Defining the Victorian Garden

As a percentage of housing stock in the US and Canada, Victorian homes come in second only to modern construction. So this leads to the question, what kind of landscape is appropriate for Victorian homes? Or perhaps, even more fundamentally, what makes a garden “Victorian” in the first place?

Perhaps the most distinguishing element of the gardens of this period, especially when compared to our landscapes today, is the quality of their design – the way in which the house and the garden act as a single unit. In a Victorian garden, you sense immediately that the landscape embraces the architecture, linking it to the land, like a rose gently twinning up a delicate arbor. In fact, the Victorian preference for the term “home grounds” when describing house and garden underscores the association between architecture and nature. This stands in great contrast with modern “landscapes”, which even when well designed in and of themselves, often appear divorced from the building that stands in their midst. This dichotomy is even more evident when the landscape has been put together piecemeal over a large number of years in response to changing whims of different owners. The result is often a hodgepodge of unrelated elements that entirely ignore each other and the house. Nothing could have been farther from the Victorian ideal.

This image of the Victorian garden, taken from a leading garden magazine of the time, reveals the social nature of Victorian landscapes.

This image of the Victorian garden, taken from a leading garden magazine of the time, gives us a glimpse not only of the layout, but also of the social nature of Victorian landscapes: that great Victorian pastime, a game of croquet, is in full swing.

Victorian landscapes were also pre-eminently social. In many ways, they were like stage sets for lucky homeowners and their privileged guests to act out an endless series of entertainments — luncheons and teas, lawn games, fêtes, elaborate outdoor dinners, or merely intimate strolls. In this modern age of air conditioned quarters, when many people’s only contact with the outdoors in the summer is commuting to and from work, it’s hard for us to remember that for a large portion of the year, the garden was the only cool place around. People lived in their gardens during the warm summer months. Victorian gardens were used daily, intensively, and their design reflected that use: Gardens were laid out to hold something in reserve, to encourage a sense of exploration and mystery. Views were framed and expanded, paths deliberately curved to hide their ends, beds of scented flowers located at unexpected turns, all to delight and distract the passerby. In the way we might value our TV or stereo, gardens were sources or relaxation and entertainment in a much quieter age.

Perhaps most importantly, Victorian gardens were expected to be productive as well as aesthetically pleasing. While in many ways the Victorians invented the modern ornamental landscape, with their love of newly discovered annuals and strange shrubs and trees from exotic lands, they would be appalled to the extent that modern gardens have abandoned any semblance of productivity. During the Victorian era, most families depended on their lots to produce a large part of the fruit and vegetables they consumed over the course of the year,  especially in winter. Even near large urban centers, where food concerns were less pressing, no self-respecting homeowner would consider even a largely ornamental a landscape complete without at least a few grape vines, an apple, or a plot of spring greens.

So for the Victorian gardener, the goal was to create unified ‘home grounds’ where house, garden and nature all worked together as one; to furnish a beautiful setting for relaxation and social entertainment;  and provide a productive, yet esthetically pleasing source of fresh fruits and vegetables for the home.

All of which remain admirable aims for homeowners today.

For more information on Victorian Gardens, be sure to check out my book: From A Victorian Garden


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