapes, the culture in which they were developed and why they are important today. An Introduction to Twentieth-Century Landscapes

Further reading

Twentieth-Century Gardens and Landscapes Select Reading List

English Heritage Landscape Advice Note: Examples of post 1945 Designed Landscapes included on the Register of Parks and Gardens

The 20th century landscape:heritage or horror?
Peter Wakelin, Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings with Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, explores the many aspects of the 20th century which we may one day come to cherish.

Percy Cane was one of England's great garden designers of the Twentieth Century. The  English Heritage Archive has a collection of photographs and printed copies of plans and sketches of gardens designed by Percy Cane in the 1920s-1960s.

Relevant Parks & Gardens UK database records

Click here to view a list of over 600 twentieth-century park/garden site records on our database. If you would like to narrow down the search or try a different search, you can do so using the Advanced Search.

Conference proceedings

Landscapes of the Recent Future: Conserving the Twentieth Century's Landscape Design Legacy


6-8 September 2013- The Association of Gardens Trusts Annual Conference                     Eastern Promise: Transforming London's Landscapes: from Abercrombie to the Olympics

At the same time as the Arts and Crafts Movement was continuing to influence interwar England, a new movement had begun in mainland Europe. Based on a similar desire to produce craftsmen-made rather than machine-made goods, but using contemporary materials and new ways with form and colour, its chief advocate was the German architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969). In 1919, he established the Bauhaus School at Weimar, the start of what later became called the Modern Movement. Modernists wanted to create modes of artistic expression appropriate to the current social situation and the ‘spirit of the age’ – the Zeitgeist. They also had a utopian desire to create a better world and generally believed in technology as the key to social improvement. Although primarily influential in the design of houses, furniture, household items and typography, modernism extended its thrust ‘to make new’ to other areas, such as literature, painting, sculpture, music and, to a limited extent, the design of gardens.


Examples in England include Joldwynds, Holmbury St Mary, Surrey (1925), by the architect Oliver Hill (1887-1968) and St Anne’s Hill, Chertsey (1935) and Bentley Wood, Sussex (1938) by Christopher Tunnard. Tunnard was influential in the 1930s in changing views about garden and landscape design, believing that the purpose of the garden was to provide rest, recreation and beauty. His seminal book Gardens in the Modern Landscape (1938) proposed three sources of inspiration for modern garden design – ‘functionalism, the oriental influence and modern art’. Also influential on British design were ideas from mainland Europe and the Americas. In France, Gabriel Guvrenkian (1900-70) created a ‘modern’ garden for the Villa Noailles in the south of France (1926), based on his 1925 show garden at the Paris Exposition Internationale des Arts Decoratifs et Industriels Modernes; and Le Corbusier (1887-1965) the influential Villa Savoye, outside Paris (1928) set in a grassy ‘Virgilian dream’. Also with the purpose of reconnecting with nature, in the United States, Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) designed Fallingwater (1939), a house in the Pennsylvania forest built over a waterfall; and Thomas Church (1902-78) fashioned the Donnell garden at Sonoma, California, to reflect the curves of the adjoining salt marshes. In South America, the abstract and fluid garden designs of the Brazilian painter turned plantsman and landscaper, Roberto Burle Marx (1909-94) demonstrated his skill in using contrasting forms and textures of hard landscaping and native planting. The influence of the Modern Movement in England, however, was brief and limited, not only because it was incompletely understood in landscape terms by many, but because its development was interrupted by the outbreak of war in 1939. In the aftermath of the Second World War, economical restraints, the concern to rebuild the public landscape and the desire to retreat to the safer, familiar gardens of a previous era meant that few progressive designs were seen in private gardens.


Nearly three million new suburban houses were built in Britain between 1930 and 1940, results of research into  their gardens indicating that the typical interwar suburban garden was owner designed rather than laid out professionally. It was a pastiche of the idealized country-house garden, and contained miniature versions of features such as rock, water and rose gardens. Such new housing was often on unprotected countryside and stimulated an increasing awareness of the consequences of such development, although effective legislation on town and country planning did not occur until after World War Two. The architect and landscape designer Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978) and others, such as the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (founded 1926) were increasingly conscious of the damage being done to the rural landscape in the name of progress - ribbon development, trunk roads and advertisement hoardings - and William-Ellis’s polemical books, England and the Octopus (1928) and Britain and the Beast (1938) were published to curb such despoliation.


Any progress towards protecting the built and natural environment was brought to an abrupt halt in 1939, but planning to ‘rebuild’ Britain was top priority during the war years, confirming the place of garden designers and landscape architects in post-war reconstruction from new towns to public gardens, reservoirs, power stations and motorways. By the late 1940s Britain was also making plans for a grand celebration, the Festival of Britain, a further opportunity for landscape designers to demonstrate what they could do. The Festival, held on London’s South Bank in 1951, gave people a taste for accessible, instant gardening and inspired an influx of popular gardening publications.


