Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Naturally Artificial: The Pre-Raphaelite Garden Enclosed

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Naturally Artificial: The Pre-Raphaelite Garden Enclosed

Article excerpt

The garden historian Brent Elliott tells us that the mid-Victorian revival of the enclosed garden "was not primarily a scholarly movement" but an artistic one and cites depictions of such gardens in the pictures of "many of the Pre-Raphaelite circle" as evidence. (1) W. H. Mallock's satirical 1872 recipe for making "a modern Pre-Raphaelite poem" also recognizes the prominence of the walled garden motif in Pre-Raphaelite work. Among his key ingredients are "damozels" placed "in a row before a stone wall, with an apple-tree between each and some large flowers at their feet." (2) He is probably thinking of the frontispiece of William Morris's The Earthly Paradise, a volume whose title evokes an enclosed garden; as the landscape architects Rob Aben and Saskia De Wit point out, the word "Paradise is derived from the Persian word Pairidaeza, literally meaning 'surrounded by walls.'" (3) I want to demonstrate that it is this sense of what the garden theorist Stephanie Ross calls "surroundedness" that attracts Pre-Raphaelites to the enclosed garden. Ross writes that "being surrounded" provides "a basic sensory and kinesthetic" experience signifying "comfort, security, passivity, rest, privacy, intimacy, sensory focus, and concentrated attention." (4) Walled gardens, in other words, provide the material and metaphorical conditions for experiencing and making art.

Focusing on Christina Rossetti's poems "On Keats" (1849) and "Shut Out" (1856), Charles Collins's painting Convent Thoughts (1851), and William Morris's poem "The Defence of Guenevere" (1858), I want to examine the ways in which Pre-Raphaelitism begins to conceive of the walled garden as an analogue of both contemporary art and artistic consciousness. (5) I will argue that the Pre-Raphaelite revival of the enclosed garden modernizes what was once a medieval space by remaking the traditional hortus conclusus in the image of the nineteenth-century artistic mind. Furthermore, I will demonstrate how the enclosed garden's paradoxical nature (open/closed, natural/artificial, free/constrained) contributes to the Pre-Raphaelite portrayal of consciousness as fluid, multivalent, and self-generating. The early examples of enclosed gardens discussed here are important because they dramatize tensions that lie at the very heart of Pre-Raphaelitism, a movement whose pursuit of "truth to nature" can seem at odds with the requirements of artistic representation. Understood in the context of the horticultural revival of the enclosed garden, these artistic depictions of garden space can refine how we interpret the movement's realism. Despite the Pre-Raphaelites' reputation for representing the natural world with "microscopic" intensity, their interest in nature is not primarily scientific or botanical; they do not seek to make discoveries about cellular structure or the cultivation of plant species but rather to discover in the natural world "truths" about human nature and the artistic imagination. (6) I will argue that Pre-Raphaelite portrayals of enclosed gardens celebrate interiority, subjectivity, and generative consciousness, privileging the mind over nature.

I want to begin by suggesting that early Pre-Raphaelite representations of walled gardens participate in the "revolution in aesthetics" that Brent Elliott identifies in the nineteenth-century "overthrow of the landscape garden" (p. 7). Eighteenth-century landscape gardens encouraged garden visitors to "follow nature" by arranging "garden features" and "scenery" to "inevitably invoke particular responses" (p. 8). Seeking to imitate the natural world, these gardens concealed their own artificiality by disguising their borders and boundaries, making them appear as part of the "natural" landscape. For example, ha-has, woodlands, and sunken ditches were designed to draw attention away from themselves as aesthetic objects and from human intervention in the garden. (7) Horace Walpole's influential essay "On Modern Gardening" promotes this approach, recommending that the English garden should aspire to "no other art than that of softening Nature's harshness and copying her graceful touch. …

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