Academic journal article Change Over Time

GARDENS, MEMORY, AND HISTORY: The Shakespeare and Modern Elizabethan Garden

Academic journal article Change Over Time

GARDENS, MEMORY, AND HISTORY: The Shakespeare and Modern Elizabethan Garden

Article excerpt

The experience of a garden seems at first quintessential^ present: the encounter intensely engages the senses, especially sight and smell, and demands our living in the moment. But every garden has a past: some are short-lived, but others have histories that stretch back for centuries. Gardens exist in this moment of time, but inevitably they evoke a time before them, whether materially in their plants, walls, or art, or conceptually in their design's echo of other gardens long gone.

My subject in this essay is modernity's encounter with the early modern garden, as expressed in Elizabethan garden recreations and the genre's subspecies, the Shakespeare garden. Most often such gardens strive to connect us to a historical moment, but more profoundly, they reveal our nostalgia for a largely imaginary Britain long gone, rooted in literature and art as well as history. In a garden recreation, we seek a sensory apprehension of a moment in the past, but such gardens inevitably remain alive in the present environment and the modern imagination.

In his book The Past Is a Foreign Country, David Lowenthal investigates in great detail our complex relationship to the past, a past he claims we both yearn for and shun. He explores how, in multiple ways, we "conjure up" a past that is "largely an artifact of the present": "The past," he says, "is a foreign country whose features are shaped by today's predilections, its strangeness domesticated by our own preservation of its vestiges."1 Lowenthal's book explores hundreds of acts of both preservation and recreation of the past in Europe and America, but says little about gardens or landscapes. Garden-making may involve recasting or even destroying an old plot to make it new, but garden design most often looks backward, creatively adapting elements of earlier garden styles, or more fundamentally, restoring the past.2

Gardens present a special case for restoration and recreation, because they are living, changing things. Graham Stuart Thomas and Geoffrey Jellicoe once noted the simple truth that gardens are "constantly developing and decaying. . . . They change not only with the passing years but also with the seasons and even the time of day."3 But that change is not only natural: it is also the result of human intervention. As John Dixon Hunt has noted in the case of the garden at Stowe, "we cannot date 'Stowe': what we name Stowe is a site that evolved and continues to evolve decade after decade," through its transformations in the hands of its owners and gardeners.4

A garden's link with the past is imagined as organic as well as symbolic. We can believe that a living plant - a chamomile or lavender - looks and smells the same as it did long ago, even though the record of the hybridization tells us otherwise. Thus we sense that through the substance of the plants themselves we may touch the past. In the scholarship on cultural heritage much has been written of the "aura" of the artifact or object, drawing on Walter Benjamin's thoughts on "the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction": aura emanates from the object's unique existence in time and place, or its "authenticity." However, plants complicate the notion of authenticity, because they are both alive and organically reproducible. The flower or tree that is grown from a seed or slip of its "parent" can be thought to partake in the "original" but it is never exactly the same.

In the late Victorian period John Sedding expressed a common desire to find the past in old gardens: "Dead men's traits," he wrote, "are exemplified here. The dead hand still holds sway, the pictures it conjures still endure, its cunning is not forgotten. . . . Really, not less than metaphorically, the garden-growths do keep green the memories of the men and women who placed them here, as the flower that is dead still holds its perfume."5 This fantasy is most tellingly represented in a common feature in garden recreations, which is a very old tree or plant, or one grown from the graft of an older one: how many Shakespeare gardens wish to claim a tree grown from the slip of the mulberry that Shakespeare himself planted in his garden? …

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