Formely formal

By November 28th, 2022No Comments

Formality in garden design has become deeply unfashionable. But have we been too quick to dismiss the classic principles it can teach us?

Think of the most famous gardens from around the world and there is a good chance that they all have one thing in common. Versailles, Villandry, the Charbagh garden of Taj Mahal, Villa d’Este, Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild, Chatsworth, they all, at their heart, share the same principles. In each you’ll find long, unbroken, straight lines. Symmetry will frame important views. Right angles will enclose one area and distinguish it from another. Overall, there is a tremendous sense of balance. They are all, of course, formal. 

We travel to visit formal gardens in our millions, 15 million people visit Versailles alone each year, and yet, when it comes to our own gardens, formality has become deeply unfashionable.

To the Tudors, our modern aversion to anything horticulturally neat and well defined would be baffling. Their garden legacy is the knot garden, a series of precise and symmetrical patterns created from low hedging, that replicates the intricate weaving of needlework. French parterres came slightly later but followed much the same school of thought. Of course, it isn’t possible to look at these historical formal gardens without considering how the wider societal and political context of the time might have influenced them. Britain of the 1500s was a kingdom largely obsessed with the self-portrayal of power and control. What better way to show your enemies that you command authority than to create absurdly complex and fiendishly difficult to maintain stage sets in your back garden.

There are other reasons that explain why these historical gardens relied more heavily on their structural, formal beauty to captivate the visitor than anything we see today. For starters, plant choice was far more limited and so it was harder to create interest in any soft landscaping alone. More practically, the “rooms” that the formal knot gardens created served to separate medicinal from cooking herbs that the wealthiest medieval households were cultivating. 

These gardens tell us something about our past and perhaps that is why they are popular visitor attractions. Perhaps the draw is more like that of a museum than something to be admired from a decorative point of view. But whether a purely aesthetic choice or largely functional, the formality of medieval garden design was all about to change in 18thcentury England, and later across Europe, with the arrival of the English landscape garden movement. 

The sweeping informality of this movement (think Rousham, Stowe, and Stourhead) is something we are much more comfortable with today and in many ways introduced the idea of the garden as being romantic. Loose planting, gently undulating parkland, paths that snake into orchards, all features that we regard as intimate and picturesque in modern culture.

And perhaps it is this perceived lack of romance that turns us off formality. Rigid. Precise. Mechanical. Not exactly words you associate with love and passion. Today, when we dream of a perfect garden we are often longing for large swathes of floaty perennials, hard landscaping that is not really hard at all, but soft and suppressed. We want drifts of plants, travelling in any which way they desire. Roses clambering over walls. Spring bulbs colonising any area of grass. We rarely yearn for rows of symmetry with restrained and sober planting schemes.

I am seduced by all of these things too. If I could only ever visit one garden again in my life, I wouldn’t choose a Versailles or Villandry, I would choose a Rousham. But have we been too quick to dismiss the order, regiment, and indeed, pomp, of formality in garden design?

I think so. I am not suggesting we all start creating formal parterres over our wildflower meadows, or replace our perennial planting with tightly clipped topiary, but why can we not have both? To me, the most interesting gardens reference multiple styles and influences. Cottage style planting that surrounds formally clipped Taxus columns? Perfect! A formal rill dissecting a symmetrical space, but planted loosely? Delightful! In the garden, I do believe you can have your cake and eat it.

Perhaps the issue with formality is one of semantics. When we hear the word formal our minds are taken somewhere that feels strict, austere, and unfriendly. Maybe it is simply unfortunate that garden symmetry, geometric shapes, and a sense of clear structure falls under such an unappealing umbrella term. Perhaps if we renamed these garden features to – let’s say – ceremonial, we might find them more palatable?

Could it be that garden formality is just not a sexy topic to talk about, in the same way that we do not generally talk enthusiastically about – say – matresses, even though we all need one? A simple search for cottage garden on the British Library catalogue returns 971 results, whilst the same search for formal garden only returns 850. I suppose there are only so many ways to describe a long, straight, symmetrical path, where the opportunity for linguistic indulgence is endless when describing a perennial packed cottage garden at the height of summer. 

As designers, the lessons we learn from formal gardens only improve how we approach any outdoor space we work on. The idea of framing views, of balancing competing elements, of working with space to create harmony and order, all these classic principles still influence even the most informal of spaces we design.

We have come a long way since the medieval knot garden, not least in recognising the wildlife benefits of a less formally treated garden, which should, of course, be encouraged and celebrated. But let’s not turn our backs on formal elements in our gardens completely. To do so is to restrict our own self-expression. Because that is what any garden should be about – our personality. We can be fun, playful, and floaty, but are we not all a bit formal, at least some of the time? Are there not times when we all feel a bit more sober and serious, and if so, why should our gardens not reflect that side of us too? There is a place for moments of order and restraint in our gardens if we allow ourselves the freedom to express all sides of who we are.