A Brief History of British Garden Design

Nearly two millennia since the Romans first introduced pleasure gardens to Britain, the UK is still a nation of garden lovers, with a long and rich tradition of garden design that places it at the very top of the industry.  To understand how British gardens have evolved over that time and how cultural influences have shaped each historical era, the Society of Garden Designers commissioned garden historian Angelica Gray to produce an illustrated garden history poster, charting the evolution of the garden from 43AD to today.

Angelica writes: “Everything has a history and gardens are no exception: in Britain we can trace our garden history back two thousand years, which is pretty amazing. But what is the point in contemporary designers being familiar with past styles, historic garden heroes and a trugful of dates? We want to persuade you that it is profoundly important for designers and their clients to understand that they are making history with their choices, and that those choices are a reflection of our present society. In looking at the past we are better able to understand ourselves and to dig deeper into how gardens work, not only as living spaces to be enjoyed, but as significant cultural artefacts.

“The period styles outlined in the poster each have something to say about the era in which they were conceived. Gardens are slow to grow, often expensive and therefore slow to change too but they have always been subject to changes in fashion and ideas. Many now absorbed into what we view as a tradition were once daring and cutting edge designs. It is usual to experience a garden as a sensual pleasure but they also have an historical context, reflecting areas of experience as diverse as political divides, education, literature, social class, philosophy, gender politics, scientific advances, empire and power. Technological changes inspired new features which the modern visitor takes for granted. The long and winding driveways of the later English Landscape style were made in response to improvements to carriage suspension making travel more comfortable.

“All design ideas are subject to the zeitgeist; even the nature of Nature itself is subject to philosophical debate. The Medieval garden was a refuge from its dangers, the Romantic garden celebrated the thrill of the wild and the Victorian garden was a showcase for man the omniscient collector. Garden design today is responding to signifiant changes in our relationship with nature and many other issues of a broadly political nature. Climate change, sustainabiity and water conservation require us to challenge an old orthodoxy; adapting to new plants, methods and ultimately a radical new aesthetic. A philosophical change to a non-anthropocentric view of the planet implies design which advocates for a species-rich garden space. Ethical questions of colonisation, native versus exotic, cultural appropriation, inclusivity, diversity and mental health to name but a few are subjects for discussion. There is a lot going on in the garden these days.

“Understanding the preoccupations of past generations highlights those of our own time. Old solutions to problems, such as water conservation, can offer valuable insight and experience. It is inevitably part of the creative process to understand where we have been to better decide in which direction we are heading. Partnering with clients to arrive at a garden which is sustainable, meaningful as well as beautiful in the context of our shared garden history and future has to be a worthwhile  ambition. History is memory; it is witness and knowledge – let’s celebrate the wonderful resource which is our garden history.”  Angelica Gray

Download the poster here.

Images. Top: Hauser & Wirth, Somerset. Garden by Piet Oudolf.  Josie Elias / Alamy stock photo.   Bottom: Gravetye Manor & Gardens, West Sussex