Friday, October 16, 2009

Quote of the Day

The enjoyment of beauty is dependent on, and in ratio with, the moral excellence of the individual.

- The Crayon, New York's leading art magazine of the 1850's -

Don't you just love the definitive certainty of a connection between moral and beauty in the quote above? At the time when The Crayon wrote this, most writing about art was quite evangelical, full of conviction of that the arts could change the moral dimension of life. In America, the wilderness was seen as a prototype of Nature, the place where the designs of God could be seen in their pure and unedited stage. The vast, wild landscape and nature, that was being discovered during this period especially in the far West, became a symbol for America in art, and lead to numerous paintings depicting the American landscape, often in an idealized form.

The art of landscape gardening followed the same paths of thought. Andrew Jackson Downing (1815-52), one of the most significant voices in the area during 19th century, writes in A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening from 1841 that "Although music, poetry, and painting, sister fine arts, have in all enlightened countries sooner arrived at perfection than Landscape Gardening, yet the latter offers to the cultivated mind in its more perfect examples, in a considerable degree a union of these sources of enjoyment...". Jackson Downing explains the two 'distinct modes' of landscape gardening art as the 'Ancient, Formal or Geometric Style', with regular forms and right lines, and the 'Modern, Natural or Irregular Style' with varied forms and flowing lines. He goes on to explain how "Every one, thought possessed of the least possible portion of taste, readily appreciates the cost and labour incurred in the first case, and bestows his admiration accordingly; but we must infer the presence of a cultivated and refined mind, to realize and enjoy the more exquisite beauty of natural forms". Which could be translated that the more moral excellence and taste the onlooker has, the more he or she enjoys the purest form of landscape architecture, which according to Jackson Downing is the 'Modern, Natural or Irregular Style'.
Jackson Downing continues to explain the reason for the change of taste (a favourite concept during of the first half of the 18th century) from the Formal to the Natural Style: "The increased admiration of landscape painting, poetry, and other fine arts, by imbuing many minds with a love of beautiful and picturesque nature, also tended to create a change in taste. Gradually, men of refined sensibilities perceived that besides mere beauty of form, natural objects have another and much higher kind of beauty - namely, the beauty of expression." And he ends his essay with the conclusion that "A natural group of trees, an accidental pond of water, or some equally simple object, may form a study more convincing to the mind of a true admirer of natural beauty, than the most carefully drawn plan, or the most elaborately written description". Of course, Jackson Downing's text follows similar developments and writings in Europe. It is interesting, though, that something of the "moral supremacy" of the Informal or 'Natural' style that Jackson Downing's writes about, can still be felt when reading about and visiting gardens of today, especially here in the United States (and I am not talking about sustainability or ecological issues here).

Coming back to the original quote: considering all the money and time we spend on all things of 'beauty' like art, books, films, magazines, most of us should be creatures of a great moral excellence, if that predication would have been true. Sadly, it does not seem to be so.
On the picture: A Tricyrtis hirta, a beautiful member of the lily family from the Himalayas. I grew it in my garden in Melbourne, Australia, and still get a bit nostalgic when I see it. I took this photo in a wonderful, private garden that Daniel Mount showed me for a couple of weeks ago; he has designed parts of the large garden and is the head gardener for it.


Bay Area Tendrils said...

Your choice of this elegant toad lily fits perfectly with the ideas in your thoughtful essay. I grow T hirta here in California, along with Tricyrtis lasiocarpa. Both outstanding plants in the fall garden.

And again, when you mention Melbourne, I'm reminded of how much I feel connected to the city, although I've never been. My network continues to expand in that direction, thanks to connections formed on twitter. The friendships may be 'virtual', but I have a real sense of warmth, and a depth of character that comes through in these garden and travel related friendships. The odd thing is to ponder the reversal of seasons. Cheers, Alice

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Thank you Alice, for your wonderful comment. I love these flecked flowers; they feel quite tropical, and at the same time, they are such perfect woodland plants. They are beautiful even before starting to flower.

I agree with you totally about Australia; I really had 4 wonderful years there, and I would probably go back if I had the possibility. Even if it was difficult to get used to spring bulbs coming up in September and October :-)!

Karen said...

You could totall grow toad lily here, I did in Ballard although it wasn't exactly thriving. Jealous that you have seen another DM garden - will have to go back through your archives to see if you wrote about it earlier, since I have been very absent from the blog world for a few months now. Have missed your thoughtful and intellectual examinings of garden history and philosophy. Yes, morality and beauty, not always a guarantee they will go hand in hand. Both can be so open to intpretation, anyway! Happy rainy weekend, hope your garden enjoys this first real drink for many a month.

Ruben said...

Hitler was a real art lover, to create the world's greatest art museum the nazis stole art treasures all over Europe. That says about all about moral and admiration of beauty! /Ruben

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Karen, I am enjoying the rain enormously; it is such a relief of hear those drops coming down! Good to hear from you too, I hope to get to a Sagbut meeting soon, I've just been too busy with friends and family visiting...

Ruben, we'll you couldn't get a more perfect example than Mr Hitler...! Anyway, I don't want to think about him now, the autumn colours are beautiful and it is raining. Sitting by my fireplace, I'm at last ordering my spring bulbs, which is wonderful. It won't get as cold here as in Stockholm, so I still have time.

James Golden said...

I wonder if the unfortunate, and quite common, American hostility toward European gardening, and especially British gardening, is yet another thematic thread of this argument for the moral superiority of the "natural" Andrew Jackson Downing popularized.