Writers, poets, painters and philosophers as well as gardeners, designers, owners and horticulturalists have helped to shape the UK’s historic parks and gardens over the last 1000 years.
Many of the landscapes that they inspired or created can still be enjoyed today, and where they have disappeared their historic legacy lives on.
Early gardens and their writers
Gardens were created in Roman Britain and through into the Middle Ages, but often little is known about them beyond their owner’s name. Medieval gardens were celebrated in literature and art, which show how they were laid out and the features and plants they contained.
By the late 14th century, Jon Gardener published what was in effect the first practical gardening book, although it was in the form of a poem: The Feate of Gardeninge.
The increased availability of books in the 16th century led to many published lists of plants and their uses, known as ‘herbals’, most notably those by William Turner and John Gerard.
Two books looked beyond the plants to the gardens that could be created with them: The Gardeners Labyrinth by Thomas Hill, published in 1577 and John Parkinson’s work, Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, published in 1629. (The title was a play on the author’s name, meaning ‘Park-in-Sun’s Park on Earth’).
Bringing the plants of the world to Britain
By the end of the 16th century, most aristocrats wanted to improve their estate with a garden, and architects such as Robert Smythson began to design landscape as well as houses.
The plant discoveries made by John Tradescant the Elder and John Tradescant the Younger (both royal gardeners) increased interest in exotic species in the early 17th century. The writers Sir Francis Bacon and John Evelyn inspired those with the means to develop their land, while designers such as Isaac de Caus helped to turn the ideas into reality.
When Charles II returned to the throne in 1660, new design ideas came from France and Holland with the returning aristocrats who had fled abroad during the English Civil War. Many professional nurseries opened to meet the high demand for plants.
The best known of these was the Brompton Park Nursery, founded in 1681 by George London, Roger Looker, Moses Cook and John Field. London later went into partnership with Henry Wise and together they were responsible for the design of many of the great formal landscapes of the late 17th and early 18th century.
Although most of London and Wise’s landscapes were swept away in the following century, the painter, Leonard Knyff and engraver, Johannes Kip, captured them for posterity.
Sir John Vanbrugh, who also worked during this period, was responsible for some of the finest baroque architecture and gardens, most notably Castle Howard.
Philosophy, politics and science
The early 18th century is known as the Age of the Enlightenment. In botany, Thomas Fairchild experimented with plant breeding, creating the first hybrid, known as ‘Fairchild’s Mule’.
In poetry and philosophy, a rediscovery of classical imagery and the importance of nature was championed by Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope. Landscape designers Charles Bridgeman and William Kent put these ideas into practice and the trend for ‘improved nature’ became unstoppable by the middle of the 18th century when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, started his career.
The owners of estates such as Lord Burlington, Charles Hamilton and Henry Hoare also left their mark with inspirational landscapes that remain to this day.
New plants continued to arrive, particularly trees and shrubs from North America, thanks to John Bartram and Peter Collinson. Their spread was helped by amateur botanists such as Lord Petre and professionals like nurseryman Philip Miller and Thomas Knowlton, head gardener to Lord Burlington in Yorkshire.
Later in the 18th century, botanic gardens such as Kew, under the direction of Sir Joseph Banks, sent out plant-finding expeditions to South Africa and Australasia.
The desire for new plants continued into the 19th and 20th centuries, fuelled by the discoveries of David Douglas in North America and Robert Fortune, George Forrest, Ernest Wilson and Frank Kingdon-Ward in Asia.
The huge variety of different plants available changed the style of gardens in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Landscape gardener Humphry Repton began to make much greater use of flowers around the house.
Gardening for all
These new, smaller flower gardens were made popular among the emerging middle class by the journalist and writer, John Loudon and his wife, Jane Loudon.
John Loudon and Joseph Paxton were responsible for some of the first public parks in the 1830s and 1840s. In private gardens, designers William Andrews Nesfield and Sir Charles Barry introduced formal layouts in an Italianate style, with lots of annual plants ‘bedded out’ in complex schemes.
By the end of the century, the writer William Robinson and the designer Gertrude Jekyll had introduced a more informal style of planting which used shrubs and herbaceous perennials rather than carpet bedding. Jekyll and the architect, Edwin Lutyens, created the definitive gardens of the Edwardian era.
The gardens of Jekyll and Lutyens, and the work of landscape architects such as Sir Reginald Blomfield, Thomas Mawson, Harold Peto and Henry Ernest Milner continued to influence gardens through the 20th century. Garden owners such as Vita Sackville-West, Lawrence Johnston and Christopher Lloyd combined strong structure with generous, relaxed planting.
During the years between the two world wars, from 1919 to 1938, Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe and Russell Page worked together and both continued to have a major influence after 1945.
In the 1950s, landscape architects such as Sylvia Crowe and Frank Gibberd shaped the rebuilding of Britain after World War 2, working in particular on public projects. In the last half of the 20th century designers such as Ian Hamilton Finlay and Charles Jencks, experimented with new ideas.
Concern about preserving our historic landscapes led to the creation of the Garden History Society in 1965. Society members led by Mavis Batey began to research historic landscapes, and this work led to the first register of listed parks and gardens, compiled by Christopher Thacker in 1984.