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The Garden Gate: Statuary in gardening ruined many ancient runes

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By Ellen Probert Williamson

There seem to be cycles of popularity for formal, structural, casual and natural gardens. All appear to recur with passing generations of gardeners.

But some aspects of gardening never change. Flowers, herbs, shrubs, trees, birds, flowers, butterflies and weeds never fail to hold our attention.

Lighting, however, has become a taken-for-granted, ho-hum aspect of gardening instead of an exotic addition. The idea of incorporating the use of light into garden planning is not as new as you might think. It is merely the recurrence and updating of an ancient one.

The Chinese placed sculptured stone lanterns in their gardens many centuries ago. These add glamour and mystery to the shadows.

Flaming torches were used in Europe to light gardens and courtyards of medieval manor houses and building interiors.

Strategically placed lights can transform even the most ho-hum garden into a fairyland place after nightfall.

For anyone who likes to entertain in the garden, an evening garden party can seem like a magical event with the right lighting.

The groundskeepers of hotels and restaurants are aware of the possibilities of light as a tool to enhance the plantings of trees and flowers on their property.

Private homes rely more and more on lights to add beauty at night to the daytime elegance that usually hides after sunset. Of course, the added security of light around one’s property can be a big plus.

Gardens are made up of many things and take many forms. In addition to lights, there can be pools, birds, fruits, vegetables, flowers, trees, shrubs, insects and weeds.

And they can also incorporate structures and small buildings. What about old-fashioned summerhouses, porches, gazebos, trellises, arbors, sheds, lattices, porticos and pergolas?

Trelliswork is an old garden art. It began as an open-work wall to support garden plants. Fruit trees were sometimes trained to support and be part of it in a version of the crafts of espaliering.

Vines were sometimes trained over a framework connecting the top of two walls, creating an arbor.

During the Moorish occupation of Spain, the art of trelliswork became more highly developed. Trellises and pergolas were common, especially in the lavish medicinal gardens planted about 1555.

Eventually the arbors thus created evolved into a cloistered and shady retreat. By the end of the 16th century, this type of trellis was considered to be essential to any fine garden.

Lanterns were often added to create a lighted entrance to the trellis arbor.

French-inspired trelliswork was very popular in Britain during the 18th century, and many English landscape design books featured it.

Gazebos and summerhouses, often with lanterns, were sometimes fancy and attractive.

Many gardens surrounding the gazebos were architecturally inspired with mazes, topiary, clipped hedges and parterres, a sort of evergreen architecture. Very little stone or wood was used, except for on the gazebo itself.

The garden owner would sometimes have his hedge clipped to spell his name. This was considered to be, in the parlance of the time, “a very pretty conceit.”

The Florentine “countryward” garden movement was in vogue in Italy around 1417, when it was started by Cosimo de Medici. This style of garden became all the rage. Many affluent Romans began to ornament their gardens with statuary — sometimes with actual antique sculptures dug up from ancient Roman runes.

Archeology remained a fashionable interest all during the Renaissance period, to the great detriment of ancient sites ransacked for garden ornaments.

This interest had a revival in England during the 18th century. The landed gentry would often build quite elaborate “ancient runes” in their gardens in order to be “picturesque,” as they put it.

Ornamental wrought-iron lanterns were often added to these runes to create a lighted entrance to the trellis arbor.

The romantic idea of ancient runes, antique statuary and lanterns with trellises, pergolas and arbors held a firm place all through the Victorian period and well into the following century. Statuary is still popular as a garden ornament.

Ladies often invited their friends on summer afternoons to have tea or lemonade in the summerhouse or pergola.

For a time in the late 19th century, a pedestal holding a large, mirrored globe called a gazing ball was a popular garden ornament. It was designed to reflect moving clouds, birds, butterflies and the colors of flowers.

Gazing balls have recently enjoyed a revival. They are often to be found in many catalogs of garden supplies and ornaments.

“The Gardener’s Labyrinth,” a wonderful book written by Thomas Hyll in 1557, gives detailed directions for the construction of garden knots, mazes, arbors, labyrinths, trellises, vistas and pergolas.

It also detailed pleaching, espaliering and topiary. In short, it had everything one could possibly want to know about creating the sort of formal architecture garden that has gone in and out of fashion for centuries.

As Shakespeare said, “Come into the Garden and find the light.”
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Ellen Probert Williamson lives in Kingston. Her column appears regularly in the Roane County News.