God Almighty first planted a garden

I was watching the smoke eddying up from the grass smother, and thinking that although reams are written about how to garden, very little is said about the why of it. Here’s a man who made a stab at it.

Francis Bacon was not only Lord Chancellor of England, but in 1625 wrote his essay  ‘Of Gardens. ‘God Almighty first planted a garden,’ he wrote, and ‘indeed, it is the purest of human pleasures; it is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man; without which buildings and palaces are but gross handy-works…’

….the purest of human pleasures? What? Better than shopping, sex or celebrity gossip? … But how true that is about buildings and palaces  being gross handy-works if they don’t have gardens. There was a fashion, once, for designing gardens out of town planning.
But you can’t suppress it: There’s something fundamental going on, and it’s not anything that we (which is to say the media)  spend a lot of time analysing, although most other human obsessions are placed under the microscope on a weekly basis….

I like Bacon. After his brilliant philosophical beginning, he immediately gets sidetracked into garden design. He has no time for knot gardens:  ‘As for the making of knots,or figures, with divers coloured earths, that they may lie under the windows of the house on that side which the Garden stands, they be but toys; you may see as good sights many times in tarts.’

Every time I see a recreation of a renaissance garden, with all the loving care for authenticity that has gone into it, I think of Bacon and his dismissive comment about patterns in pastry. For which reason, you won’t catch me making a knot garden.

He doesn’t like ponds either. ‘Pools mar all, and make the Garden unwholesome, and full of flies and frogs.’ Sorry, Francis, I like my pond, although I take your point about the frogs.

Fountains, on the other hand, are the bees’ knees. ‘Fountains I intend to be of two natures; the one that sprinkleth or spouteth water: the other a fair receipt of water, of some thirty or forty foot square, but without fish, or slime, or mud.’…..And here Bacon the essayist loses track of reality…..thirty or forty foot square, but free of mud or slime (or fish)? Dream on.

…..but in the end Bacon does not answer the question, more’s the pity. Why this urge to go out in the mud and plant stuff?  By the end of his essay, he’s stopped thinking about such things, and like all garden designers (or garden architects, as he would say), is justifying his outrageous bill to his clients:
‘…and in this I have spared for no cost: but it is nothing for great princes….’



11 thoughts on “God Almighty first planted a garden

  1. ‘Going out in the mud to plant stuff’ is definitely atavistic – gets you out of the cave-painting and mammoth-skinning (and tart-weaving if you’re lucky), as well as marking out your territory to advertise your skills to the next door cave. And your wealth, if like Bacon you spare no cost. The likes of Dobbies, and bulb catalogue purveyors, have us sussed.

  2. What a relief to read beyond the title–you had me worried Kininvie. But clearly your pondering was a result of your smoking grass, so to speak. I must say I LOVE Mr. Bacon’s use of ‘sprinkleth’ –but I must question your use of ‘bees’ knees’ when you have been known to judge ‘groovy’ as out of date.

  3. Sounds like Mr B, like many garden designers, had no bleedin’ idea about the maintenance of the thing. Our littlish fountain is currently algified and I have to de-slime it at least once a year. Maybe when you had a team of fifteen gardeners, all of whom are paid sod all, you can afford to have the fountain cleaned weekly.

    • It’s quite clear Francis Bacon never had to de-slime a fountain. If he had had a computer and suitable software, he would have been in there with the other designers. But at least he thought about the ‘why’.

  4. I totally agree with Bacon and knot gardens, they leave me cold. I dont have a fountain either but then I have got rid of the pond as it was in the wrong place and didnt work and life was just too short to be forever clearing out leaves etc etc.

    I think we garden from an inate need to create, to nurture. It is interesting how many middle aged women, after their children have flown the nest, turn to gardening and I am sure it isnt just because they have more time. I also think gardening has the ability to heal. I was watching Who do you think you are the other night and they were talking about how near the Western Front there was a village that the British Army took over for R&R and this included a garden where the soldiers who were on leave from the front line could work. Gardening is different to building palaces etc, there is no end and it is a gentle hobby (well most of the time) which has a nice cycle to it.

    • I’d go further, Helen. It’s not just a cycle – it’s a constant struggle to assert order in the face of chaos – to defy entropy, if you like. But maybe this is a very masculine way of thinking?

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