What is a Formal Garden

What is a Formal Garden

In the early days of gardening in the British Isles, garden designs were based on geometric patterns, always emphasizing regularity of form. During Elizabethan times topiary and terraces with heraldic beasts as ornaments, and quiet lawns were the order of the day; trees were always planted in a row or regular pattern. Later, avenues became longer, `walks’, square fish ponds, and mazes or labyrinths were constructed and parterres of the most intricate design represented the height of garden beauty and decoration.

These parterres were intricately designed, the outline traced in clipped hedges, often very low and usually of box, the interstices filled, either with plants or colored stones and other minerals, one color to a space, to form a pattern in the parterre garden as a whole. There were frequent variations on this theme, height being added by clipped trees, often cut into formal shapes, but always the gardener’s handiwork imposed formal arrangement upon nature.

Frequently great vistas were treated in this way, always executed on level ground and matching the design of the house. Terraces and vantage points were usually constructed so that these large designs could be looked down upon and enjoyed as a whole. Examples still exist at Cliveden, in Buckinghamshire, and at Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk, where from the high gatehouse one can look down upon the formal garden.

Thus, up to the eighteenth century, every garden was formal, regularly designed and ornamented with topiary, statues, arbours and fountains. Pope and Addison had in their writings loudly criticized formality and when Lancelot (`Capability) Brown some years later advocated the great sweeping aside of the closely designed plots in favor of landscape effects, such great parks as Longleat, Harewood House and Blenheim were created. Humphry Repton, working in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, followed in Brown’s footsteps, although his schemes were not on as large a scale and he made the transition between house and garden more gradual by introducing terraces and balustraded walks. But the great sweep towards the natural, spacious style, where plants were used to emulate nature in woodland, water gardens and stonework continued; except for a sudden retrogression during Victorian days.

Then intricate and elaborate bedding schemes became fashionable. Carpet bedding was used for effect and drawing-board design returned to the flower garden. Since then, chiefly through the work and writing of William Robinson and his followers, natural planting schemes have been very widely used, exploiting plant color, form and texture in many ways. But formality still had its adherents in such men as Sir Reginald Blomfield, Harold Peto and Sir Edwin Lutyens, all architects.

Modern examples of formal gardens are those of several private houses designed by Lutyens, the gardens perfectly integrated into the design by his partner Miss Gertrude Jekyll. Such places as Orchards, Godalming (1896), The Deanery at Sonning, on the Thames (1899) and Tyringham, Buckinghamshire (1924) were designed by this remarkable partnership Around the turn of the century Major Lawrence Johnston, architect and artist, started to make his famous garden at Hidcote Bartrim, Gloucestershire, one of the finest examples of a formal garden, although it is informally planted. It consists, in fact, of a number of gardens, separated by fine hedges, each one a perfect garden on its own.

Examples of formal gardens open to the public in England are Belton House, Lincolnshire; Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire; Cliveden, Buckinghamshire; Compton Wynyates, Warwickshire; Easton Neston, Northamptonshire; Hampton Court, Middlesex; Haseley Court, Oxfordshire; Hidcote, Gloucestershire; Holkham Hall, Norfolk; Lanhydrock (rose garden), Cornwall; Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk; Packwood House, Warwickshire; Shrubland Park, Suffolk; Wight-wick Manor, Staffordshire.

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