In the 1630s and ’40s, in the Northern Provinces, writers like Constantijn Huygens and Jacob Cats dwell in their garden poems on the delights of rest and recreation as enjoyed by the owners of newly-fashionable garden estates and their visitors. Music and the visual arts help transform the country retreat into a place of intellectual and emotional pleasure. The topos of well-earned rest from the business of the court sustains an aesthetic of restful shade and eye-pleasing views, to be contemplated by grateful visitors and their host from a position of repose. As the century wore on, a certain competitive drive for magnificence increasingly colours the discourse of the Dutch garden, bringing it closer to its counterparts in France and England.
Nevertheless, the Horatian ideal of contemplative leisure following toil continues. And achieving a much-admired, idyllically pastoral Dutch garden did, indeed, require enormous amounts of toil, and even engineering.
In spite of the rhetoric of bucolic ease, gardening in Holland on the scale of Huygens’s Hofwijk was carried out on the comparatively recently drained and reclaimed land west of The Hague. As such, it was fraught with difficulties for the horticulturalist, from the local topography and character of the soil, to inclement weather, consistently high winds blowing across the flat, low-lying ground, and generally inhospitable conditions for ambitious gardening. In spite of Huygens’s insistence that his garden was intended for posterity, and was to be handed down from generation to generation for the delectation of his family, the odds against the enduring beauty of such a garden were high. Huygens admits in his poem that his verses are likely to outlive his beloved garden, and he was right. In fact, none of the gardens on which I concentrate here have survived. To appreciate them in all their glory we have to rely on the engravings which, fortunately for us, the proud owners had made of their country estates, and the loving recent recreations (in books, or occasionally of the gardens themselves) by garden history specialists.
Formal garden design first became fashionable in seventeenth-century France, where space was not at a premium, and elaborately executed avenues, walks, coppices, wildernesses, ornamental beds and flower gardens could be devised to fit the garden designer’s plans, however ambitious, so as to complement an attractively varied landscape. By contrast, the country house garden in the Northern Provinces was from the outset an exercise in overcoming hostile elements. Gardens like Hofwijk were fundamentally a bold public statement of a characteristically Dutch determination to secure and maintain a fertile, cultivated land in the face of decidedly unfertile sand, howling gales, and the ever-present threat of encroaching salt water.
Constantijn Huygens senior knew all about the problems of securely establishing a luxuriant garden in inhospitable terrain. Before he embarked on creating his own country retreat, he had already been closely involved with the planning of ambitious ornamental gardens at nearby Honselaarsdijk – the country estate of the Prince of Orange, where the Stadholder first experimented with an elaborate programme of building and garden-design magnificence. It was Huygens who advised Frederik Hendrik on the design and execution of a completely new landscape- gardening project to complement his recently rebuilt house there. In this case we have extensive documentation of the re-landscaping and development of the house and garden following its acquisition as an out-of-town retreat for the Prince, conveniently situated a short ride from The Hague, between there and Delft.
Frederik Hendrik acquired the old castle of Honselaarsdijk, near Naaldwijk, from the Count of Aremberg in 1612, while his brother Maurits was Stadholder. In 1621, building work started on a new palace there. Between 1621 and 1631 the old castle was pulled down in stages and replaced by an imposing modern U-shaped design which was not, however, completed during Frederik Hendrik’s lifetime. By contrast, the gardens were fully achieved by the 1630s – as with all such grand estates, the design and planting of the garden were carried out well ahead of the house, to allow it to mature.1 This was the first of Frederik Hendrik’s great ‘pleasure gardens’, and, typically for such enterprises in the flat, low-lying terrain of the United Provinces, he began with an extensive programme of drainage and making good of the land surrounding the original castle garden, and the laying of approach roads and planting of avenues of trees, for access.2
A leading historian of seventeenth-century courtly gardens in Holland has characterised the early development of the Honselaarsdijk as ‘a constant struggle with water’. As Frederik Hendrik went about enthusiastically clearing the land surrounding the house for garden development, there was mounting concern about the provision of an appropriate drainage system. It was not simply a matter of plants and trees failing to flourish, as they did in waterlogged or marshy locations. The garden’s proximity to the sea meant there was a danger of the even more devastating effect of sea water on trees’ roots – the least suspicion of salt in the water, and delicate saplings would not thrive. Without adequate drainage, in the first years of the new garden layout, most of the newly-planted trees died from exposure to salt water which had seeped into the ground.3
In the summer of 1631, just as the gardens at Honselaarsdijk seemed well established, the most recently acquired lands were spoiled by salt-water flooding, and many valuable trees were lost. The royal accounts record repeated expenditure on digging additional drainage channels and sewers in an effort to control the flow of ‘redundant water which spoils the trees’. New drains were also constructed to ‘complete the drains in the two palm gardens laying next to the house Honselaarsdijk’.
In its original form, the garden at Honselaarsdijk consisted of a rectangular plot with a moat around it. As the garden was expanded, drains and water channels had to be improved and added to accordingly. First the ground was surveyed by professional surveyors, then the areas of land were rearranged so as to straighten out the existing erratic divisions of plots, and create a neatly organised collection of squares and rectangles, bordered by canals. To achieve this, marshy ground had to be reclaimed by digging ditches and throwing up small dykes. Irregular canals and streams which crossed the land were filled with earth. Once the ground had been reorganised in this way, trees and shrubs were planted, and the garden was ready for plants, urns, garden structures and statues, to create a pleasure garden proper.
