by Peter Sergel, Director of Hamilton Gardens

The ‘Picturesque’ or ‘Natural’ style garden was popular in 18th Century Europe. Inspired by painting, it also reflected changing attitudes to nature and its intended appeal was not only to the eyes but to the heart and mind. Such gardens often had a planned sequence of features or ritual journeys that would refer to a fantasy story, particularly a classical legend, where an individual’s character is tested. Gardens made in the late 18th century Picturesque tradition also often featured Masonic symbols because many of the owners at that time were Masons. Both of those elements have been introduced to the Picturesque Garden at Hamilton Gardens through a series of features that tell the story of the opera ‘The Magic Flute’. Sources have included: pictures of old gardens, old illustrations, historic Masonic records and traditional set designs for ‘The Magic Flute’.

Map of the Picturesque Garden, Hamilton Gardens


The Magic Flute is arguably the best-known and loved traditional opera. It was written in 1791 when the Picturesque Garden movement was at its height. Like most influential figures at the time its writers, Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart and Emanuel Schikaneder, were both Masons and the story is one of Masonic initiation as well as being a fantasy fairy tale. Like many great works of art there are many layers of meaning, mostly related to personal improvement; the latter appears to have been a popular theme in that Age of Enlightenment.
The story starts at the eastern entrance to the Picturesque Garden with three traditional trombones set on a rough ashlar or stone base (1) representing the fanfares that start the opera and each stage of the initiation. E flat major is inscribed on each, being both the chord played at the start of the opera and the traditional ‘Masonic key’. Trombones were considered royal instruments, announcing the hero of the story as a prince. His name is Tamino and he starts the story in wild forest (or in our case bush) (2). The story takes place in Egypt, hence the sphinxes, but like the 18th century gardens and the opera itself there isn’t much similarity to the landscapes of Egypt. Tamino enters a cave or grotto (3) which was a frequent feature both of Picturesque Gardens and at the start of other stories of self-improvement.


He’s pursued by a large serpent (4) and faints. As he does so three veiled ladies come out of a woodland temple (5); they kill the serpent and then return to the temple. The curious figure of Papageno (6), the Bird Catcher, enters. His sculpture suggests he is part human and part animal or bird and he has a birdcage on his back. Tamino regains consciousness and assumes Papageno has saved him but the three ladies return and explain the true situation. The Queen of the Night then appears sitting on a throne in front of a Woodland Temple (7). She tells Tamino that he can marry her daughter (Pamino) if he rescues her from Sarastro the cruel magician and that becomes his quest and a search for wisdom, virtue and truth. He’s given a magic flute (8) and sets off with Papageno. They are assigned three boys, Higher Genii or guardian angels (9) to watch over them.

Those guides take them to three portals set in a wall (10), the entrance to Sarastro’s temple complex. The portals in this garden are inspired by a drawing of the original Magic Flute stage set designed by Mozart himself. The entrances are named Vernunft (Reason), Weisheit (Wisdom) and Natur (Nature) – (remember this is a German opera). Tamino wisely chooses the central one called wisdom. Garden visitors don’t get a choice – the other two doors are just used by maintenance staff. A procession appears with Sarastro riding a chariot drawn by six lions that in this situation sit along the top of the wall. (12) The central ruin structure (11) divides the garden into the Yesod sphere of the Moon to the west and the Tafaret sphere of higher consciousness to the east which Tamino is now entering. Tamino and Papageno discover that things are not what they seem. The Queen of the Night is a destructive plotter and Sarastro the good spiritual leader.


They then enter a dark passage (12) where they undergo their first test, ‘to resist the guiles of women in silence’. The three rather frisky looking women are represented in relief on the passage walls (13). Next, they enter a large hall represented here by a riverside meadow area orientated along an east-west axis (14). A table full of food appears within this space (15). Papageno eats while Tamino undergoes a second test of silence. For the third and final test Tamino and Pamino enter a cave (16) for tests of fire and water. Opera goers don’t see what these secret initiations are but on each side of the entrance these are symbolized by a bowl of water and a fire pot (17). Tamino and Pamino return to the hall and fulfill their destiny.


Masons in that Age of Enlightenment were usually associated with an educated elite who were changing society. In Europe, this included influential thinkers such as Goethe, Alexander Pope, Francis Bacon, John Locke and Voltaire, architects such as Inigo Jones and Christopher Wren, writers such as Robbie Burns and Mark Twain, composers like Mozart, Haydn, and possibly Beethoven, and most prominent members of ‘The Royal Society’ including well known scientists such as Isaac Newton.


