The Room Outside

Spring is springing up everywhere.

With the arrival of the first crocus, our thoughts inevitably turn to the outdoors and the garden - or the terrace, or the backyard, or the window box. Whatever the extent of your plot, one thing’s for sure, we love our gardens. It’s true to say that, over the last few years, the garden and all things horticultural have undergone a major image change. Gone are the days when having a nice garden meant little more than a well-tended lawn and herbaceous border. These days we expect our gardens to be every bit as stylish and distinctive as our homes – a Victorian style patio set and water feature just won’t cut it.  Planting and landscaping might be a garden’s backbone, but it’s the added structures and embellishments that transform it into something really special. But, while many of us are used to furnishing our homes with antiques, how many of us would consider buying period pieces for the garden?

Our love of gardening is as old as civilisation itself. The ancient Greeks were the first people in Europe to create gardens and adorned them with marble and bronze effigies of gods and mythological heroes. The Romans were equally keen on their gardens; some of the oldest surviving examples of garden furniture are in the gardens of Pompeii. Our Celtic ancestors cultivated small enclosures and the Tudors had their knot gardens – tightly clipped box hedges laid out in intricate patterns.  But it was in the late 1600s that the fashion for decorating gardens really took off in England. This period saw the fashion for highly formal French-style gardening, modelled on the works of Andre Notre, Louis XIV’s gardener at Versailles. When Charles II regained the English throne in 1660, one of the first things he did was to ask King Louis if he might borrow Le Notre. The aristocracy were keen to follow suit and before long, grand parterres and avenues, complemented by numerous statues designed to invoke classical settings and terminate views, were the order of the day. At first the taste was for statues depicting figures from Greek and Roman mythology – the Borghese Gladiator and Hercules swinging his club were particularly popular. The earliest ornaments were carved from stone, or, for the very wealthy, marble or cast lead. As the fashion for French style gardens took hold amongst the Francophile aristocracy and those eager to copy them, a vast repertoire of ornaments were introduced into the garden, including classical vases, fountains, obelisks, balustrades and furniture. By the middle of the eighteenth century the strict formality of the French garden had yielded to something softer. Designers now sought inspiration from the landscape itself. Rolling lawns and serpentine ponds became the order of the day and, in the hands of designers like William Kent, the garden became a complete work of art. Ornaments in the form of statues, temples or follies took centre stage with every element carefully chosen to work in harmony with its neighbour. Iconography was the order of the day and the positioning of garden ornaments often had a deep symbolic meaning which, although less decipherable today, would have been easily understood by most educated people at the time. This period saw the creation of the celebrated gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and Stourhead in Wilstshire. Garden “ornaments” might include a replica of the Pantheon in Rome, a temple dedicated to Apollo or an underground grotto, containing that mid-Georgian garden essential: a live hermit, who would be employed full-time as a curiosity for visitors. The job of a hermit could be fairly lucrative but there were strict conditions attached to the job description – a hermit wasn’t allowed to speak and nor could he cut his hair or fingernails.

Whilst few of us have the sort of garden that can accommodate miles of gravel paths and numerous classical temples (or hermits), a well-placed statue or urn can bring a flavour of eighteenth century grandeur to a modern day garden, acting as a focal point and adding a sense of drama. Early examples from the 17th and 18th centuries are rare and, on the rare occasions they do appear on the market, command high prices. More easily available are statues from the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Many of these were made of composition stone or terracotta both of
which became popular in the Victorian period as way of producing good quality garden ornaments that were cheaper than stone. Henry Doulton started making terracotta garden ornaments in the late nineteenth century and by 1900, Doulton were England’s main manufactures, with a range that included window boxes, fountains and sundials. Terracotta is highly durable and has the advantage of being frost proof, enabling it to survive the rigours of an English winter. Composition stone was invented by the Romans but also took off for garden ornaments in the Victorian era. Figures and ornaments are moulded rather than carved, so multiple copies of the same piece could be produced relatively cheaply. Properly weathered, a piece made from composition stone is difficult to tell apart from a carved-stone original.

Garden furniture only started to appear widely in the nineteenth century. Before then the only seating used in a garden would have been benches of marble or stone and these would have only have been within the reach of the upper classes. In the early nineteenth century, as gardening for pleasure started to become a pastime of the middle class, wrought iron seating started to appear. This would have been made to order by the local blacksmith and, for this reason, no two pieces of wrought iron furniture will be identical. Wrought iron fell out of favour as the century progressed but remained popular on the Continent, particularly France where furniture by Arras was made for use in public parks well into the twentieth century.

