They called them “outdoor rooms” and dressing them was a more than a pastime. It was another opportunity to reinterpret the same finely crafted interior ideals that held sway in the Victorian persona. As if the lawn was considered a canvas, the elements chosen to inhabit the landscape were treated as a balanced composition. Moreover, it was important to invoke a response that would become an enduring emotional treasure for guests to cherish in memory.
The result was a collection of serious considerations and decisions taken, often recorded in journals and later discussed as historic, generational events.
“There’s the bench, under the weeping willow Grandfather planted in 1875, where Father proposed to mother the first time. He kept moving around the garden until he finally met with success next to the Camellia that’s celebrating its twenty-fifth birthday this spring,”—waymarks in the family life of Victorians.
We call them trees. The most precious of all landscape inhabitants, they were chosen for the characteristics they expressed. Strength, delicacy, nobility and charm, along with scale, color and texture influenced the tree decision making process. Outings with sketchbooks were de rigueur for comparative studies. Kew Gardens in Great Britain was a fond destination to establish standards and find ideal choices.
Captivated by the exotic imports from around the world, just one could set the tone and focus for the entire composition—the only question being who would tend it.
Considering the palette was only the first step. Not called “sentinels” for nothing, the ideal location for the largest of species was dictated by their purpose—establish and enforce the property boundary. Scaled groupings, at points along property edges—with an occasional foray into the lawn proper—was the model template.
Exotic trees were often the subject of a vignette seating area, where origination and heritage could be admired as an opening to a warm conversation. Fur trees were favorite, not only for their texture, but for the difference in hues creating a contrast to be enjoyed all year ’round. Any weeping willow, so romantic in nature, almost always hid a bench under its curtain of fronds.
Shrubs Must Flower, Ferns Must Articulate and Vines Must Climb
With the perimeter established, shrubs were used to finish tending the edges, skirt the trees and companion entrances. Among the most popular were the camellias, whose bloom resembled the rose in color and spectacular display, sadly without perfume to please the air.
The rich color of the leaves were thought to look healthy (a healthy visage being another major concern among Victorians)and camellias were used in areas where they contributed their volume in places that needed mass. Ferns were imperative in the Victorian garden. Lively fern hunts were a regular pastime in the gardening groups of the day. Not only were ferns valued for their whimsical quality, but to soften the edge of a path and, of course, adding froth to a bouquet for the dinner table.
Topping the list of all things green, vines seemed to capture their imagination mightily. From sweet potato to ivy, they seem to hold a singular place in the Victorian vocabulary, including surprising displays on armatures to create an elaborate niche around an indoor loveseat or a remarkable draping arrangement cascading down to a dining table, held in the air by a chandelier.
It’s what we enjoy most about the Victorian culture, a powerful display of imagination and artistry, orchestrated for pure delight.
So do you have any thoughts about the Victorians? Share them in the comments below.