When André Mollet arrived from Charles I’s court in London to lay out the parterres (the ornamental beds constructed out of box hedges, grass and fine gravel) at Honselaarsdijk, he insisted on a further drainage system being installed in the main ornamental garden, to prevent his intricate boxwood hedges from becoming waterlogged. Nevertheless, accidents continued to happen. A late-seventeenth-century tourist, visiting Honselaarsdijk, reported the forlorn state of all the plantations in the orangery due to salt-water seepage. Throughout the lives of these coastal Dutch gardens there was a continuing need for replanting, and for the replacement of damaged or dead trees. Dutch nurserymen developed a specialism (still current today) in growing trees for transplantation. They gained an increasing reputation for being adept at successfully digging up and replanting well-grown specimens to fill gaps in avenues or formal plantings. As John Evelyn enthused in his Sylva:
In Flanders they have large Nurseries of [white poplar trees], which first they plant at one foot distance, the mould light, and moist. […] As they increase in bulk, their value and price advance likewise; so as the Dutch look upon a Plantation of these Trees as an ample portion for a Daughter, and none of the least effects of their good Husbandry.4
By the seventeenth century, Dutch expertise in drainage and land reclamation was recognised Europe-wide. Not only were surveyors from the northern Netherlands professionally well-qualified, on the basis of their extensive experience at home, to advise on the drainage of low-lying and flood-susceptible land abroad, but investors from the United Provinces regarded loans for such ventures as a reliable source of profit.
The Dutch surveyor and embankment engineer Cornelius Vermuyden was summoned to England in 1621 by James I when the Thames overflowed its banks near Dagenham, and settled in England, marrying an English wife (his son of the same name became a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was an investor in the Royal African Company).5 Five years later, Charles I appointed Vermuyden to drain waterlogged land at Hatfield Chase in Lincolnshire, the so-called ‘Isle of Axholme’. The project was financed by a consortium led by Vermuyden himself and Francis Russell, Earl of Bedford, whose role seems to have been to find marketable lands for Charles I, to provide much-needed funds for the royal exchequer.6 Not only did Vermuyden apply Dutch engineering techniques to the reclamation, but he employed Dutch, rather than English, workmen.
Vermuyden’s financial terms for the undertaking were well- established ones in the Netherlands. The engineer would receive one third of all lands reclaimed on his own behalf, another third went to the Crown, while the remaining third was allocated to the investors who had put money into the venture. Most of these were Dutch; their return on their investment was a significant area of reclaimed land, which they could then dispose of to realise a handsome profit. The Dutch financers included Jacob Cats, Sir Constantijn Huygens and Johan van Baerle, an Amsterdam entrepreneur from an Antwerp mercantile background who had already invested heavily in drainage projects in the Northern Provinces. Within a year of investing together at Hatfield Chase, Huygens senior married van Baerle’s sister Susanna.7
On successful completion of the drainage project at Hatfield Chase, van Baerle, Huygens and Cats each received a thousand acres of land in return for their investment. In 1630 all became English ‘denizens’, entitling them to own – and sell – land in England. Symbolically we have here the Dutch man of means laying claim to fertile land freshly recovered from the water – becoming a ‘landowner’ (in England an entitlement to rank) by literally reclaiming unusable land from flooding. Strikingly, then, acquisition of a significant tract of land as a consequence of astute, informed investment allowed Huygens to realise his youthful dream of ‘Englishness’ – he became a bona fide English gentleman, with estates to his name, although he and his fellow investors very shortly afterwards disposed of their land interests and realised their profits.
Vermuyden went on, under the continued direction of the Earl of Bedford, to drain the Great Fen, or Bedford Level, in Cambridgeshire. In 1642, during the English Civil War, Parliament ordered the dykes to be broken and the land flooded in order to stop a Royalist army advance. In 1649 Vermuyden was once again commissioned to reclaim the Bedford Level, this time by the Commonwealth administration, after the execution of Charles I.
In France and England, specialist garden designers undertook a project as a whole, selecting suitable locations for the various garden elements, drawing out the designs and overseeing their execution. Not so in the Low Countries, where the opinions of surveyors and drainage engineers were sought before any ambitious garden programme was undertaken. Only after the surveyor had secured the terrain and tested the possibilities for safely planting and sustaining valuable plants and trees did the garden designer take over.
Right up to the end of the century, foreign visitors to the celebrated gardens between The Hague and the dunes of the North Sea remark on a certain precariousness in the great Dutch coastal gardens, and on the ever- present danger of its being invaded by sand. Visiting the gorgeous gardens at Sorgvliet, which Hans Willem Bentinck had bought from Jacob Cats in the 1670s, and which lay conveniently just off the famous road to Scheveningen, only half an hour from the centre of The Hague, several English tourists commented on the way the gardens struggled against the natural terrain. The absence of decent paths was a drawback – ‘good gravel walks could scarcely be made without a great deal of trouble’, noted Justinian Isham, while John Leake complained that ‘the hotness and looseness of their sand is very unpleasant to the eyes and feet’. Another visitor sank up to his ankles in sand, in a place where moles had burrowed under the path.8
Altered fashions and tastes in pleasure gardens reflected changes in Dutch outlook and temperament in the latter part of the seventeenth century. After the marriage in 1677 of the Stadholder William III (reinstated officially in 1672) and Charles II’s eldest niece, Princess Mary Stuart, it was widely assumed, in the absence of direct heirs, that William would eventually ascend the English throne. Peace and prosperity in the United Provinces allowed the burgeoning commercial economy to flourish, and with it the fortunes of mercantile families and those who invested heavily in new money-making ventures at home and overseas. From the early 1680s, the growing international aspirations and economic self-confidence of the United Provinces were echoed in ever grander and more extensive garden plans on the part of Dutch country estate owners – the emerging northern Netherlandish nobility.