The post-war boom in housing led to much that was undesirable in environmental quality and to counter this, the architect Eric Lyons began work with Span, a development consortium, to produce private housing in a carefully designed landscape. Lyons’s concept of ‘housing for ordinary people’, evolved as distinctive Scandinavian-style buildings, the landscape flowing ‘around the buildings without the interruption of hedges or individual front gardens’ and, developed 1948-84, was influential on the design of later state and private housing developments.

Thomas Church had thrown down a challenge to garden owners in 1950s California ‘to take a long and earnest look’ at what they wanted from a garden. The young garden and landscape designer John Brookes (b. 1933) did the same in 1960s Britain, stating that ‘we have allowed ourselves to be conned into believing that the garden is only a set-piece for showing off plants’ when it is instead ‘fundamentally a place for use by people’. Since the publication of his seminal book Room Outside in 1969, the concept of the room outside has become part of contemporary British lifestyle.


The work of architect and landscape architect Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-96) was at the forefront of the movement to establish landscape architecture as a profession. His design ideas were influenced by modern art and by theories of the unconscious, an interest that developed in 1964 during his work on the building of the Kennedy Memorial at Runnymede, a landscape developed as an allegory of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Much of Jellicoe’s later work, for example at Sutton Place in Surrey, was designed as similar journeys of discovery. The later Scottish gardens of Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) at Little Sparta (mid-1960s) and Charles Jencks (b. 1939) at Portrack (1988) might be also be considered comparable journeys, a meeting of the artist’s and landscape designer’s skills. The development of a more interactive, environmental approach to landscape emerged in the 1970s as land art, an early example being Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970), on the shore of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. More familiar to current audiences are the creations of artists such as Andy Galsworthy (b. 1956), Alison Crowther (b. 1965) and Peter Randal-Page (b. 1954).


The second part of the twentieth century saw an increased concern with the environmental aspects of garden and landscape design. Plantswomen such as Marjorie Fish (1892–1969) at East Lambrook Manor and Beth Chatto (b. 1923) at her Essex home had been using both native and exotic plants (often with an emphasis on the conservation of the former) to create unusual planting combinations from the late interwar period. The underlying philosophy was ‘the right plant in the right place’ or ‘designing with nature’, both phrases being incorporated into the titles of influential books by Beth Chatto and the landscape architect Ian McHarg (1920-2001).


The publication in 1962 of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1907-64) was a wake-up call to the damage man was inflicting on the environment, in particular by the use of chemicals, and was the spur for rethinking gardening techniques. The establishment and increasing popularity of organizations such as HDRA (now Garden Organic), Geoff Hamilton’s promotion of organic gardening on the television programme Gardeners’ World and similar incentives led to approaches to planting more in keeping with sound environmental principles. The design and planting of gardens from 1970 has demonstrated an intoxicating mix of experimentation, imagination, horticultural knowledge and vision. A style which has gained a following in recent years is the ‘bold romantic garden’ of Wolfgang Oehme and James van Sweden based on broad drifts of native grasses and perennials. Similarly, the work of Piet Oudolf and Tom Stuart-Smith using grasses and plant masses has become increasingly popular.


What, then, has been the contribution of twentieth-century gardens, garden designers and approaches to planting to garden-making in the twenty-first century? The herbaceous borders typical of ‘the golden afternoon’ of Edwardian gardens still exist and are still being created, although often in National Trust rather than private gardens. The post-modern, rather theme-park-like creations of Charles Jencks and, more recently, the Duchess of Northumbria at Alnick, continue to arouse interest and criticism, as well as visitors. In the twenty-first century many garden and landscape designers are multi-dimensional in their thinking and the design process is likely to be informed by a broad range of ideas and diversions, including formal works of art, the cinema and photography. Conceptual gardens, more like art installations than traditional plant orientated gardens, are prominently displayed at shows and, sometimes, in real life, such as the ‘Orpheus’ garden (2007) designed by Kim Wilkie (b. 1959) at Boughton, Northamptonshire, for the Duke of Buccleuch. Most significantly, environmental awareness has been the biggest factor to change the way people garden in the twenty-first century. Furthermore, the rise of amenity societies, the Garden History Society, county and metropolitan gardens trusts, and guidelines and policies relating to the historic environment has firmly reinstated the role of individuals and local communities in the care and enjoyment of green spaces. Such factors will be at the heart of public and private gardens of the twenty-first century.