The Victorian era saw a return to formality with terraces, elaborate flowerbeds and manicured lawns, complemented by a plethora of ornaments once again being de rigeur. Mass production, thanks to the Industrial Revolution brought garden furniture within the reach of an aspiring middle class, eager to ape the taste of the gentry in the big house. The invention of cast-iron made their dreams an affordable reality. There were many foundries making cast-iron garden furniture but perhaps the best known is Coalbrookdale.  Based at Ironbridge in Shropshire, the firm began by making architectural ironmongery, such as drainpipes and gutters but by the 19th century it was producing a vast number of garden seats, plant stands, urns and fountains, and all manner of other paraphernalia for the well-dressed garden. Leading designers of the day were commissioned to produce designs and, in its day, Coalbrookdale was a by-word for quality. The foundry is still in business and, as the maker of the Aga stove, still plays a big part in middle class aspirations.

It’s often the case that the most distinctive garden ornaments are made from objects that weren’t originally intended for the garden. If it’s a quirky, original look you’re after, you need to think outside the (window) box.  All that’s needed is a bit of lateral thinking: for example, a gargoyle head can make an excellent wall fountain. Stone troughs, originally used for animals to drink from, were at one time a feature of every village. Bedded out with plants they make an imposing statement and are highly sought after today. Beaten coppers vats, originally used for boiling laundry or making cheese, are solidly constructed with rivets and take on a wonderful patina with age. They are now enjoying a new popularity, not for laundry but as vast bedding planters. It’s not just large items that make a statement. Vintage garden tools used for gardening can be used as smaller decorative elements leaned against fences or left on tables. Wheelbarrows and old carts are the perfect containers for planting out vivid summer blooms, while garden rollers simply need propping up against an old brick wall to look good. Terracotta flower pots, trowels made of metal from the 1950s, rakes with handmade teeth and branch handles and early 20th century metal buckets and enamelware watering cans all add a distinctive personal touch.

Rolling acres or roof terrace, rustic or urban: antiques offer a stylish way of decorating the “room outside” and there’s not a gnome in sight.

The Charms of a Glasshouse

Orangery or Conservatory, you don’t need green fingers to succumb to the charms of a glasshouse, says Chris Yeo.

Spring is here. The clocks have leapt forward and it’s about now that every garden lover starts getting cabin fever. There is only so much peering at snowdrops and admiring frosted leaves one can do before the desire to start living life alfresco sets in. We head outdoors, ready to be captivated by Spring’s sweet breath and then, straightaway, turnaround and head back indoors. It’s just too cold! The turning of the seasonal wheel seems to have been lost on the English weather of late. What with the Beast from the East and the Pest from the West, any attempt to enjoy the outdoor life is likely to be put off by a carpeting of snow and freezing temperatures. Should we be surprised? For a country on the same latitude as Russia, our love affair with the outdoors might be considered more a triumph of optimism over reality. So just how are we supposed to uphold our claim to be a nation of gardeners when our weather is so often less than clement? You could try houseplants but, quite honestly, who wants to cope with a jungle in the sitting room, especially when it involves having to play handmaiden of the leaf shine lotion to a collection of potted dust magnets? Personally, I’ve always liked the halfway house of, to use an old-fashioned word, the glasshouse. After all, who does not long for the warmth of the sun during the darkest days of January, or dream of the tropics in the midst of a frigid February? The attraction of a conservatory or orangery is more than merely bringing the outside inside. It’s an oasis of tranquillity, a space to indulge a passion for dahlias or date palms, and one of the best places on earth to enjoy a glass of something chilled when the temperature outside is a bit too chilly. Glasshouses may do nothing to end a long winter, but, as has been the case for centuries, they bring the scents and sense of the outdoors in, despite the weather.

Conservatory lovers have Tiberius Caesar, Rome’s second emperor from 14 to 37 AD, to thank for the invention of the original glasshouse. He insisted that his favourite fruits be available all year round and set his gardeners to work, clothing cold frames with mica to capture sunlight. The earliest known glasshouses appeared in England in the 17th century, but not to designs that would be familiar to us today. At that time they were merely stone structures with more glazing in them than the buildings nearby and were designed to protect shrubs such as myrtle and bay from the worst of the winter cold.