Meanwhile the Dutch East and West India Companies were playing an increasingly important role in international global commerce, their market aspirations exerting considerable influence over the politics of territories as far removed as Surinam and the Moluccas. Rare and unusual plants, fruits and vegetables from the new Dutch colonies became as sought-after – and as expensive to acquire – at home in the United Provinces as comparably fashionable porcelain and lacquerwork. Wealthy garden enthusiasts dealt directly with contacts at the East India Company headquarters at the Cape and, via the West India Company, at Paramaribo in Surinam, to obtain well-grown specimens, transported on Company ships at the owner’s expense, to grace their terraces and hothouses for the delight of their visitors. The practice became so widespread that the directors of the Dutch East India Company attempted (unsuccessfully) to forbid the use of their ships for the transport of private goods. In October 1677 its officials reported that the deck of a ship recently returned from the Cape was
covered and obstructed in such a way with boxes, and in such great numbers, as if they were whole gardens, resulting in so great a weakening and damaging of the ship by all the weight on top that we were obliged to write off and prohibit herewith the sending of all those cuttings, trees and plants.9
Garden design metamorphosed and became ever more ambitious to match the aspirations of the Dutch élite. Philips Doublet and Susanna Huygens’s gardens at Clingendael and Hans Willem Bentinck’s acquisition and modernisation of Jacob Cats’s beloved garden at Sorgvliet are elegant examples of this transformation. Engraved panoramic views of these two neighbouring garden estates between The Hague and the coast – both substantially redesigned during the last quarter of the seventeenth century – show Dutch self-confidence and national pride renewed and reflected in ostentatious displays of wealth and magnificence.
William III’s Honselaarsdijk, whose early struggles with the environment paved the way for general Dutch garden enthusiasm, was also completely redesigned in the 1680s, matching William’s increasingly ‘royal’ aspirations. The redesigned gardens were openly intended to match in splendour, if not in scale, Louis XIV’s world-renowned gardens at Versailles.
Increasingly elaborate and extensive gardens like these also mirror another Dutch development of this period – the consolidation of wealth and power through marriage, which produced prominent and powerful families whose influence was exerted on both sides of the Narrow Sea. Both Susanna Huygens and her brother Constantijn Huygens junior made extremely advantageous marriages, which also lead to their association with particularly magnificent Dutch gardens.
Susanna Huygens married her cousin Philips Doublet (son of her father’s sister, Gertruyd) in April 1660. The Doublets were hugely wealthy, and Constantijn Huygens, describing his daughter’s wedding in meticulous detail in a letter to a friend, made no attempt to hide his intense satisfaction at the match, nor how expensive the wedding celebrations had been. It was, he confided, ‘a matter of importance and serious consideration in the service of the State’. The wedding celebrations were sumptuous, and were attended by several ambassadors and personages of note. Huygens’s unusually colourful account of the lavish dining arrangements and after- dinner dancing (preceding the bedding of the bride, which her father recounts in rather excessive detail) captures the spirit of the occasion:
The dinner guests assembled in the room facing the garden, while the food was carried into the room facing the street. The ambassador escorted the bride to the table, and each gallant gentleman and his lady was served with a first course which each judged entirely to their liking, as also the second course and the dessert. The French ambassadorial party did our chef Mater Jacques the honour of declaring his culinary prowess a match for even the most able kitchen-managers in Paris.
There were forty-two complete place settings for the guests – knife, fork and spoon, as well as glassware, plate and napkin, all set out on white damask on an L-shaped table. The wedding feast consisted of a pig’s head, over 100 partridges, capons, turkeys, pheasants and hares, all stuffed and larded, followed by astonishing quantities of sugar and marzipan dainties.10
[…] While this glorious meal was taking place, yet more glorious rooms were being prepared, laid out, perfumed and lit with between five and six thousand torches, to serve as the dance floor for the young people. And after the five hours spent eating, drinking and embracing, everyone was delighted to escape from the cooking smells and the heat of such a crowd, seated for so long together. Then, after time to stretch our legs, Monsieur the Ambassador and the other older guests having taken their seats, the dancing began.11
Six hundred candles illuminated the great hall for the ball, which went on into the small hours – well after the bride and groom had been escorted to the decorated bedchamber. The whole thing cost Sir Constantijn over three thousand guilders.
A man of considerable means with a good deal of leisure time at his disposal, Philips Doublet invested extravagantly in a number of his personal enthusiasms, among them a passion for fast carriages. He corresponded at length with Susanna’s brother Christiaan Huygens in Paris, exchanging sketches and designs for ever more streamlined horse-drawn conveyances. But his gardens were the dominating passion in his life, and he became a gardening adviser to William III, at Honserlaarsdijk and his other palaces near The Hague.
