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Title: The garden as a picture

Author: Beatrix Farrand

Illustrator: Henry McCarter

Release date: December 5, 2022 [eBook #69479]

Language: English

Original publication: United States: Extract from Scribner's magazine, v. 42, no. 1, July, 1907, 1907

Credits: Richard Tonsing and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team at (This book was produced from images made available by the HathiTrust Digital Library.)


Transcriber’s Note:

The cover image was created by the transcriber and is placed in the public domain.


Garden of the Villa of Castello.


By Beatrix Jones
Illustrations by Henry McCarter

Garden literature of to-day, as we all know, does not confine itself merely to flowers, insects, and the weather, but is equally authoritative as to astronomy, cookery, philosophy, and even matrimony. Some quotations from old writings, however, come back over and over again, like the burden of a song, and we have grown so accustomed to them that we feel almost defrauded if a garden book does not open with the first sentence of Bacon’s stately essay. These books have done much good in making people realize that gardens are not pieces of ground kept solely for the delight of gardeners of the old school, who seem to have spent their time in designing flower-beds of intricate pattern filled with bedding plants so atrocious in color that a kaleidoscope is Quakerish in comparison. They have also taught the great essential of gardening, that in order to have good gardens we must really care for the plants in them and know them individually as well as collectively. This is an important part of the technique of the garden-maker; he must know intimately the form and texture as well as the color of all the plants he uses; for plants are to the gardener what his palette is to a painter. The two arts of painting and garden design are closely related, except that the landscape gardener paints with actual color, line, and perspective to make a composition, as the maker of stained glass does, while the painter has but a flat surface on which to create his illusion; he has, however, the incalculable advantage that no sane person would think of going behind a picture to see if it were equally interesting from that point of view.

The painter has another great advantage over the gardener, because, as he cannot possibly transfer to canvas the millions of colors and shadows which make up the most ordinary landscape, he must eliminate so 3many that his presentment becomes more or less conventional, just as a playwright must recognize the conventions of the stage, and these limitations are taken for granted by the public, whereas the landscape gardener has to put his equally artificial landscape out in real light, among real trees, to be barred by real and moving shadows. The garden designer has no noncommittal canvas at the back of his picture, but must be prepared, like the sculptor, for criticism from any standpoint, and it would seem as though most people were irresistibly drawn to look at a composition from its least attractive side, as if, in a parallel case, they should criticise only the backs of statues, all of which are not so beautiful as that of the Venus of Syracuse.

The painter has yet another advantage hard to overestimate, in that his palette is really in great measure the creation of his personal artistic temperament, expressed with more or less variation in all that he does, while the landscape architect must take the elements given him by nature as the basis of his composition in each separate piece of work; this means that he cannot use the color, form, and texture suited to one place in another possibly only a few miles away. The painter also usually follows his own bent and seldom varies from marines to portraits, or from still life to landscape, and although some have run the whole gamut, the personality of the artist unconsciously translates his subjects into his own individual language.

The landscape artist, on the other hand, must subordinate himself to the elements given him, the climate and the soil, the character of the vegetation, and last but usually not least, the wishes of his client. The painter and the sculptor may finish their work and it can at once be judged as a whole, while the person who works with plants has to make up his mind to see the particular shrub he wanted in a special spot perversely die, while for years the shady groves of the future will decorate the scene like feather dusters on broomsticks.

Fountain in the Garden of Castello.

Although each year an increasing number of people interest themselves in out-of-door life and the habits of birds, trees, and wild flowers, they may realize only the striking contrast between a landscape where deciduous trees predominate and another where evergreens give the characteristic note. Everyone can see the difference between the austerity of the rock-bound coast 4of Maine, the quiet beauty of a Massachusetts intervale, and the sleepy luxuriance of the Pennsylvania pastoral country, but slight variations between these may often pass unnoticed; it is only in trying to copy the expression of a landscape, or rather to fit in with its character, that it is possible to realize how infinite and yet how minute these variations are. The quality of the light is perhaps the most important. There is a pellucid quality in the northern atmosphere which does not demand shade as do the richer colors and warmer light farther to the south. The recognition of the importance of the balance between light and shade was one of the chief elements in the composition of the great Italian garden artists. They used shadow as having the same value of accent as color. Their long and sunlit walks were relieved by patches of shade; their brilliant and sometimes glaring parterres, vibrating with light, were contrasted with the cool darkness of a little grove. This feeling for the balance between light and shade may not have been a faculty consciously exercised on their part, but it is unquestionably a feeling without which no artist can make a composition at all. We are apt to read into the people of a past time subtleties of which they probably knew nothing, on the principle of

Critics who from Shakespeare drew
More than Shakespeare ever knew.

