Lining up Posted on December 14, 2011

Home from a weekend in Yorkshire deep in snow. The skeletons of the woods are drawn in bold black lines on the swelling white hills. We walked, or trudged, to a gazebo commanding the village of Settrington to sip old champagne* as crisp as the air and enumerate the surrounding hills, dales, farms and copses. The mausoleum of Castle Howard was just distinguishable (it could also have been a big ash or oak) on the skyline to the west.

A brown wall of beech hedge surrounds our hosts’ house like the wash-line of a framed watercolour. You are acutely aware of the structures of trees; elongated and aspiring in the middle of a wood, billowing and outreaching on the edges. On a distant hill you see only a dark mass with the bulges of surface tension, like a pool of mercury in the blank white jigsaw puzzle of fields.

Do we think enough about lines and shapes in our gardens? I am reading a small classic of garden design, l’Optique des Jardins, by Robert Mallet, whose family owns the happiest marriage of French and English garden philosophies, Le Bois des Moutiers, at Varengeville on the coast of Normandy. Mallet makes the point that straight lines can easily be overdone. Vertical ones are like the bars of a cage; horizontal ones exclude us from what lies beyond; straight lines that are nearly but not quite vertical or horizontal make us uneasy, make us uneasy, like a picture that needs straightening. ‘Just one misplaced line’, he writes, ‘can drive you crazy’. It is in winter when lines make up most of the picture that we should study and correct them.

I was leafing through an old brown volume of The Gardener’s Magazine of 1830, as one does on locked-in frosty days, to see what preoccupied our fellow-addicts 180 years ago. The first article I opened was the Conductor’s (that is John Claudius Loudon’s) Notes and Reflections made on a tour from Paris to Germany. He compares the vale of London with the plain of Paris. “The vicinity of Paris is all nakedness and long lines; that of London all clothing and accumulations of houses and trees, with abrupt or circuitous lines. The approaches to Paris on every side are characterized by straight roads, straight rows of trees, straight avenues and alleys, and straight lines in almost every thing. The approaches to London are not characterized by lines; the roads, trees and alleys in woods, are irregular, and neither strikingly crooked and curved, nor always straight.” France, he goes on to say, is over-regulated and controlled.

Loudon first visited Paris in 1815, just after Waterloo. Fifteen years later, he says, ‘Progress is very considerable’.

* Someone asked. Bruno Paillard 1985

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