The Doublet country estate at Clingendael had been designed for Philips Doublet senior and his wife (Philips junior’s parents) in the 1630s, by the same architect and garden designer – Pieter Post – who was responsible for Constantijn Huygens’s Hofwijk. Like Hofwijk it was characterised by the classical form and style of the house, standing in water at the centre of the gardens.12 Like Hofwijk, it aspired to offer shade, tranquillity, walks and groves, and eschewed ostentation, both in its layout and in the stocking of its flowerbeds.
After the death of their father, the Doublet children embarked upon an elaborate redevelopment of the parental garden, turning for inspiration to the same French models that were exerting considerable influence in England. By the later 1670s this had become an explicit plan to modify the garden layout at Clingendael to include features drawn from le Nôtre’s fabulous gardens at Versailles.
In late July 1678 Susanna wrote to her brother Christiaan Huygens in Paris, describing her pleasure at the family’s move from their town house in The Hague to Clingendal for the summer, and pressing Christiaan to describe the redesigned gardens at Versailles:
Two days ago we arrived here with the whole household, hoping that the good weather will last for another month or two. I like it here enormously, and our children are as enthusiastic to be here as I am. It seems to me that the garden is beautiful at the moment – the trees are growing wonderfully well. My husband is astonished at the changes you talk about when you visited Versailles, and continues to hope that he might return one day, so that he could admire all these added beauti- fications with you, and many other beautiful things that I fear I myself will never see.13
A few months later, Philips Doublet himself wrote to Christiaan, asking him to purchase and send complete runs of engravings of the gardens at Versailles, so that Philips could use them as models for his own garden redesign. They would also be useful, Philips added, for the remodelling of William’s palace at Huis ten Bosch, for which he was an adviser.14It took a large number of exchanges of letters, and some false starts with sending the plates (one consignment got badly damaged in transit), but in the end Philips was the proud owner of precise and detailed representations of all the newest and most significant buildings and gardens in Paris.15
Christiaan Huygens also sent his brother-in-law diagrams and descriptions of innovative designs for fountain-driving machinery in use in Paris. Where once canals and drainage ditches had defined the contours of the Dutch pleasure garden, now elaborate waterworks, fountains and pools provided more picturesque focal points for the visitor. In the exchanges of information between Huygens and Doublet – brothers-in-law and fellow enthusiasts for the modern and innovative – we see two Dutchmen, in the forefront of design activities in a variety of areas, both closely involved with the house of Orange and its aspirations towards sovereignty in the British Isles, collaborating at a distance to interpret and develop French ideas, influencing in peculiarly Dutch ways evolving garden projects in the United Provinces.
Christiaan and Susanna’s brother Constantijn junior married Susanna Rijkaert in August 1668. Once again, a member of the influential and politically well-placed Huygens family married into a prosperous merchant family, acquiring its network of commercial connections. Among these were the families of Gaspar Fagel (who acquired his garden at Leeuwen- horst in 1676) and Magdalena Poulle (whose garden at Gunterstein was celebrated throughout the 1680s).16
In the latter half of the seventeenth century, men on the rise in politics and power created grand country estates to match their ambitions. Gaspar Fagel, Grand Pensionary of Holland from 1672, was one of the close advisers to William III in the period leading up to the seaborne invasion of the British Isles in November 1688. With Bentinck and Gilbert Burnet, he shaped the polemic surrounding the Orange claim to the English throne, and may be credited with some of the ‘spin’ that ultimately made the invasion acceptable to the English.
On the rising tide of his influence over the young William, Fagel took possession of the country estate of Leeuwenhorst in 1676. There he presided over the creation of one of the most remarkable gardens in the United Provinces. Throughout the period of feverish planning and preparation for William and Mary to take by force the throne of England which they believed theirs by right, Fagel, who suffered from bouts of ill-health and persistent gout, would retire to his estate near Noordwijk to hunt and to occupy himself with the delights of gardening.
The international renown of the Leeuwenhorst gardens came not just from the ostentation and complexity of its design, but above all from Fagel’s collection of exotic plants. He spent enormous sums on acquiring many species newly introduced from the Dutch colonies, which could be seen nowhere else in Europe. Later commentators remarked that in spite of his not inconsiderable annual income, and his moderate way of life, at his death in December 1688 (just weeks after the invading armada he had been so closely involved in planning set out) he left almost nothing to his heirs, having squandered everything on plant rarities, and the equipment and accommodation to support them at Leeuwenhorst.17
Although his magnificent estate was rented, rather than owned outright, Fagel made sure to sign an undertaking with the landowner that all the plants introduced and cultivated there belonged to himself. He had selected the location with care, in a fertile, sheltered region already known for its market gardening, and from the outset his ambition was successfully to cultivate species hitherto unknown to Europeans – both flowering plants and fruiting shrubs. Over the twelve remaining years of his life he worked in close collaboration with horticulturalists in the service of the Dutch East India Company, paying for plants secured in the Far East to be tended in an intermediate garden at the Cape, to assure their robustness before they were transported to the Netherlands.