The difference of the quality of light is no doubt what unconsciously affects the outdoor art of different countries, and the demand of the eye for contrasts may be what makes the English gardens so full of dark yews, which even on dull days make the bright flowers near them seem as if the sun were actually shining, whereas in Italy the dark laurels and bays are more apt to be used as a contrast to actual light and not color. It should also be remembered that the art of gardening at its best is as strongly national as that of painting or sculpture; in the England of old days gardens which were honestly supposed to be Italian were in reality British, just as the so-called “English gardens” of the eighteenth century were either French or Italian when they were made in one or the other country. One reason for this was that artists were not distracted by the multitude of photographs and rapid mental impressions of travel which with us make individuality so difficult to keep; for instance, a model seen in Rome is now often repeated in an alien American garden, merely because it looked well in the place for which it was intended. We cover more ground in a short holiday than our forefathers did in one of their solemn “tours,” and can bring home any number of accurate records of what we have seen. Before photography was invented, if a traveller wanted to be sure of remembering a terrace or a summer-house he had to sketch it more or less accurately; now we snap a camera which reproduces every detail with a minuteness usually impossible in a drawing. When the old tourist returned and went to work again there was an exotic flavor in his design, but he had necessarily forgotten many minor points of decoration, as in mouldings and ornaments, so he replaced them by those with which he was familiar, and his neighbors took it as a matter of course. Now we are terribly cultivated and scrupulously accurate; we know just how everything all over the world looks, whether we have actually seen it or not, and if it is a work of art we think we know just “how it was done.”

It is well to remember that many of the garden decorations imported from one country to another, as from Italy to England, look much better now than when they were first expatriated. Time and neglect will do wonders for inappropriate garden architecture; in our climate, for instance, chilly marble goddesses will soon lose their noses and fingers in spite of their hibernation in wooden sentry-boxes, and fountains will go to pieces if the gardener delays putting on them the little thatched capes which look oddly like the mackintoshes of the Japanese jinrikisha men.

A collection of flowers, no matter how beautiful they may be, does not make a garden, any more than the colors on a painter’s palette make in themselves a picture. A real garden is just as artificial as a painting, and yet it has not the advantage of artificial surroundings. The landscape architect must put his composition down in the open air with the sky and the trees and the grass as a background, and must juggle with nature in order that his composition may not look out of place, keeping always in his mind the balance between masses of color and offsetting masses of green. It is perhaps for this reason that we unconsciously 5feel that a garden is best shut in, at any rate, in part, from the surrounding lines of the landscape. This enclosure does not necessarily mean a wall, nor does it mean that a garden should have no outlook, but only that there should be some definite limit.

If one may use a musical expression, there is the same difference in quality of color between a landscape and a garden that there is between an old orchestra and a modern one of nearly double its size, where the parts are much more subdivided and the sound consequently more complicated. In the same way the vibrations of color from a garden, being more closely brought together, are much more exciting than in an ordinary landscape. This makes it necessary that the garden should be treated in a bolder manner; flowers must be used as color and interrupted by high lights and dark shadows to throw out contrasts.

If it is possible to give over any considerable part of a place to one special effect by massing rhododendrons, spring-flowering bulbs, or one particular flower, the result is incalculably greater than if the same number of plants are dotted about promiscuously, but it must be borne in mind that in order to get an effect like this planting must be done on a big scale; the artist must try to keep step with the great stride of Nature and copy as far as may be her breadth and simplicity. This can only be attempted where there is plenty of room. Ten barberry bushes in a front yard may be very good because they are simple, but they cannot even suggest the broad effect of which we have been speaking.

Shasta daisies in a border.

6A garden, large or small, must be treated in the impressionist manner. Old paintings and colored prints are interesting from their quaintness, but they do not make one feel the real effect of a garden any more than if they were in black and white. They treat it as a part of the landscape and therefore subdue its coloring that it may not jar with the rest, whereas in reality a garden vibrates with color as the air rising over some reflecting surface on a summer day vibrates with heat.

Moorish fragment at Villa Reed.

