Landscape Gardening: A Definition.

SOME of the Fine Arts appeal to the ear, others to the eye. The latter are the Arts of Design, and they are usually named as three—Architecture, Sculpture and Painting. A man who practices one of these in any of its branches is an artist; other men who work with forms and colors are at the best but artisans. This is the popular belief. But in fact there is a fourth art which has a right to be rated with the others, which is as fine as the finest, and which demands as much of its professors in the way of creative power and executive skill as the most difficult. This is the art whose purpose it is to create beautiful compositions upon the surface of the ground.

The mere statement of its purpose is sufficient to establish its rank. It is the effort to produce organic beauty—to compose a beautiful whole with a number of related parts—which makes a man an artist; neither the production of a merely useful organism nor of a single beautiful detail suffices. A clearly told story or a single beautiful word is not a work of art—only a story told in beautifully connected words. A solidly and conveniently built house, if it is nothing more, is not a work of architecture, nor is an isolated stone, however lovely in shape and surface. A delightful tint, a graceful line, does not make a picture; and though the painter may reproduce ugly models he must put some kind of beauty into the reproduction if it is to be esteemed above any other manufactured article—if not beauty of form, then beauty of color or of meaning or at least of execution. Similarly, when a man disposes the surface of the soil with an eye to crops alone he is an agriculturist; when he grows plants for their beauty as isolated objects he is a horticulturist; but when he disposes ground and plants together to produce organic beauty of effect, he is an artist with the best.

Yet though all the fine arts are thus akin in general purpose they differ each from each in many ways. And in the radical differences which exist between the landscape-gardener’s and all the others we find some reasons why its affinity with them is so commonly ignored. One difference is that it uses the same materials as nature herself. In what is called “natural” gardening it uses them to produce effects which under fortunate conditions nature might produce without man’s aid. Then, the better the result, the less likely it is to be recognized as an artificial—artistic-result. The more perfectly the artist attains his aim, the more likely we are to forget that he has been at work. In “formal ” gardening, on the other hand, nature’s materials are disposed and treated in frankly unnatural ways; and then-as a more or less intelligent love for natural beauty is very common to-day, and an intelligent eye for art is rare—the artist’s work is apt to be resented as an impertinence, denied its right to its name, called a mere contorting and disfiguring of his materials.

Again, the landscape-gardener’s art differs from all others in the unstable character of its productions. When surfaces are modeled and plants arranged, nature and the artist must work a long time together before the true result appears; and when once it has revealed itself, day to day attention will be forever needed to preserve it from the deforming effects of time. It is easy to see how often neglect or interference must work havoc with the best intentions, how often the passage of years must travesty or destroy the best results, how rare must be the cases in which a work of landscape art really does justice to its creator.

Still another thing which affects popular recognition of the art as such is our lack of clearly understood terms by which to speak of it and of those who practice it. “Gardens” once meant pleasure-grounds of every kind and “gardener” then had an adequately artistic sound. But as the significance of the one term has been gradually specialized, so the other has gradually come to denote a mere grower of plants. “Landscape gardener” was a title first used by the artists of the eighteenth century to mark the new tendency which they represented—the search for “natural” as opposed to “formal” beauty; and it seemed to them to need an apology as savoring, perhaps, of grandiloquence or conceit. But as taste declined in England it was assumed by men who had not the slightest right, judged either by their aims or by their results, to be considered artists; and to-day it is fallen into such disesteem that it is often replaced by “landscape architect.” This title has French usage to support it and is in many respects a good one. But its correlative—”landscape architecture” —is unsatisfactory; and so, on the other hand, is “landscape artist,” though “landscape art ” is an excellent generic term. Perhaps the best we can do is to keep to “landscape gardener,” and try to remember that it ought always to mean an artist and an artist only.

M G. van Rensselaer, Garden and Forest, v1.1 February 29, 1888, p. 2

This discussion of terminology is an essential part of professionalizing landscape gardening as a techne. The essay makes it clear that gardening must be contrasted with atechnic “natural” beauty: to call gardening natural is oxymoronic. The shift into “wilder” notions of beauty seemingly necessitates the abandonment of the term “artist” because it suggests that the landscape is formally contrived (the seventeenth through mid-eighteenth century neoclassical version of a beautiful garden).

But the truly interesting thing is the fact that gardens were “landscaped” at a time where nature was presented in a variety of “views” rather than a singular landscape. I suspect that the term “landscape” was also suffering growing pains at this time—with no clear distinction between natural and artificial varieties.