A visitor to the Cape en route for China in 1685 was astonished by the Dutch East India Company’s thriving botanical garden:
We were mightily surprised to find one of the loveliest and most curious Gardens that I ever saw. It contains the rarest Fruits to be found in the several parts of the World, which have been transported thither, where they are most carefully cultivated and lookt after.18
In his enthusiasm for the exotic, Fagel did not confine himself to trawling the colonies for new items for his gardens. In 1684 he took advantage of his fellow adviser to William of Orange, Hans Willem Bentinck’s being in London on a diplomatic mission, to request that he look out for plants for him in England. Bentinck replied that he was only too happy to oblige, and that he had already begun to make enquiries – it would help, he added, if Fagel could send him a list of the individual plant-species he was interested in.19 Eventually, the Leeuwenhorst gardens contained plants from the Cape of Good Hope, from Europe, the Mediterranean, North and South America, south and south-west Asia, the Canary Islands, Africa and Japan. Numerous overseas visitors record how impressed they have been by the facilities and the plants in Fagel’s gardens. His hothouses were the foremost in Europe at the time, and the orchids and pineapples he raised there were regarded as contemporary marvels. Shortly before his death a set of water- colours of the most exotic of his rarities was commissioned on behalf of William III himself, from the artist Stephanus Cousyns.20
Fagel died on 15 December 1688 (new style), just a week before the triumphant William III took up residence, first at St James’s Palace, and then, because his asthma made prolonged residence in smog-congested central London impossible for him, at Hampton Court Palace. Fagel’s family immediately sold the contents of his garden to William and Mary. By 1690 much of the collection was installed at Hampton Court. It is first recorded there on 26 April, when a group of ‘botanick acquaintances’ from Northamptonshire visited Hampton Court gardens by appointment, ‘to see the famous collection ther of the rare Indian plantes which mine Heer Fagel had gathered together’:
There is about 400 rare Indian plants which were never seen in England; and there is scarce any desirable Indian plant, but a specimen may be seen ther, and some very curious Indian plants are in so great perfection it is very wonderfull and scarce credible. The stoves [hothouses] in which they are kept are much better contrived and built than any other in England.21
The process of transplanting Fagel’s garden contents to Hampton Court was a protracted one, particularly since adequate facilities (for example, the extensive hothouses and glasshouses) had to be constructed ahead of the plants’ arrival, to assure the minimum of shock and damage to the fragile blooms. Two years later, some of the plants were still at Leeuwenhorst, waiting for suitable accommodation. On 3 March 1692, the remainder of Fagel’s collection, consisting of ‘orange trees, lemon trees, and other outlandish trees as well as shrubs, plants and herbs’, was valued, and 4,351 guilders paid to Fagel’s heirs. In August and September, when the weather was fine enough not to damage the trees and shrubs, they were transported to The Hague. Thence they were shipped to England in October. Garden tubs and their bulb contents, which William and Mary had not required, were sold to the Amsterdam Botanical Garden in 1691, and transported there in 1692.
In spite of the fact that, like Fagel, the twice-widowed Magdalena Poulle had no direct heirs, her extensive gardens at Gunterstein, complete with exotic plants, an orangery and hothouses, have, unusually among the Dutch seventeenth-century gardens, survived down to the present day. She acquired the ruined manor outside Utrecht in 1680 at public auction, and over the next two years built a classically-influenced country house for herself on the foundations of the old medieval one, and designed an extensive garden around it.
In a letter to Henry Wotton, John Evelyn reproached antiquity for its lack of interest in exotic plants and the nurturing of rarities under hothouse conditions. Where gardens were concerned, the ancients ‘had nothing approaching the elegancy of the present age’:
What they call their gardens were only spacious plots of ground planted with plants and other shady trees in walks, and built about with porticos, xystia, and noble ranges of pillars, adorned with statues, fountains, pis- cariae, aviaries, etc.
But for the flowery parterre, beds of tulip, carnations, auricula, tuberose, jonquills, ranunculas, and other of our rare coronaries, we hear nothing of; nor that they had such store and variety of exotics, orangeries, myrtle, and other curious greens; nor do I believe they had their orchards in such perfection, nor by far our furniture for the kitchen.22
On 16 July 1686, Evelyn sent a friend a list of the most famous gardens in the Dutch Republic, which he must see without fail. These included those of Hans Willem Bentinck (Sorgvliet), Lord Beverning, Gaspar Fagels, Daniel Desmarets, Madame de Flines (i.e. Agnes Block), Magdalena Poulle, Pieter de Wolff, and the Leiden Hortus Botanicus, as well as the Duke of Arenberg’s garden.23
Gardening enthusiasts like Gaspar Fagel and Magdalena Poulle sent out their specialist search parties across the known world, looking for exotic botanical specimens and exploiting every possible avenue for access to much-desired, difficult-to-get-hold-of items, which they would then rear lovingly in their hothouses and display ostentatiously in the outdoor urns that graced their terraces during the warm summer months.
