The new Baroque Garden at Hamilton Gardens

By Peter Sergel, Director of Hamilton Gardens


Throughout history, garden design has reflected all sorts of changes in society. A good example of that is the role that the improvement in military cannon made in the emergence of baroque gardens. It does sound an odd connection, particularly since there’s no record of a cannon ball ever landing in one of those gardens.

Artist’s impression of the Baroque Garden, Hamilton Gardens

During the 16th and 17th centuries, cannon technology kept getting better. As the range, size and accuracy improved, it was no longer safe to retreat into a castle or walled city; you just became a sitting duck. Success lay in developing a regional power with the resources to train, equip and organise a more professional mobile army, who could attack or defend. That meant a garden no longer needed to be confined behind high walls near a city, you could spread out a bit. But a more important change was the accumulation of wealth and power, sometimes absolute power and wealth, by a regional aristocracy rather than a local lord.

That caused another problem. In fact, a lot of problems and constant war, as the Protestant Reformation and a powerful aristocracy challenged the power of the Catholic Empire. The Church fought back with the Counter-Reformation. One of their strategies was to improve the Church’s image by commissioning a great deal of inspiring religious art that could reach and influence a wider audience. That form of art became known as baroque art; it was very popular and, ironically, it was adopted and adapted by the Protestant countries.

The same science that had helped the improvement of cannons was also having an impact in other ways. In some regions, particularly northern Europe, the religious dogma of earlier times was giving way to a widespread acceptance of the value of reason, which is why that period in the 17th century is often referred to the ‘Age of Enlightenment’. Gardens also came under the influence of mathematicians and scientists.

It has also been called the ‘Age of Abolitionism’, because the nobility controlled everyone on their lands and kings ruled by divine right.

So, a ruler could make their garden as large as they liked, with enormous wealth and a ready supply of cheap labour. Sometimes they even got their army to dig out a large garden canal. Their designers used the latest thinking in optics, surveying, hydraulics and geometry. But above all, the aim was to impress visitors and subjects with their wealth and magnificence. Perhaps more than any other form of garden, baroque gardens were an expression of power.

Baroque Garden, under construction at Hamilton Gardens
Characteristics of Baroque Gardens

Despite baroque art being promoted by the Catholic Church as part of the Counter-Reformation, its influence spread through most European cultures. While there was a wide variety of forms, there were also some common characteristics, most of which we have tried to reflect in the Baroque Garden at Hamilton Gardens.

  • The form was generally simple and clear, usually at a large scale, with large scale, heroic features like steps.
  • Solid as opposed to two-dimensional geometry was based on axiality. These axes effectively welded the garden, house and landscape into a unified, geometric composition.
  • Sometimes these axes extended out into the landscape, with a distant focal point. The garden claimed ownership and power over the wider landscape.
  • They were often formed as though they were carved out of an ordered woodland and crisply defined by high hedges and walls.
  • The science of optics and geometric proportions were important, particularly the ‘Golden Mean’.
  • Common features were avenues, a canal, green walls, a building on the main axis, focal points within and outside the garden, and axially coordinated steps, terraces, and statues.
  • The sky became an element of the garden with large pools reflecting the sky and sometimes avenues leading out to a broad skyline (not possible in our garden).
  • The gardens and statuary were usually dramatic and theatrical. Sculpture was realistic, usually religious with a sense of movement and energy.
Features Specific to the Baroque Garden at Hamilton Gardens

Each of the gardens in the Fantasy Garden Collection is associated to one of the arts and there’s certainly a strong connection between baroque gardens and the theatre. The gardens themselves provided a dramatic setting for extravagant theatrical performances and the garden designers usually also designed stage sets. You can clearly see that influence with the layered frame that was often given to a central view. But above all, a baroque garden provided a theatrical setting for the nobility to promenade and display their extravagant cloths, powdered wigs, high heels, and enormous French farthingales. In their design and their use, they were pure theatre.

Baroque Garden, under construction at Hamilton Gardens

While sculptures are a key element for such a garden, there don’t appear to be baroque style sculptures available for sale, which means commissioning our own. But rather than religious figures, it is proposed to pick up the theatrical theme with four well known figures from Commedia dell’arte. This was the foundation of European theatre and a subject of baroque and rococo art. The figures proposed are of Harlequin, Columbina, Pierrot and Pantalone.

In the mid-18th century, high baroque merged into rococo, with gardens that were smaller, colourful and softer than the raw power of the massive baroque gardens. The curved steps in our garden are more rococo than baroque and the building facade is new-rococo. In some ways it’s a hybrid baroque /rococo garden, as many gardens and buildings were.  That cross over worked particularly well in parts of Venice. The style of our baroque garden isn’t relevant to a specific country, but much of the detail is based on King Ludwig’s Bavarian garden, and the setting within a coniferous woodland will certainly give it a northern European flavour.

There are some elements of our Baroque Garden that are deliberately back to front. There isn’t a grand entrance-way, just a narrow passage to increase the surprise and dramatic impact on entering the Baroque Garden. False perspective was commonly used, either with smaller objects in the distance or apparent parallel lines gradually narrowing. That has been used in this garden, but in reverse to the usual form. From one end the rococo facade seems distant and large, from the other the far riverbank will appear closer.

Advances in cannon technology contributed to the rise of the baroque gardens but in some respects, cannon also contributed to their demise. After the French revolution, a 2nd lieutenant of artillery rose up through the ranks to lead France in the conquest of most of Europe, relying particularly on his superior French cannon. It was probably also inevitable, anyway, that there would be a reaction to the excess and opulence of baroque gardens and that response took a completely different form. It’s represented at Hamilton Gardens by the 18th century ‘Picturesque Garden’ and the proposed ‘English Landscape Garden’.

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