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The American Flower Garden
"Laying out grounds may be considered a liberal art, in some sort like poetry and painting."
THE AMERICAN FLOWER GARDEN
THE PARTNERSHIP BETWEEN NATURE AND ART
WITH praiseworthy zeal men devote their lives to depicting nature with paint on canvas; other men as patiently toil to reproduce her beauty of form in bronze or chiselled marble; and, if they possess the vision of genius, all the world concedes both to be artists, however artificial the media for expressing their ideals, however lifeless their finished productions. But what of the man who no less faithfully devotes his days and nights to the study of nature and collaborates with her in the production of living pictures? The landscape gardener, by uniting his imagination, artistic impulse and will to nature herself, utilising natural media for the expression of his artistic feeling, would seem to have gone a step beyond either the painter or the sculptor, yet why is the term artist so rarely, so grudgingly applied to him? Is it not that, in the perfection of his art, he well-nigh obliterates the trace of it? For
"This is an art
Even Shakespeare, with the majority, forgets to give the gardener his due, ascribing all praise to his silent partner.
In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, are paintings and statuary by artists whose names are household words in all civilised lands. Surrounding the museum is a great pleasure ground of exceeding beauty where millions of people find recreation and delight without even having heard the name of Frederick Law Olmsted. Few indeed suspect that they are indebted to his imagination and trained artistic sense for Central Park. By entering into a working partnership with nature he was enabled to transform a tract of unlovely land, interspersed with swamps, barren rocks and rubbish heaps, the last resort of squatters and goats, into scenes of non-natural but wholly naturalistic beauty; and the belief of the enraptured multitude that nature created them so, should be rightly interpreted as the triumph of Olmsted's creative art. Surely, the man who has wrought out on a vast scale so clear an artistic ideal with living pigments should be as fully entitled to recognition in the ranks of artists as the painter of a landscape on canvas that hangs within the museum walls. There is a small but increasing number of critics who count Olmsted the greatest artist America has yet produced.
Who remembers that Raphael, Giulio Romano and Michelangelo, among other great masters of the Renaissance, in the exuberance of their artistic genius, lavished it without stint upon the gardens of Rome and northern Italy? Not content with designing palaces and churches and decorating them with carvings, paintings, frescoes and statuary within and without, not a few great Italian artists planned and embellished gardens which, after centuries, still remain masterpieces. But as gardeners these artists are well-nigh forgotten.
Like all creative workers, the gardener of the first rank must be endowed with a great imagination that can see clearly the ideal, which at first exists only in his brain. In planning the modest home grounds, as well as a vast estate or public park, he must peer far into the future, anticipate many years of toil and growth, and, with the inner eye alone, see the finished picture which may be actually completed by his silent partner long after he himself has turned to dust. Art is long and life is short indeed, too short, perhaps, for the realisation of even the simplest of his ideals. He rarely lives to enjoy the mature majesty of the oak he has planted; yet, from its acorn babyhood onward, through every stage of its growth, he sees clearly in his mind's eye its ultimate aspect.
Nature waited patiently through the ages for a partner like Luther Burbank to select, hybridise and bring to perfection her fruits and flowers. Without the help of the trained scientist her own latent possibilities would never have been realised. "Nature," said Aristotle, "has the will but not the power to realise perfection." That ideal is left for man to realise only by working in partnership with her, in harmony with her eternal laws. At last we begin to understand the paradox: she is commanded only by obeying her. Where nature and the scientific horticulturist leave off, the artistic imagination of the gardener takes up their work and composes pictures that are an emphasised revelation of natural beauty to eyes that have not the gift of the seer; living pictures of nature in perfecto which, but for his art, would never have found expression.