The gardener must also consider the length of time in each year in which his work will be looked at. In the north it is difficult to keep one from being more or less unattractive during six months at least; therefore, if a country house is to be lived in for the larger part of the year it is better not to put the garden too close to the house, as in that case the owners will have for several months a dreary view of garden walks with puddles in them and flower-beds covered with manure, or at best with evergreen boughs and leaves. If, however, they only stay in the country for two or three months it is comparatively easy to arrange a mass of color like a Turkey carpet, in which flowers are laid in in broad washes. This brilliant effect can be held for a couple of months, and during that time there need be no holes where flowers have died which have served their usefulness and left not even a tuft of green leaves to cover the brown earth. If the garden has to be presentable from early spring to late autumn it will be impossible, unless it covers a considerable piece of ground, to do more than keep a continuous succession of bloom in small patches rather than in great masses. Breaks in the surface of the ground are also needed, like terraces, arbors to interrupt long walks by shadow, benches and balustrades. Here is where the old Italian gardens are so successful; their fountains and their statues, their benches and their vases, 7are used as emphasis to give height or light or variation to a part of the composition which might otherwise be uninteresting. In the great Italian garden of Castello the whole interest of the parterre is focussed at the centre by the splendid high bronze fountain of Hercules and Antæus by John of Bologna and Tribolo. It is difficult to put a rule into words which will serve as a guide in even one hypothetical place, perhaps for the same reason that no two people would paint exactly the same picture from the same subject, or tell the same story in the same words.

The pond garden at Hampton Court palace.

In nature colors are set rather as an incident than as the principal feature of a landscape; the spring flowers in the Alps, even if they are not surrounded by trees and much grass, are covered by the simple expanse of the sky; the colors in an American autumn, the change of leaf in the trees, the golden-rod and asters, are all playing in a certain tone of color. The whole symphony of nature changes at that time to an entirely different key from that of summer; the tawny, the brown, the red and yellow and purple have completely changed the aspect of things from what it was in July, when there was nothing but slight gradations in a scheme with green as its key-note. Where colors do not change, as among the evergreens, the effect of the autumn coloring is much more than doubled, as they are the only objects in the landscape which have remained as they were. This unchanging quality of the evergreens is, of course, the basis for the well-known French saying that “Evergreens are the joy of winter and the mourning of summer.” It cannot be too often repeated that a garden is an absolutely artificial thing, not only as to the congregation of flowers but principally as to color, and for this reason must be treated as such. One can seldom, if ever, command a setting as wide as nature’s in which to place our work, and therefore we must tune up our settings to the key of the whole artificial composition. Writing in rhymed verse has been compared to dancing in fetters, and to apply that simile to gardening, it may be said that it is like composing in French 8alexandrines with their measured rhythm and subtle cæsura. We must keep time with Nature, and follow her forms of expression in different places while we carry out our own ideas or adaptations. Perhaps the so-called natural garden is the most difficult to fit in with its surroundings, because there is no set line to act as a backbone to the composition, and the whole effect must be obtained from masses of color, contrasting heights, and varieties of texture without any straight line as an axis, without any architectural accessory for emphasis, without anything but an inchoate mass of trees or shrubs of a nondescript shape in which to put something that will look like a thought-out composition and not a collection of flowers grown alphabetically on the principle of a nursery-man’s catalogue. These gardens are very hard to design, far more so than the formal garden, and almost impossible to reproduce, as pictures of them are apt to look like views of a perennial border, and all the play of light and color, which is the making of the actual place, is translated only by a little more or less depth in the values of black and white. The planning of an informal garden must be more or less like the arrangement of a painter’s palette; and as an artist would not think of putting a rosy pink and a violent yellow side by side, so the gardener must go through careful processes of choice and elimination. Each garden has one or more points from which it may be seen to more advantage than from others, and in a formal one these are comparatively easy to manage, but in the natural garden the grouping of color must be considered from every reasonable point of view, in order that there may be no jarring combinations.

Approach to a natural garden.

9Perhaps it is a cowardly subterfuge, but it is one which is at least safe, to keep the bright yellows and the pinks absolutely separate in any place where masses of color are used. If you are going to make your garden in one of the very hot gamuts of color, you can use the deep oranges, the yellows and browns, the scarlets, and that wonderful unifier, blue, as seen in the larkspurs, but you cannot use a certain quality of papery white in some thick petaled flowers, like the white phloxes and the Shasta daisies, which seem to spring out of any group of other flowers in which they are placed, leaving the rest of their companions looking muddled and woolly beside the intensity of their perfectly untranslucent white.

