Er is known for a dictum: “Knowledge is power.” However, the English Renaissance philosopher Francis Bacon (1561 to 1626) was not able to enjoy his power as Lord Chancellor of James I for long: in 1621 he was overthrown by Parliament for taking bribes. So he retired to his family home of Gorhambury in Herfordshire and polished his essays. He had already published the first ten in 1597 in the wake of Montaigne, followed by a further 58 in 1625, including the essay “Of Gardens”, the first important work on garden art in English. “God Almighty first planted a garden, and indeed this is the purest of all human joys,” the text begins, as if to console the author and rejected courtier. A monotonous enumeration of the plants to be grown in the annual cycle follows.
Is this supposed to be an essay? But the witty pioneer from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment continued his doctrine of man’s domination of nature and his belief in the empirical sciences as “interpretations of nature” in his essay on the art of gardening. The former parliamentary speaker transferred his triadic rhetoric to the layout of the princely garden. Bacon did not yet have a cottage garden in mind, but the representative gardens of his predecessors and contemporaries: Wolsey’s garden in Hampton Court, for example, which Henry VIII took over after the death of his cardinal minister, or the garden of Baron Burleigh, Secretary of State to Elizabeth I. and related matrilineally to Bacon. The Italian humanists had drawn the geometric lines. Walter Raleigh and Francis Drake, Her Majesty’s privateers, brought exotic plants from overseas.
“Well Shorn Green Grass”
It should be big, thirty acres, or about twelve hectares or 120,000 square meters. Kenilworth, where Elizabeth’s favorite Lord Leicester had gardens, measured only one acre. Bacon’s green need for representation was as boundless as his political ambition. His ideal garden should have three divisions: “a lawn at the entrance, a heath or wilderness in the background, and the main garden in the middle. Also avenues on both sides.” This is how Bacon became the inventor of the English lawn: “because nothing is more pleasing to the eye than well-shorn green grass” – which thrived luxuriantly in the Atlantic climate. The lawn was intended to replace the ornate parterre that was common at the time. An avenue of trees should center it, flanked by two shady corridors. Bacon’s “heath” resembled a forerunner of today’s natural garden with its molehills planted with thyme, violets and hogweed. However, his contemporaries did not know what to do with this artificial wilderness.
The “main garden” square, twice the size, was to be surrounded by an arched hedge on a flower-strewn bank, with arch and bell tower. Bacon disliked “figures cut out of juniper or other garden shrubs; that’s something for children.” He liked columns and pyramids, he appreciated fountains. “Ponds, on the other hand, spoil the whole thing and make the garden unhealthy.” Water should flow instead of spreading rot as in the pond garden at Hampton Court. Low hedges – boxwood had been introduced to England in 1595 – were to enclose the beds. Perhaps Bacon was thinking of the “knot garden” of Italian provenance. He also planned arbours with seats. In the center he imagined a “pleasing hill” with three staircases and a summer house to top it off. Fruit trees were to grow along the shady, gravel-covered side avenues, for the orchard as such had not yet spread from Italy to England. The garden planner did not like birdhouses, but he accepted spacious aviaries equipped with plants “so that the birds have more space and natural nesting places and no rot collects on the ground”.
Here writes the forerunner of modern hygiene who appears to have had more empathy for birds than for his friend the Earl of Essex, whom he betrayed to the Queen in a treason trial. Bacon, the courtier, wanted to go upstairs. Bacon, the inquiring philosopher, wanted to liberate mankind through exact sciences and win back paradise experimentally.
Gardening knowledge was also power for him: over nature. As early as 1586, William Harrison, editor of the Holinshed Chronicle, commented: “Our gardeners are so insightful and skilful today that they think they can manipulate nature and dictate the course of events to her as if they were her rulers…” Bacon was not a gardener like Voltaire, but rather a garden visionary who wanted to regain paradise fifty years before Milton – out of the hybrid spirit of self-empowerment.