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Taste for the exotic


The Picturesque Garden in Europe By John Dixon Hunt. Thames & Hudson, 2003. 208pp. £32

Last summer there was a project at Stourhead landscape garden to briefly recreate some buildings that had been lost there over the years (AJ 12.9.02). Its familiar Classical temples were joined by such exotica as a Chinese Bridge and Turkish Tent: what John Dixon Hunt calls the 'scenography of all times and all places' that was a motive of many such 'picturesque' gardens of the 18th century, attempting to engage visitors' minds and imagination as well as their eyes.

Their scenarios could sometimes be extreme. In what is now Parc Monceau in Paris there is a puzzling stone pyramid - survivor of a an especially elaborate scheme by Carmontelle for the Duc de Chartres.

'Visitors entered by a Chinese gateway, next door to a Gothic building that served as a chemical laboratory, and passed through greenhouses and coloured pavilions. Upon pressing a button, a mirrored wall opened into a winter garden painted with trompe l'oeil trees, floored with red sand, filled with exotic plants, and containing at its far end a grotto in which supper parties were held.'

Which was only the start. Still to come were a Temple of Mars, a Dutch mill, a ruined castle, and various Turkish and Chinese effects. But the Villa Pallavicini near Genoa was even more fantastic: commingling the Egyptian, Chinese, Turkish, Indian and Hellenic, with bits of medieval castle and some carousels for good measure.

As Dixon Hunt demonstrates, though, through this same period there was a contrary tendency - a belief that nature did not need the supplement of this theatrical apparatus. He quotes a 1790 essay by the Scots critic Archibald Alison, who argued that its absence 'led men only more strongly to attend to the natural expression of scenery, and to study the means by which it might be maintained or improved'.

Immersed in the subject for decades, Dixon Hunt knows its perils for historians.

These may be linguistic - the term 'picturesque' has lost its old connotations; or visual - what these gardens were meant to look like may be judged better from earlier depictions than their appearance today. But allowances must still be made: 'Engraved views of picturesque landscapes tend to exaggerate one important aspect at the expense of others: an engraver's tool works the plate so busily that the landscape can look extremely full and dense.'

This, then, is a highly sophisticated discussion of the picturesque garden: its sources in painting and stage sets; its theorising and reception in books and essays; its dissemination across Europe; and its significance today - not, says Dixon Hunt, in being an exact model for contemporary landscape architects, but in emphasising 'topographical and regional specificity' and in offering 'mental and imaginative stimulation', in actively involving the viewer.

Beautifully illustrated in a quite compact format, it should appeal to both professional and general readers. The print run is surprisingly small, so snap it up while you can.

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