In 1685 the Bishop of London, Henry Compton, sent his head gardener, George London, on a trip to the Dutch Republic to view and report back on gardening innovations there. One of the gardens he visited was Magdalena Poulle’s, where he compiled an inventory of the rarest and most remarkable plants he saw there, headed: ‘These elegants which stand together in the garden of the Lady of Gunterstein at Breukelen in the province Utrecht’. They included a coconut palm, Sesbania grandiflora (a shrub from Kerala with edible leaves and flowers), a coral tree from Brazil, sugar cane, carob, a clematis from Argentina or Paraguay, Fritillaria crassa (one of the fritillary family much featured in Dutch flower still-lifes), Leonurus Capitis Bonae Spei (from the Cape of Good Hope), hibiscus, delphinium, Thlaspi sempervirens et florens (from Persia), papaya and tamarind. All or most of these needed special conditions for successful raising, and indeed the hothouses at Gunterstein set a standard for those at the Physic Garden in Chelsea.
When Magdalena died, her brother put part of her orangery collection up for auction. It included ‘diverse sorts of Orange, Lemon, Myrtle, Jasmine, Camphor, Arbutus and double Oleander trees, together with many extremely rare and exotic shrubs, plants, roots and bulbs, collected over many years from many distant regions of the world’.24
George London’s close study of garden features and remarkable plants in Dutch gardens on behalf of Compton later stood him in good stead. After the 1688 invasion he became royal gardener to William III, and deputy to Hans Willem Bentinck as Intendant of the royal gardens.
Gaspar Fagel’s collection of exotic plants and shrubs, transported (or perhaps one should say ‘translated’) from Holland to Hampton Court Palace, was as much a part of William and Mary’s Dutch ‘invasion’ as the 1688 flotilla and the Torbay landing. That extended sense of the transfer of authority – cultural, aesthetic, intellectual as well as political – from one location to another is also illustrated by another Dutch garden, established with typical Dutch fortitude and determination in an overseas ‘settlement’ – Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen’s garden at Recife, in newly conquered Brazil.25
A distinguished Dutch military campaigner, friend and fellow art- amateur of Constantijn Huygens senior, and a distant cousin of the Stadholder, Johan Maurits became Governor-General of Dutch Brazil in 1637.26 Delighted by the topography around Recife, where he established his headquarters, which at once resembled the Netherlands in its water- surrounded flatness, and far exceeded it in the lushness of its flora, Maurits occupied the island of Antônio Vaz, where he set about establishing a model Dutch-style ‘new town’, with a regular grid of streets, central public squares and a system of gardens and canals, to be called ‘Mauritsstad’. He also built himself a palace in Recife, which he called the Vrijburg Palace, organised on as lavish a scale as the colonial context allowed, with extensive formal gardens around it.
A surviving description of the Vrijburg Palace garden shows how closely it conforms, in design and execution, to the gardens of Johan Maurits’s close friends Constantijn Huygens and Jacob Cats in a similarly flat, water-encircled landscape outside The Hague:
In the midst of that sterile and unfruitful sand a garden was planted, and all the species of fruit trees which grow in Brazil, and even many that came from other parts, and the strength of much other fruitful soil, brought from outside in shallow boats, and much addition of manure, made the place as well conditioned as the most fruitful soil.27
As at home in Holland, Maurits had trees brought in full-grown to form avenues for his new garden – only here in Brazil the trees were coconut palms:
The Count ordered [the coconut palms] to be fetched from a distance of 3 or 4 miles, in four-wheeled wagons, cleverly uprooting them and transporting them to the island, on pontoons set up across the rivers. The friendly soil accepted the new plants, transplanted not only with work, but also with ingenuity, and such fertility was passed to those aged trees, that, against the expectation of everyone, soon in the first year after transplanting, they, in a marvellous eagerness to produce, gave very copious quantities of fruit.28
In his handbook of tree husbandry, Sylva, John Evelyn cited Johan Maurits’s mature-tree transplanting with approval:
But before we take leave of this Paragraph, concerning the Transplanting of great Trees, and to shew what is possible to be effected in this kind, with cost, and industry; Count Maurice (the late Governour of Brasil for the Hollanders) planted a Grove neere his delicious Paradise of Friburge, containing six hundred Coco-trees of eighty years growth, and fifty foot high to the nearest bough: these he wafted upon Floats, and Engines, four long miles, and planted them so luckily, that they bare abundantly the very first year; as Caspar Barlaeus hath related in his elegant Description of that Princes expedition.29
Both these accounts were second-hand (Barlaeus never travelled to Brazil). A first-hand description of the Vrijburg garden by the Portuguese missionary Manuel Calado confirms that the effect of these ambitious garden-creating moves was a pleasure garden on the Dutch model – though there is some disagreement as to just how many palm trees were uprooted to frame its shady groves:
In this garden they put 2000 coconut palms, bringing them there from other places, because they asked the inhabitants for them, and they ordered them to bring them in carts, and with them they made some long good-looking rows, in the style of the tree-lined path of Aranjués, and elsewhere many trellised vines and beds of vegetables, and of flowers, with some summerhouses, and entertainment, where the ladies and their friends would go to pass the summer festivals, and to have their treats, and make their picnics and drinks as they do in Holland, with their musical instruments.30
In this recreation of the space of repose beloved of Dutch noblemen, Johan Maurits would walk ‘for pleasure’ with his guests to ‘show off’ his curiosities. Vrijburg became his favourite palace, and the garden his preferred place for spending any time he could spare from the business of government. As with those northern Netherlandish gardens, though, the pleasure offered by the Vrijburg gardens was short-lived. Even before they left Brazil in 1654, the Dutch themselves had begun to remove trees from the gardens, and by the end of the seventeenth century there was almost nothing left.
