From Carpet-Bedding to the Edwardian Era

At the end of the nineteenth century, with imperialism and the British Empire at their height, a new wave of politics emerged in England, socialism. Influenced by John Ruskin, William Morris believed that socialism was ‘not a change for the sake of change, but a change involving a high and noble, the very noblest, ideal of human life and duty; a life in which every human being should find unrestricted scope for his best powers and faculties.’ [1]

Many supporters of this new political party were linked with the Arts and Crafts Movement who, shocked by the ‘shoddiness and ostentation of the Victorian Age of mass production’ [2] aimed to produce beautiful things. Morris thought that in order for man to do anything beautiful he must move away from the present to an epoch ‘which suits him and identify himself with that – he must be a thirteenth-century man, for instance’ [3].

He believed that a garden should not imitate Nature ‘but should look like a thing never to be seen except near a house. It should, in fact, look like a part of the house.’ [4]

Critical of ‘carpet-gardening’ and the import of plants from abroad, Morris’s philosophy was reflected in the gardens he created at the Red House and at Kelmscott with their small enclosures, garden walls, orchards and topiary.

Reginald Blomfield, architect and garden designer, published The Formal Garden in England in 1892. Like Morris, he believed that gardens should be orderly and distinct from Nature with the house and garden in harmony.

At the same time, another style of gardening was flourishing which unlike the Arts and Crafts Movement, embraced a more natural approach. One of its lead advocates was William Robinson who championed the ‘wild garden’ and the use of perennial plants. Robinson wrote articles for The Gardener’s Chronicle, published The Wild Garden in 1870 and started his own magazine The Garden the following year. Robinson wrote: ‘I hope to prove that the true way to the happiest design is not to have any stereotyped style for all the flower garden but that the best kind of garden grows out of the situation, as the primrose grows out of a cool bank.’ [5]

Bridging the two schools of thought was Gertrude Jeykll, one of the most influential gardening figures of her age. A prolific writer, artist, nurserywoman and garden designer, she was the first woman to be awarded the Victoria Medal of Honour of the Royal Horticultural Socienty in 1897. Greatly interested in the preservation of domestic architecture, Jekyll drove around country lanes, sketching and photographing cottages with her friend Sir Edwin Lutyens.

Although her eyesight was fading, Jekyll pursued her love of gardening and with Lutyens formed one of the most influential and historical partnerships in the twentieth century; they worked together on over three hundred projects. They shared Morris’s concept of the importance of the marriage between the house and the garden and as Christopher Hussey confirmed: ‘Miss Jekyll’s naturalistic planting wedded Lutyen’s geometry in a balanced union of both principles’. [6]

A wonderful example of their work can be seen at Hestercombe in Somerset.

In 1899, Jekyll described in Wood and Garden how the days of brightly-coloured plantings and carpet-bedding were over:

‘It is curious to look back at the old days of bedding-out, when that and that only meant gardening to most people, and to remember how the fashion, beginning in the larger gardens, made its way like a great inundating wave, submerging the lesser ones, and almost drowning out the beauties of the many little flowery cottage plots of our English waysides.’ [7]

Another great garden and landscape designer of the age was Harold Peto. Like Blomfield, Peto trained as an architect and worked on many country houses in Britain and Provence.

 
 

[1] William Morris, interview with Daily News, 8th January, 1885, p. 5;  as quoted in We Met Morris (ed. Tony Pinkney) Spire Books, p. 25

[2] Mavis Batey, Landscape with Flowers: The Background to Gertrude Jekyll’s Art  Garden History, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Spring, 1974), p.13

[3] William Morris, interview with Daily Chronicle, 9th October, 1893; as quoted We Met Morris (ed. Tony Pinkney) Spire Books, p. 76

[4] Fiona MacCarthy William Morris A Life for Our Time (faber and faber) 1994 p.156

[5] William Robinson, The English Flower Garden, 1883, p viii

[6] Christopher Hussey, Life of Sir Edwin Lutyens quoted in  Massingham, Betty. ‘William Robinson: A Portrait.’ Garden History, vol. 6, no. 1, 1978, p75. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1586557.

[7] Gerturde Jekyll, Wood and Garden (1899; reprinted 1983 by Papermac) p. 349