Earthy Delights: Denise Silvester-Carr Follows the Path through Literature, History, Art and Horticulture That Leads to the British Library's Latest Exhibition

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SOME OF THE GREAT WRITING IN HISTORY has been about gardens, both real and imaginary. As the Year of Gardening comes to a close, it seems appropriate that the British Library should round it off with 'The Writer in the Garden', a major exhibition that will look at the relationship between writers, their ideas, and gardens down the centuries. The emphasis will be on the writer and topographical views, manuscripts and other rare material drawn from the Library's incomparable holdings and will illustrate their contribution to horticulture.

A Winter Garden, to be created in the Piazza by the gardener and writer Dan Pearson, will draw visitors into the Library where they will be able to stroll through paths of different ages. They will see how writers have been inspired by gardens; how, in turn, writers have influenced the creation of gardens; and how their visions have been interpreted by artists, cartographers and landscape designers.

The exhibition will be roughly divided into four sections, beginning in medieval times when the Garden of Eden or Paradise appeared in various guises in real gardens and in devotional literature. Most of what we know of these gardens comes from illuminated manuscripts and paintings which clearly show an overlap between real and imagined gardens. Every element of the garden had a symbolic meaning. The Song of Song's hortus conclusus, or enclosed garden, usually showed a rose arbour--a symbol of virginity--with the Virgin Mary surrounded by images, sometimes sacred, sometimes profane. Plants and animals had their own symbolism. The lily stood for purity; the forget-me-not was for remembrance, a squirrel for female sexuality, and the peacock symbolised resurrection. Water was also a potent symbol and a fountain in the garden could represent, among other things, the four rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden, the lout gospels, or youth. In the illuminated Roman de la Rose the rose represents purity and virtue but a contradiction occurs when the lover tries to pluck it.

The great Renaissance gardens of Italy and France were often seen as a reflection of the intellectual interests of their owners and their historical meanings were sometimes overlaid with academic and philosophical themes. Gardens were designed as settings for thoughtful discussion, intellectual exercise being complemented by entertainment and physical activity. Geometric designs and mechanical devices all sought to investigate, experiment with, or even recreate the purity of an Edenic order. Gardens laid out on mathematical principles contained fountains, grottoes, automata and emblematic tableaux that demonstrated man's mastery, of Prospero's 'natural magic'. Highlights of this section will include Book IV of Milton's Paradise Lost, describing Satan's arrival in the Garden of Eden, an edition of Shakespeare's The Tempest and Milton's family bible in which be detailed--opposite the opening of Genesis--various family events in his own hand.

By the early eighteenth century the natural world had begun to intrude on the rigid formality of the enclosed garden. The owners of large estates were encouraged to create pictures of idealised nature, the main elements being grass and trees with water and buildings carefully sited to give a local point to views and allow the wandering eye a resting place. …