Class Identity Played a Role in the Art and Politics of Gardens

Faculty Panel discusses Work of Influential Landscaper Gertrude Jekyll

HARTFORD, CT, February 27, 2013 – A faculty panel agreed during a Common Hour presentation Tuesday that the 19th and 20th centuries were periods of rapid transformation in the architecture of gardens, as exotic plants and sophisticated landscape designs were no longer the exclusive domain of the upper class. 

The panelists (from left to right) are Jane Nadel-Klein, professor of anthropology; Sarah Bilston, associate professor of English; Kristin Triff, associate professor of fine arts; and Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.
Photo by John Atashian.

The panel discussion, sponsored by Trinity’s Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, featured Sarah Bilston, associate professor of English, Jane Nadel-Klein, professor of anthropology; and Raffaella Fabiani Giannetto, assistant professor of landscape architecture at the University of Pennsylvania. The moderator was Kristin Triff, associate professor of fine arts, who kicked off the relatively serious discussion by joking, “Hopefully we’ll see a lot of cross-fertilization.”

Indeed, there was some as all three referred to the seminal work of Jekyll in their talks, although each also touched on different aspects of the art and politics of gardens. In addition to Jekyll -- who was a British horticulturist, garden designer and writer who wrote more than 1,000 articles, mostly for magazines -- the panelists also touched on the work of Robert Pogue Harrison, a horticulturist and professor at Stanford University.

Bilston set the stage for the discussion with a historic look at the changes in the types of plants that were used in gardens in the 19th and 20th centuries, as gardeners moved away from the sculpted and very popular Victorian gardens to the less formal. She attributed the change to the importance of plate glass, which was used to build greenhouses so that plants could be grown indoors and then moved outside.

“Exotic plants were no longer the preserve of the upper class,” said Bilston. “That gave rise to middle-class gardeners.” Bilston also noted that the changes liberated gardens from the strict rules that had prevailed at the time and allowed amateur gardeners to flourish.

Jekyll, who lived from 1843 to 1932, was one of the first of her profession to take into account the color, texture and experience of gardens in her designs and she was a devotee of all types of plants. Her use of color was influenced by painter J.M.V. Turner and by Impressionist artists.

Nadel-Klein went back even further in history, pointing out that Adam and Eve showed us that gardens mattered. Gardens, she explained, create a sense of community and place.

“Gardeners are particularly kind and generous people,” she said, adding that they generally are eager to exchange such items as seeds, cuttings, plants and advice “whether solicited or not.”

Nadel-Klein was particularly critical of marketers and huge conglomerates who think that most gardeners are “morons.” Most sellers of plants, garden supplies, and chemicals believe that 90 percent of gardeners are women who are not very knowledgeable and base their decisions on “prescriptions.”

Because many plants are grown abroad and shipped to the United States, megastores, which can afford to buy in great quantity, enjoy a huge commercial advantage, jeopardizing smaller nurseries and landscapers. Said Nadel-Klein: “We don’t have a level playing field in the world of plants.” 

Giannetto spoke more about the aesthetics of gardens and how each person can find meaning and a connection in a garden. “Spectators are turned into participants,” she noted.

“Gardens are a visual art, not merely a collection of plants,” she said, adding, “each place has a unique set of conditions.” She, too, referred to the Impressionist painters, who treated gardens as visual art and not merely a conglomeration of plants.

During the panel discussion, Nadel-Klein pointed out that English gardens have had an enormous influence on American gardens, especially in New England, and that the influence of Jekyll is still very, very strong.

Giannetto wryly noted that the English thought they had invented the garden and only found out later that gardens existed elsewhere, creating “a problem of national identity.”

Bilston added that the role of women as gardeners is a relatively modern phenomenon and that centuries ago, women were generally thought of as “weeders and rose pruners.”