Gardens through time
Civilisations around the world have been creating gardens for thousands of years, usually for the enjoyment of the rich and powerful. In England, however, there is no evidence or record of ornamental gardens before the Roman conquest. Since then, garden designs have continued to evolve, influenced by the changing priorities and resources of their owners as well as the prevailing fashions.
Use this timeline to trace the evolution of gardens in England.
We know little about what gardens in Roman Britain may have looked like because very few have ever been excavated. However, it’s likely the Romans brought their garden designs with them from Italy, undoubtedly having to adapt them to suit the British climate. Archaeology in Italy reveals that gardens were typically laid out in an enclosed courtyard. They included spaces for dining as well as statues, fountains, pools and plants. In the wider landscape there were productive areas which may have included orchards, vineyards and olive groves.
The House of Vetti in Pompeii, Italy, with the garden reconstructed as it may have appeared in the 1st century AD. © PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy Stock Photo
Medieval gardens were not only used as places to grow fruit, vegetables and medicine, but also as places for recreation and contemplation. Small gardens could be found within castle walls with lawns, arbours and flower borders. Outside the castle, large areas were designed for entertainment and hunting, often including large buildings to host the festivities. In monasteries, monks grew plants for food, medicine and use in church services.
Illustrations of idealised medieval gardens such as this one provide insight into how such gardens might have looked. Detail of Emilia in her garden from La Teseida by Giovanni Boccaccio. © Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek
Tudor gardens were designed to impress. They often comprised a network of walled compartments each containing a different type of garden. This could include knot gardens, labyrinths, fish ponds and viewing mounts. Architectural features such as banqueting houses and fountains were also included. Tudor gardens continued to use medieval features but were increasingly influenced by ideas from Renaissance Italy.
The recreated Elizabethan garden at Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
By the end of the 17th century fashionable estates often included vast formal landscapes which reflected the power of the owner and were influenced by the gardens of France and Holland. These huge landscapes would usually have included a parterre – a flat terrace laid out in a decorative pattern meant to be seen from above. They also often incorporated long avenues of trees, statues, formal watercourses, mounts and a wilderness, together with new exotic plants.
A reconstruction showing the parterres in the West Garden at Kirby Hall, Northhamptonshire, as it may have appeared in the 17th century. © Historic England (illustration by Luís Taklim)
1714– ABOUT 1780Early Georgian
The 18th century was a period of dramatic change in English gardens. In the first half of the century owners and designers were inspired by the idealised landscape of antiquity. Early Georgian gardens often included temples, statues, grottos and lakes, designed to be visited on a circular walk. Later, ‘Capability’ Brown designed large parkland views with grass, serpentine lakes, tree clumps and long carriage drives. His style would influence hundreds of gardens across England at that time.
Capability Brown’s 1762 design for the landscape at Audley End, Essex
ABOUT 1780–1837Late Georgian
Towards the end of the 18th century, Brown’s designs were going out of fashion and a new aesthetic idea, known as the picturesque, was introduced. It favoured wild and untamed landscapes and criticised Brown’s landscapes for being bland, repetitive and artificial. Humphry Repton, another landscape gardener of the period, initially followed Brown’s style, but later he explored the ideas of the picturesque and discussed them in his writings. Repton’s new approach to design revived formal flower gardens and terraces near the house while keeping Brown’s approach to the parkland beyond.
Repton produced a design for Kenwood, north London, in the 1790s. This engraving shows the landscape in 1825. © Look and Learn/Peter Jackson Collection/Bridgeman Images
In this period there was an explosion of innovation and interest in gardening and plants. Parterres were filled with intricate patterns of multi-coloured gravel or brightly coloured exotic plants grown in technologically advanced greenhouses. Italian style balustrades and terraces surrounded country houses, creating places to walk and view the surrounding landscape and parkland. Plants and trees were being collected from all over the world and gardens were designed to include these new introductions, from rockeries to arboretums.
The east parterre at Witley Court, Worcestershire, from the air
By the 20th century garden trends had become heavily influenced by the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement, which had been popularised by figures such as William Morris. Arts and Crafts gardens combined structured layouts and architecture with more informal, natural looking planting. Designs included long borders with exuberant, colourful planting and pergolas covered with climbing plants. Many of these Arts and Crafts elements are common in gardens today and often associated with what is considered a traditional English cottage garden.
The Rose Garden at Eltham Palace, south-east London, a garden designed in the Arts and Craft style, photographed in 1937. © Alfred E. Henson/Country Life Picture Library
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Learn more about the parterre gardens at our sites. These formal gardens are distinguished by their ornamental arrangement of flower beds laid out in intricate designs,
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