The 18th century Picturesque Garden movement in England reflected a changing attitude to nature.
Rather than formality and control, garden design was inspired by the new fashion for paintings of wild, romantic landscapes. With banks of long grass, artificially aged structures, and respect for local flora, the Picturesque Garden movement made a revolutionary statement about the rigors of aristocracy.
These gardens were intended to appeal not only to the eyes, but to the heart and mind. Often they were deliberately kept wild and overgrown.
Within the naturalistic looking gardens of this era, there was often a sequence of features that referred to a fantasy story or classical legend. A recurrent theme was a ritual journey where an individual’s character is tested.
The Picturesque Garden at Hamilton Gardens makes reference to the story of The Magic Flute. Written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in 1791, just months before his death, the fairy tale opera tells of a hero’s journey through trials to enlightenment and love.
Along with many other influential thinkers of the time, Mozart was a Mason. His fantasy-filled opera is laden with Masonic symbols, which were also commonly found in garden designs of that period. Symbolism that can found in our garden varies from lions and sphinxes to Palladian pavilions and the three forms of classical pillar.
The fashion for the Picturesque was at its peak in author Jane Austen’s time. “A prettyish kind of wilderness” (as she put it in her novel Pride and Prejudice) was highly sought after. This style of landscape architecture became widely popular outside of England too, from Stockholm and Naples to St Petersberg and the Hudson Valley.
Masonic Symbolism in the Picturesque Garden
If you’re not familiar with The Magic Flute opera or 18th century Masonic rituals, here are some symbolic features to look for in The Picturesque Garden:
- At the entrance, three traditional trombones are set on a rough stone ashlar representing the fanfares at the start of the opera.
- Sphinxes typically suggest this story is set in Egypt. These mythological creatures were also a Masonic symbol.
- Caves were a popular feature of Picturesque gardens and in stories sometimes signalled the start of a journey.
- Tamino, the hero of The Magic Flute, is pursued by a giant serpent and faints.
- Three mysterious ladies appear from the Woodland Temple, with the Queen of the Night.
- The curious figure of Papageno the Bird Catcher appears. He’s half man and half bird, with a birdcage on his back.
- He sits on a throne, which in this garden faces the setting sun and features the symbol of seven stars.
- A magic flute, set here on a pillar, is given to Tamino to help in his quest.
- Tamino and Papageno are also assigned three genii or guardian angels to guide them to the temple of Sarastro, Priest of the Sun.
- Tamino and Papageno have a choice of three portals by which to enter the temple: Vernunft (reason), Weisheit (wisdom) or Natur (nature). The design of this wall was based on Mozart’s own set design for The Magic Flute.
- Sarastro appears riding a chariot drawn by six lions (who sit on the top of the wall).
- The structure they enter symbolically divides the garden between Yesod (the realm of the night and moon) and Tiferet (the realm of higher consciousness).
- Within the dark passage Tamino and Papageno undergo their first test ‘to resist in silence the guiles of women’. Three rather frisky looking women are represented in relief sculpture on the wall.
- Next they arrive in a large hall represented here by a small meadow, another popular feature of Picturesque gardens.
- A table appears, full of food and wine which Papageno enjoys.
- Meanwhile Tamino moves onto his final test, entering a cave for the secret initiation.
- It is a test by fire and water, symbolised here by a bowl and a brazier. Needless to say he passes the test and everyone lives happily ever after.
Hamilton Gardens has an internationally unique concept: it tells the story of gardens through different periods and different civilisations. This garden is an important addition to the collection of gardens because the Picturesque Garden movement was a significant stage in the evolution of modern landscape architecture.