People who live in glasshouses should refrain from throwing stones. They should also brush up on their etymology; is it a conservatory or an orangery? ‘Orangery' certainly sounds like the smarter option, but is there really much of a difference? Well, yes. An orangery looks distinctly different from a conservatory. Typically, its walls, pillars and window frames are more substantial than those of a conventional conservatory. The name reflects their original purpose, which was to protect citrus trees that would be raised in tubs and introduced into the building during early autumn. The origins of the orangery are to be found in Renaissance Italy but it was the growing taste for oranges and other citrus fruits amongst the wealthy of northern Europe that saw their popularity blossom. Fittingly, it was William III – Prince of Orange – who is credited with introducing them to Britain, when he became King in 1689. Initially exclusively built and owned by Royalty and aristocracy, orangeries quickly became a vital ingredient of any garden of taste – a space where horticulture rubbed shoulders with high fashion. People suddenly wanted to spend more time in their plant-housing space and orangeries started to become person as well as plant-friendly. It would not be unusual for plants to be removed during the hotter summer months and the area to be used for social occasions, parties and tea-drinking. Often, designed to imitate Greek or Roman temples, originally, orangeries were built as extensions on large buildings, but as fashions changed, it soon became popular to have them separate from the main house.

When the term ‘conservatory’ was initially coined, like the orangery, it referred to stand-alone structures that were often used to house exotic plants. Gradually the name became attached to buildings which, unlike orangeries, were more glass than wall and - here’s the crucial difference - were more likely to be part of the main house. A combination of the hefty window tax introduced in 1696, and the glass tax introduced in 1746, made even the smallest conservatory remarkable and put glasshouses far beyond the reach of the average country squire. To the majority of the population, it was an object of awe and signified prestige, wealth and power – the Georgian equivalent of a private jet, if you like, but things were about to change. By the 1840s both the glass and window taxes were abolished; making glasshouses affordable to a greater percentage of the population. Not only that, thanks to the Industrial Revolution, the cost of making glass dropped dramatically. New technologies of making plate glass rather than blown glass, resulted in larger, cheaper panes, and coincided with the emergence of cast iron, which was strong enough to carry larger expanses of glass. It was the perfect technological storm and the glasshouse grew and grew, not just in popularity but also size. It also coincided with the introduction of plants from all over the empire collected by a new breed of plant hunters. Travellers and merchants would return from afar with specimens not previously seen in this country. They brought in plants that we now regard as commonplace - such as orchids, lilies and lupins - but back then were heralded as exotic beauties.

The Victorian period was the Golden Age of the glasshouse. This was largely down to one man, Joseph Paxton, a man who did for the glasshouse what Isambard Kingdom Brunel did for railways and suspension bridges. Paxton was the very image of the Victorian polymath, a gardener, engineer, architect, magazine editor, landscape designer and, in his spare time, a Member of Parliament. He blazed a trail in glass architecture. Between 1836 and 1841 he built the Great Conservatory at Chatsworth in Derbyshire, at the time the large glass building in the world. Shaped like a tent, it was 277 feet long, 67 feet high and covered ¾ of an acre. Eight boilers heated the conservatory through seven miles of iron pipe and it cost over £30,000 to build. There was a central carriageway and when Queen Victoria was driven through, it was lit with twelve thousand lamps. Even she was amused, noting in her diary that it was ‘the most stupendous and extraordinary creation imaginable’. The Great Conservatory inspired the construction of conservatories worldwide but it was only the beginning for Paxton. The following decade he was commissioned to design and build Crystal Palace in London – a global symbol of Victorian Britain’s industrial prowess – that covered 19 acres and required 293,635 panes of glass.  The Crystal Palace helped popularise the use of glass as a building material, and Victorian Britain went glasshouse mad with homes sprouting conservatories of all shapes and sizes as a result of their owners being wowed by Paxton’s epic creation.

The First World War was a major blow to the glasshouse. Many gardening staff left to fight and didn’t return. Homeowners rarely had the labour or money for their upkeep, and many fell into dereliction. Even Joseph Paxton’s Great Conservatory was demolished in 1920 and the Crystal Palace – on its knees financially - went up in flames in 1936. But it isn’t all a tale of woe. Many of those that did survive have been lovingly restored and today the glasshouse – whether orangery or conservatory – is a proud feature of homes great and small, enabling lovers of nature to enjoy the feel of the garden all year-round.

Image credits: 1-2 Author’s own

Remaining; Chatsworth House Trust