The to-and-fro exchange in garden lore nevertheless continued. Johan Maurits brought quantities of garden materials back with him to Europe on his return in 1644, where they contributed to his remarkable gardens at the Mauritshuis and at his palace at Cleves, where he became local Stadholder.31It was he who advised Bentinck in detail on the design of his magnificent gardens at Sorgvliet, gardens which by around 1700 summed up the Anglo–Dutch collaborative project.
In May 1700 Bentinck married his second wife, the widow of Lord Berkeley of Stratton, Martha Jane Temple, the niece of the pro-Dutch diplomat, and connoisseur of gardens and garden art, Sir William Temple. She brought with her a dowry of £20,000, a large fortune which enabled Bentinck to enlarge his social ambitions considerably. Several of those writing to congratulate him on his remarriage suggested that in the pleasant retreat of a companionate marriage blessed with shared interests (i.e. gardening) he could indulge his passion for horticulture to the hilt. His gardens outside The Hague fully realised such aspirations.
In the academic literature on gardens and gardening in the seventeenth century, there tends to be a certain reluctance to tackle the financial side of the subject – not just the sheer size of expenditure, but the commercial and organisational arrangements for producing perishable goods for the horticultural market and purveying them to eager customers. I have touched several times on the high cost of designing, establishing and stocking a country estate, but I have been aware myself of a tendency to cite this with admiration, as evidence of passion and commitment to the enterprise. This is the point to talk about prices, and attitudes to the cost of maintaining so ephemeral a luxury as an ornamental garden, in constant need of replenishing and upkeep. And how better to do so than by describing so-called ‘tulipmania’ – the escalating price of tulip bulbs in the Dutch Republic in the 1630s.
In the mid-1630s the Dutch went wild about tulips.32 As Anne Goldgar describes in the most recent study of the subject, tulips were new to Europe (they were introduced in the mid-sixteenth century from Turkey), and they were rare. They were therefore expensive.
To us the ultimate in Dutch domesticity, in the 1630s this fragile and changeable bloom represented novelty, unpredictability, excitement – a splash of the exotic east, a collector’s item for the curious and the wealthy.33
For a short period, starting around the summer of 1636, prices for the bulbs of some particularly highly prized varieties of tulips rose to enormous heights. Tulip bulbs are by their nature objects on which it is possible to speculate financially. Those which promised to produce the most highly- sought-after variegated red-and-yellow, purple-and-white or red-and white flowers – because they had produced such blooms in the past, or were the offsets from bulbs that had – could be sold for very large sums. But the promise of the bloom lay resolutely in the future. What changed hands was a few small brown bulbs the size of an onion. The purchaser was obliged to accept the promise of a spectacular bloom on trust, and to pay upfront.
In early 1637 the bottom fell out of the tulip market. Speculative sellers who had bought bulbs at high prices to sell on at a profit found themselves with worthless items on their hands. Those who had purchased at the top of the market, and who would indeed see flowers as soon as the summer blooming season came around, nevertheless refused to pay the balance on the exorbitant amounts they had been foolish enough to part with for their prize purchases in the overheated market. Among those – from humble artisans to nobility – who had been caught up in the tulip craze, many were ruined, reduced to bankruptcy by purchase prices far beyond anything reasonable for a mere flower.
That is the story as it has traditionally been told. In fact, the truth was far less sensational. Prices of tulips did indeed inflate in the 1630s, and there was a ‘crash’ in 1637, but tulip bulbs continued to command serious prices throughout the seventeenth century, until they were finally displaced by the newly fashionable Oriental flower, the hyacinth. The tulip buyers and sellers were on the whole professional horticulturalists, and they sold to keen gardeners. One of the beauties of bulbs of any kind is that they can be bought in quantities to suit the pocket of the buyer. Where André Mollet bought tulip bulbs by the thousand to stock the parterres at St James’s Palace in London, owners of a small plot of land could purchase them individually to add colour and dash to a modest bed.
Bulb-buying represents the ordinary Dutch man or woman in the street’s access to and aspiration towards gardening, and control of their own little piece of earth. Since all paid taxes towards dykes and securing the borders of the nation, what could have been more natural than to join the élite in tilling one’s own garden? And indeed, it has been argued that the collapse of the tulip ‘bubble’ was the result of the market gardeners over-producing, thus driving prices down. By the time of the collapse of the tulip-speculation bubble, nursery gardeners’ initiative in this thriving market meant that tulips produced from seed were freely available for purchase, and the rarity value of particular varieties had disappeared.
In the contemporary imagination, the ephemeral bloom of the gorgeous tulip and the high price attached to it, simply for its rarity, symbolised the moral dilemma of expenditure. If one accumulated wealth by legitimate means, was one entitled to ‘squander’ it on useless decorative rarities like paintings and tulips? Ought one not to dispense it more ethically, on good works, or invest it for the future? Dealers could soothe the conscience of their clients by surrounding themselves with the very luxuries their clients guiltily desired – as Gaspar Duarte hung the paintings he offered for sale in his own gallery, where his visitors could wander in a leisurely fashion, admiring both the works of art and the ambiance, before deciding to purchase. Market gardeners, similarly, surrounded their shops with ornamental gardens, filled with the very blooms their visitors were eager to acquire, and which they would collect only later, after the blooms had died, and the bulbs were lifted for the winter. Inflated prices for tulips were generated at auction, exactly as we saw high prices being realised for paintings in the same period.34 So it is hardly surprising to find the same individuals buying and selling both art and tulips.35
Fascination with the soaring price of tulips reminds us of the strenuous connection between wealth and fashionably ambitious gardening. Both Dutch and English gardens came at considerable expense. On top of the price of plants and labour, there was the cost of the plundering of the raw materials required to create it – and its accompanying country house – from the new territories which yielded the exotic, the rare and the sought- after for keen collectors and horticulturalists.