But unbridled imagination, without a true sense of proportion to hold it in check, might easily run away with his greatest opportunity. In his student days especially, and indeed throughout his life, he cannot study nature too closely; yet it may be that he will never find a single scene, however lovely in itself, that could be copied exactly and fit in with any of his plans. Detached from its large environment its beauty might be lost, its proportion destroyed by other surroundings; or the cost of reproducing it might be prohibitive, even if it were artistically possible. The gardener has first to familiarise himself with nature's "excellences," which she has scattered broadcast, and not less with the excellences of his art; to find his inspiration in them and then select from his storehouse of knowledge, eliminate, adapt, adjust, harmonise, and recreate, not only to the scale of his design, but to the measure of his own personal ideals, before he tries to produce either a large park-like, panoramic landscape or a little garden. His task is to create beautiful pictures, not to copy them. True art is never an imitation of nature, notwithstanding a popular belief to the contrary. Many landscape gardeners, headed by "Capability" Brown, have failed as artists because they could not perceive this fact. There is a vast difference between truth to nature and a servile copying of her.
The temptation to attempt too much is ever with the artist partner. Nature herself is so prodigal that a rich imagination, teeming with ideas, finds it difficult to reject her alluring example. Only a cultivated sense of proportion can save one from the common error of sacrificing the simplicity, unity and strength of the design as a whole to the embellishment of unrelated parts. Which is to say that no garden, no matter how charming in detail, is really good that is not good as a whole.
Especially are amateurs prone to set out only their pet plants without reference to the general effect, to select haphazard from the enticing catalogues such plants as are most cleverly described or illustrated, without reference to a well thought-out garden design. One part of the home grounds, having no relation whatever to another part, the main idea, on which more than half of the beauty of a place depends, is gradually frittered away on trivialities. Strange to say, a general working plan is the last thing most novices think of. Additions to the garden are made impulsively, and merely happen to be right or wrong. Every architect can tell you harrowing stories of how clients have quite spoiled the effect of some of his best houses through inconsistent, haphazard furnishings within and planting without. So every landscape gardener cherishes resentment against certain of his clients who, not having the knowledge or the inclination to look after their own gardens, turn over the care of them to ignorant labourers, whose power to spoil the best garden picture ever devised is practically unlimited. He justly complains that he is rarely permitted to retouch the picture after the first planting. Nature, however, never ceases trying her utmost to obliterate all trace of his art and the hired man does his worst; while the owner usually either leaves all to them or indulges in an annual orgie among the catalogues.
"Perhaps, I don't know good art," said a self-complacent lady at the Royal Academy exhibition, "but I know what I like." "Madam," replied the withering Ruskin, "even the beasts of the field know that."
It is as necessary in the art of gardening as in theology to have a reason for the faith that is in us. Anyone may at least learn the principles of art out-of-doors and the technique of it, although, without the gift of imagination and a sense of proportion, form and color, one may never hope to become a great artist. But these gifts are by no means commonly possessed by the landscape gardeners of the present or any other day, much less monopolised by them. Expensive horrors are too often perpetrated on innocent soil by trained men who should know better. And it is conversely true that some delightful little gardens have been made by untrained amateurs, who nevertheless possess the natural artistic gifts. However, ignorance is never a help but a hindrance in any profession or calling, and poverty or self-conceit can be the only excuse for not getting the benefit of expert advice.
Special emphasis needs to be laid upon the gardener's sense of proportion for the very practical reason that a design, no matter how excellent artistically, can give little pleasure to its owner unless it be carefully proportioned to the size of his purse. It is distressing to see neglected trees, starved shrubbery that cannot bloom, worm-eaten roses, weedy lawns and degenerate flowers because their owner, in attempting to do too much, could not afford to care for them properly. Better a well tended little flower bed than an acre of disheartening failures. But is it not equally distressing to see palatial houses set in the midst of cramped, confined and ugly grounds that have little money and no taste expended upon them? Long ago Lord Bacon observed: "A man shall ever see that, when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely, as if gardening were the greater perfection."