In quiet colors, some of the misty whites, like gypsophila or antirrhinum, the faint blues, such as veronica spicata, the pale yellows of some of the evening primroses, with the dull violets of aconitum autumnale and the lilacs of hesperus matronalis, make a subdued harmony less exciting than the red of lychnis chalcedonica and the yellow of helianthus strumosus, but are more appealing and quite as effective in their own way. The blaze of the high colors may be compared to the brasses of an orchestra while the quieter shades are like the strings.

No splendid and complete garden, however, can afford to shut itself out from the high colors, any more than a composer writing an opera would omit all the horns and trombones. In some places where special effects are sought the gardener may leave out the fanfare of the yellows and scarlets; perhaps his garden will be looked at often from the house or terrace on hot summer nights, and then he may wish to get the peculiar floating effect of certain white flowers which seem to quiver in the air rather than to grow on stems. Then, too, at dusk the scheme changes again as the yellow of the daylight fades and with it takes the subtler colors, leaving only the whites and some of the yellows to prevail. The elimination of detail at night and the thick quality of the light change the effect and the apparent distance of colors entirely, and give a curiously submerged appearance to the garden.

An informal garden.

One of the most important things that 10the impressionist school has been trying to teach us is that shadow is a color and must be used as one, and the reason why the eye seeks relief from a flat surface is not only that it instinctively resents monotony, but that it feels the need of shadow. A flat country like Holland may be made beautiful and interesting by the cloud shadows which pass over it constantly from the ample vault of its sky, but it is not easy to imagine anything more dreary than a wide expanse of level earth with no shadows at all. This quality of shadow, which must be recognized as color, makes it one of the most important factors in outdoor composition. Who has not noticed the beauty of outline of the shadows of a group of trees thrown on a lawn by the later afternoon sun, the round-topped ones making gracious curves, and the pointed ones seeming stretched out to hurry on the dusk?

A water garden.

People must not hesitate to make gardens because they fancy the difficulties are too great; it is only by having them, living in them, and never ceasing to notice the changes that are constantly passing over them, the effects that are good and those that are bad, the shadows that come in the wrong places and the superfluity of high lights, that they will learn to see; and not only must they see but they must think. They must notice the different lights and shadows and see how they change the effect; they must remember the plants whose scent begins at dusk and those whose fragrance stops with the light. They must distinguish the flowers that are beautiful by night from those that are beautiful only by day; they must learn to know the sounds of the leaves on different sorts of trees; the rippling and pattering of the poplar, the rustling of the oak-leaves in winter, and the swishing of the evergreens. And by noticing they will also learn that plants are only one of the tools, although to be sure one of the most important, with which a garden is made. Then, too, they will learn to see that the garden, to be successful, must be in scale with its surroundings as well as appropriate to them, and also that it must be kept up, as a garden, if left to itself, will quickly make alterations in the original scheme; certain 11plants will become rampant, others will die out, and thus the delicate balance will be destroyed. The owner of a garden is like the leader of an orchestra; he must know which of his instruments to encourage and which to restrain. After all this notice and study and care many of us may feel that the more we learn about gardening the more there is left to know, but at any rate, we shall have gained a sort of working hypothesis on which to build the foundations of a good design.


By Don Marquis
I am mine own priest, and I shrive myself
Of all my wasted yesterdays. Though sin
And sloth and foolishness, and all ill weeds
Of error, evil, and neglect grow rank
And ugly there, I dare forgive myself
That error, sin, and sloth and foolishness.
God knows that yesterday I played the fool;
God knows that yesterday I played the knave;
But shall I therefore cloud this new dawn o’er
With fog of futile sighs and vain regrets?
This is another day! And flushed Hope walks
Adown the sunward slopes with golden shoon.
This is another day; and its young strength
Is laid upon the quivering hills until,
Like Egypt’s Memnon, they grow quick with song.
This is another day, and the bold world
Leaps up and grasps its light, and laughs, as leapt
Prometheus up and wrenched the fire from Zeus.
This is another day—are its eyes blurred
With maudlin grief for any wasted past?
A thousand thousand failures shall not daunt!
Let dust clasp dust; death, death—I am alive!
And out of all the dust and death of mine
Old selves I dare to lift a singing heart
And living faith; my spirit dares drink deep
Of the red mirth mantling in the cup of morn.

  1. Silently corrected obvious typographical errors and variations in spelling.
  2. Retained archaic, non-standard, and uncertain spellings as printed.