Here I use the career and rise of the Englishman William Blathwayt as representative of the complicated relationship between desirable goods from overseas and money-making, the passion for collecting and the ruthless pursuit of power and office. Because he had served in the Netherlands, and was fluent in the Dutch language, Blathwayt self-consciously modelled his tastes in fine things, including art and gardens, on those of the Dutch. He also unashamedly exploited his position as controller of import-export from the colonies to amass an extraordinary profusion of luxury articles, commodities and curiosities to adorn his country house at Dyrham Park near Bath, and his magnificent gardens there, which in his day were the talk of the region.36
William Blathwayt was Clerk of the Privy Council, head of the Plantation Office, Auditor and Surveyor General of the plantation revenues, and Secretary of War, beginning in 1676 and running on into the new century. He was a somewhat prosaic government official with expensive tastes, who married a considerable heiress. William III, whom he served with exceptional efficiency as Secretary of War, and Auditor General at the Colonial Office, pronounced him ‘dull’. John Evelyn called him ‘a very proper person, and very dextrous in businesse’, adding, ‘and has besides all this married a very great fortune’. Old money looked down on him, pronouncing his expenditure on Dyrham Park excessive and unwise: ‘My Lord Scarborough thinks he lays out his money not very well.’
Blathwayt was William and Mary’s ‘imperial fixer’. His successful career was based on the way he could make things happen, at long distance, throughout English-administered territories, from the American colonies to the farthest-flung island outposts. For that he was handsomely remunerated between the 1680s and the end of the century. But Blathwayt’s salary did not stretch to cover his magnificent lifestyle at Dyrham Park. That was maintained by systematically extracting backhanders from his ‘clients’.
If you want him to act, one of Blathwayt’s agents advised the Governor of the island of St Christopher (now St Kitts) in the Caribbean in the 1680s, it will cost you: ‘Without a gratification of twenty or thirty guineas for himself at least,’ he wrote, ‘I much doubt the effect of anything else.’ The Governor duly sent thirty guineas on behalf of the colony, and added another ten of his own with an accompanying note: ‘to buy you a pair of gloves in acknowledgement of the favour you did me in my business at Court’. ‘I have not named you in the bill,’ he went on, ‘that no notice might be taken to whom the money goes.’
Which explains a good deal about Dyrham Park as it can still be found today. Even three hundred years after the original owner’s death, the surroundings are sumptuous: glorious walnut panelling and a sensational cedar and cypress staircase; gilded embossed-leather wall coverings, inlaid furniture, tapestries and rugs. On the walls are fine Dutch landscapes and perspective paintings in a manner that was enormously fashionable at the end of the seventeenth century. And there are fantastic pieces of blue-and- white Delft faïence everywhere, including a pair of waist-high pagoda-like pyramid vases designed for the display of rare tulips – another expensive seventeenth-century fad on which William Blathwayt was happy to spend a small fortune.
The receiving rooms in Blathwayt’s mansion are panelled in black walnut, courtesy of the Governor of Maryland. The cypress and cedar wood for the baluster and stair risers of the grand main staircase were a gift from the Governor of South Carolina; the walnut treads were the contribution of the Governor of Virginia. The juniper floorboards came from Jamaica. The extensive gardens, which once boasted some of the most impressive fountains and cascades in England, were planted with exotic plants collected for Blathwayt by colonial officials engaged in business which needed the Secretary of State’s blessing.
Blathwayt did choose and purchase the Delft ware, the ornamental tiles and fine china himself – as well as Oriental silks and large quantities of tea – whenever he accompanied King William to The Hague on royal business. But he made sure that he paid absolutely no customs duties on them, remonstrating in indignation should anybody so much as try to make him do so.
Determinedly ferrying their precious cargoes of exotic plants and elaborate garden designs across broad and narrow seas, the industrious Dutch distributed their own peculiar, highly developed system of cultural and aesthetic ideas, carried more or less explicitly along with the material objects themselves. Long before the house of Orange set its sights on the throne of England, the British Isles had absorbed, and come to take delight in, a controlled garden landscape and the associated idea of a conscientious struggle to master the forces of nature.
When William III interrupted his military campaign, breaking off from the march to conquer London to walk in the gardens at Wilton, he must have felt in familiar surroundings, and an accompanying sense of comfort and relief. In terms of ambiance and lifestyle, he was coming home. The outstretched hands of the welcoming orange-sellers among the crowds thronging the streets of London, as he made his way along Knightsbridge towards Whitehall, will have reassured him further: the studied, self- conscious garden symbolism of the house of Orange was already recognisable and in place in England.
Mutual recognition cushioned the impact of the Dutch invasion of England. Retrospectively, it blurred and diffused the national memory: here was no conquest, here was an affinity – a meeting of minds and sensibilities.