In democratic America it has come to be thought an indication of social selfishness when much is spent upon the interior of a home, for the gratification of the family, to the exclusion of worthy adornment of the home grounds, in whose beauty every passer-by may share. A well-known architect, who is also an expert landscape gardener, stipulates, before taking a contract, that at least one-tenth of the cost of a suburban or country house shall be expended upon its proper setting. He argues both from the artistic and the altruistic points of view. Certain it is that the and gardens which are his special delight He executes a picture complete in modest small homes possess rare unity and charm. itself before he leaves his task.
The true artist out-of-doors must needs have a well developed sense of form. He appreciates, as well as a Greek classicist, the value and the beauty of a line. His eye follows joyfully the contour of a range of hills, the flowing curves of a little river meandering through a meadow, bold masses of woodland and wild shrubbery, the sky-line broken by tree tops, a winding road climbing the hill-side, the bare beauty of an elm in winter, the jagged outline of a rock, the slender swaying stem of a reed. These he studies and adapts for a naturalistic garden.
But the study of art has also taught him the beauty of the circle and the ellipse in a classic garden, of straight avenues of trees and of clipped hedges, of vistas through long, parallel rows of vine-encircled columns, of the fountain, the mirror-like pool, the direct paths that do but emphasise the formality of the design, the broad velvety terraces, the box-edged parterres of gay flowers, the stately, columnar trees; and he knows that, if by employing these he can produce a picture in harmony with the architecture it surrounds and still gratify the aesthetic sense, he has fulfilled what Taine, in his "Philosophy of Art," declared to be art's mission.
In Japan there is a saying: "Let no one use the word 'beautiful' until he has seen Nikko." No Occidental should ever use the word, in connection with a garden at least, until he has seen the old classic gardens of Italy. Here, in this new country, where art out-of-doors is only beginning to be understood and appreciated, where there are so lamentably few standards of artistic excellence and where so many crimes are committed in the name of Italian gardens, it is small wonder that a popular prejudice against them exists. Without a proper sense of form on the maker's part, even a naturalistic garden becomes a chaos and a void.
There is a well-known American artist who has every quality essential for greatness except the colour sense. Indeed he is colour-blind. A master draughtsman of imagination and power, his work in black and white is at once his triumph and his limitation. With a passion to paint in colours, he dares not trust himself to use them lest they be the undoing of his reputation. Would that many gardeners similarly afflicted might exercise his self-restraint!
Some people there are, not artists, who have an instinctive colour sense, which, when applied to garden making, gives pleasure beyond any other gift. Celia Thaxter was one of these. Poppies, as she grew them in her garden by the thousand, outlined against the summer sea, were a vision of beauty that no one who saw them can ever forget. She had an unerring instinct that told her not only where to sow her seeds broadcast over the little island garden in the Isles of Shoals, but what coloured flowers, blooming in rapid succession and in crowds throughout the long summer, would so combine as always to make an harmonious whole. Childe Hassam's paintings of the lovely pageant have fortunately preserved the spirit of the sea-girt garden, which was as wild and free as the sea itself, and also the colour for which it is chiefly memorable.
It is not a simple matter to so plan a garden as to have no clash of colour in it any day of the year. The pink phlox, that should have finished blooming before the orange marigolds next it opened a bud, perhaps prolongs its bloom because of unseasonably cool weather, and the eye with a sensitive colour nerve behind its lens turns quickly from the sight. Flaming Oriental poppies do not always have an acre of greensward separating them from the June roses. It should be impossible to include both at a glance. The eye that can tolerate a magenta petunia anywhere will doubtless not object to it in an iron vase next to a scarlet geranium where it usually appears; nor will such an untrained eye weep when a purple Jackman's clematis spreads its royal bloom against a red brick house, or when masses of reddish purple bougainvillea blossoms fairly scream at the scarlet poinsettias in a tropical garden. But, by careful selection in the first place, by instant removal where two colours in juxtaposition offend, by the introduction of green and white peacemakers among the warring flowers, harmony can be maintained and it must be else there is no repose, no "content in a garden."
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