Saturday, March 31, 2012

17th Century Garden Design for Women

by Deborah Swift

William Lawson is credited with making gardening popular for women, with his book, A New Orchard and Garden which was printed together with the first horticultural book written solely for women, The Country Housewife's Garden. Beautifully illustrated with charming woodcuts, it tells the 17th century woman everything she needs to know to have a productive and visually attractive garden.

The concept of a "pretty" garden would have been an anathema to most women of the 17th century, as gardens were primarily about producing food and herbs, unless you were very wealthy, in which case the gardening was left to your servants. The 17-century  author of The English Housewife, Gervase Markham, claimed the “complete woman” had
“skill in physic, surgery, cookery, extraction of oils, banqueting stuff, ordering of great feasts, preserving of all sorts of wines…distillations, perfumes, ordering of wool, hemp and flax: making cloth and dying; the knowledge of dairies: office of malting; of oats…of brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household.” 

Guess that did not leave much time for planting pretty flowers!

Because kitchen gardens were about supplying the table, and as much ground as possible was covered with edible plants, every garden was different, planted according to the whims of the women of the household. William Lawson's book for the country housewife was designed to be read in conjunction with his New Orchard and Garden, thus giving women access to the idea of garden design, in print, for the very first time.

William Lawson lived from 1553 to1635 and was the vicar of Ormesby, a country parish in Yorkshire. No doubt his gardening passion led him to be so long-lived for an age where most people did not reach fifty. Gardening was a national passion in the 16th and 17th centuries, as more species came from abroad, and an interest in subjects concentrating on the useful qualities and medical virtues of plants became popular.

But the war against garden pests was just as hard then as now - he calls them  the 'whole Army of mischiefs' and says that 'Good things have most enemies' . The enemies in his Yorkshire Garden were apparently deer and moles.

Lawson's garden plan included long walkways, a maze, and even a bowling alley.The illustration below depicts the overall plan.

Its rectangular shape is split into six  sections  over three  terraces, with flights of stairs and paths to go from one to the other. Its design demonstrates the vogue in the 16th and 17th century for symmetry and patterns. In the top left square he planned to have topiary, signified by the man with the sword and a horse. A river runs at the top and bottom of the garden where he says 'you might sit in your mount and angle a peckled trout, sleighty eel or some other daintie fish'.

In The Lady's Slipper, Alice Ibbetson is an obsessive gardener - a pioneer if you like, testing out the knowledge handed down from her father who was a plantsman much like William Lawson. She finds relaxation in communing with nature. Her maid, Ella, featured in The Gilded Lily, would try to avoid garden work if at all possible. Her sights are set on becoming a fine lady, just like Alice Ibbetson, and leaving manual labour behind for good.

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  1. Elizabeth Gayle FellowsApril 2, 2012 at 6:18 PM

    How interesting, The first landscape garden designers...!

  2. Very fascinating and useful information as I have one novel set in the 17th Century and am writing another. Thanks for sharing!


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