Some of these 18th century Masons were plotting changes to traditional rule. They included American revolutionaries like Jefferson, Washington and Benjamin Franklin. Later, Lincoln was also a Mason. Some were also plotting to overthrow regimes and rulers like Catherine the Great of Russia. They preferred relatively wild, natural looking gardens to the gigantic, formal Baroque estates of the equally rigid, formal aristocracy. Picturesque Gardens themselves were making a revolutionary statement and in the context of other gardens of that age they are perhaps an indication of what was going on behind the scenes.


There seemed to be a greater acceptance in England of these wild romantic gardens with their banks of long grass and natural looking planting. Even Lady Catherine de Bourgh approved of the “prettyish kind of little wilderness” in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. In other European countries, it was a more radical fashion often referred to as ‘Jardin Anglo-Chinois’. Loss and neglect of old gardens, lack of serious research and the secrecy associated with their Masonic symbolism means that the full extent of that influence is hard to gauge. Generally modern Masons I’ve spoken to aren’t particularly familiar with these old 18th century garden symbols.


But those Masonic symbols appear to have defined an underlying theme that ran through the sculptures and structures in 18th century gardens. At that time Europeans were very interested in India and the Americas yet they didn’t include many elephants, bears and totem poles in their gardens. Instead they favored objects that represented Masonic symbols. Many of the 18th century landed gentry were Masons and those who weren’t were possibly influenced by what appeared to be the current fashion. “Darling the Jones next door have had some men come in to make a pyramid in their garden. We must have one too – only bigger.”


The Masons of that time associated themselves with the ancient Egyptian masons, hence the pyramids, obelisks, palm trees* and sphinxes. They also associated their craft with the Knights Templar, hence the towers, keeps and fortresses. Then there were other historic references like the Greek and Roman temples, Palladian buildings and artificial Gothic ruins. Other common Masonic symbols were the circular pools, caves, hermit caves, hermitages, obelisks, lions, pelicans, bee hives and serpents (The elements found in our garden are marked with an *).


You can see other Masonic symbols with the Woodland Temple in this garden (7). The paving shows a silver moon crescent pattern that frequently occurs in Masonic symbolism. The pavilion faces west where the sun sets and the night starts. Pavilions like this made references to Pantheon and to Palladian architecture that were associated with renaissance masons. These buildings usually had a four-column portico that can be seen in famous Masonic gardens like: Charemont, Stowe, and Stourhead and there are even images of them on the front of old Masonic song-books (our pavilion doesn’t have the dome due to budget constraints). The ceiling of the portico in our pavilion is decorated like many old buildings with stars; in this case the pattern has been taken from
a famous stage set for the Magic Flute. The queen’s throne and the front of the portico are decorated with the seven silver stars that have long been an important symbol in Freemasonry and many ancient cultures. They represent the stars of Ursa Major, often referred to as ‘The Plough’, ‘The Dipper’ or ‘The Great Bear’. Where these garden pavilions or ‘Fabriques’ had Masonic links they often had names like ‘Elysium’, ‘Temple of Friendship’ ‘Temple of Wisdom’. Some, like the one in the garden of Chiswick, may have been used for Masonic meetings, but there were other gardens, like Worlitz in Germany, where a cottage or woodshed disguised the passage leading into a crypt or cave that was used for initiation ceremonies.


Several of The Magic Flute objects listed above are obviously also old Masonic symbols but there are others in this garden if you know where to look. For example the rough ashlar and the perfect ashlar at the beginning and end of the garden are symbols that are still used and represent man in his primitive and ‘civilized’ state; the keys like the ‘key stone’ in the passage arch or the Masonic key of E-Flat Major engraved on the trombones.


Similarly the three kinds of pillar significant to the Masons are represented in this garden. The Doric pillars on the Woodland Temple symbolise strength, the Ionic pillar holding the magic flute represents wisdom and the Corinthian pillars between the portals represent beauty.

Numbers were also important such as the seven stars on the Queen’s throne, the use of the ‘golden section’ (1.618), the three entrances, three trombones, three veiled ladies and three genii and the eighteen features that tell the story of The Magic Flute, eighteen being the number of seats or sieges.


Even some of the plants have Masonic symbolism. The palm trees represent what were called ‘Acacias’ which were used in rituals, pomegranates denote abundance and sharing, red roses represent the blood of Christ and white lilies are a symbol of peace. Oaks, fig trees and Cedars of Lebanon were considered important because of their historic associations.


Everywhere you look in this garden there are old Masonic symbols. This hidden symbolism and its historic associations are a feature that help make these 18th century gardens interesting and distinctive.

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