Human Flower Project

The Edwardian Craze for Japonisme

Russ Bowes explains how English gardeners fell under the spell of stone lanterns and laquered bridges a hundred years ago. Thank you, Russ.


The Japanese garden at Gunnersbury Park, West London

Image: Time Travel Britain

By Russell Bowes

The Japanese style of gardening in England forms a slight but diverting episode in garden history, being associated primarily with the late 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th.  Japan, as far distant from the British Isles as it is physically possible to be, expelled all foreigners and severely curtailed overseas trade in 1639 after a series of diplomatic incidents involving Portuguese missionaries, and remained impenetrable to the western world until the mid-19th century. Such sparse information about the country and its people as was available filtered back through the trading posts of the Dutch East India Company, beyond the confines of which it was almost impossible for Europeans to step. After consular relations were re-established in 1854, trade barriers fell, and the fashion for Japanoiserie, like that for Chinoiserie during the previous century, hit the British Isles with the force of a tidal wave. 

As well as blue and white china, lacquered screens, kimonos and paper fans came information about gardens.  The ‘dry’ garden of rocks and pebbles failed to catch the Edwardian imagination. Its minimalism appeared alien and radical to an increasingly conventional and materialistic English society, but more fundamentally its layers of meaning were too sophisticated for the Edwardians to comprehend.  So the dry garden was, in the main, ignored.  It was the Japanese water garden, or tea garden, that fired the English imagination.



Japanese garden at Tatton Park, Cheshire

Photo: David Blandy

The Japanese GardenIt was “new” – not only foreign (and thus completely different from anything previously known in England), but also exotic and imbued with all the mystery of the East.  It could also be adapted to fit any size of garden because of its – apparent -  simplicity.  Any garden area could be embellished with the requisite props – stone lanterns, bronze cranes, a red lacquered bridge – and called “Japanese,” even if the associated plantings were completely westernised.  The style was so easy to recreate that, by the turn of the century, almost every self –respecting English landowner had a Japanese garden of some form or another. The addition of native Japanese plants such as bamboo, acers, waterlillies or wisteria added another veneer of spurious authenticity – as a character says in Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta of 1885 The Mikado: “…corroborative detail intended to give artistic verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.” 

The style received a fillip in 1901 when it became possible to buy these “props” from British suppliers rather than having to import them directly from Japan. That year’s catalogue issued by V. N. Gauntlett and Co, leading garden suppliers of the period, offered stone lanterns of various sizes and styles and a range of bronze cranes. By 1906, Gauntlett and Co. were describing themselves as “Japanese Nurserymen,” supplying not only the props but suitable (if not strictly authentic) plants amongst which to display them.  Other stores cashed in on the craze - Liberty’s of London stocked a range of stone garden lanterns as well as bronze storks, wind chimes and “deer scarers” (simple water features), encouraging the creation of Japanese gardens amongst the beau monde, who already patronised the ultra-fashionable store for oriental ceramics, fabrics and furnishings, and the gardening public seized upon these products with eagerness.

But the style had its detractors. As the Japanese style was both alien and naturalistic, recreating in miniature an already highly sophisticated interpretation of the landscape, it was bound to fall foul of the likes of Reginald Blomfield and his adherents who championed a return to formality. Warning bells were sounded in the press about this new enthusiasm: “The importation of exotic motives into garden design in England is dangerous; not only because they are rarely understood, but because there are few sites where they can take their place at all naturally.  The disposition of a few typical ornaments, of a bronze stork here and a stone lantern there, does not make a Japanese garden; it only makes an English garden speak with a Japanese accent,” wrote Laurence Weaver in Country Life Magazine, 27th February 1917.

Obviously, for every detractor there was an enthusiast: “There is no need to be afraid of the idea [of the Japanese garden].  It is virile, throbbing with life and beauty.  The possibilities stretch out ... only waiting for the wit and brain and energy of the younger generation of garden makers to use them to the highest degree,” countered P. S. Hayward in The Garden Magazine of 1911.

imageFrank Crisp’s Japanese Garden at Friar Park

Photo: Henley

Of course, many of the gardens bore little resemblance to their oriental counterparts.  A high-ranking Japanese diplomat, on visiting the Japanese garden at Friar Park, Oxfordshire, is said to have exclaimed delightedly “How beautiful! We have nothing like this in Japan!”  Unfortunately, the reaction of Sir Frank Crisp, owner of the estate, is not recorded!  Obviously no slight was intended, but it cannot be denied that most Japanese gardens created in the west were just approximations of the gardens they were imitating – “dinky pictures with an oriental bridge,” as one garden writer put it. 

There were attempts at authenticity of layout and design. Louis Greville, an English diplomat, went so far as to import a genuine Japanese teahouse, complete with thatched roof and sliding screens, hiring four native workmen to erect it and create a water garden around it, for the grounds of Heale House in Wiltshire.  Ella Christie brought over a Japanese garden designer “from the Royal School of Garden Design at Nagoya” for her garden in Cowden, Perthshire.  At Fanham Hall, Hertfordshire, Captain Reginald Croft not only had his garden planned in 1901 by a Professor Suzuki, but brought two Japanese gardeners over each summer to look after it.  Serious attempts at authenticity of planting were also made.  Robert Fortune and J. G. Veitch had brought specimens of Japanese flora to England as early as 1860, and in the Japanese Garden at New Place, Haslemere, begun in 1901, every plant was of oriental (if not strictly Japanese) origin. 

However, Reginald Farrer, having travelled extensively in Japan in 1903, concluded that the Japanese were not lovers of plants, but “brutalised” them to achieve a perfect composition.  “A flower, to be admitted by Japanese canons, must conform to certain rigid rules…....At the head of the rejected blossoms stand the rose and the lily, both of which are considered by the Japanese as rather crude, unrefined efforts of nature…....The elect are cherry, wisteria, peony, willow-flower, iris, magnolia, azalea, lotus, peach, plum and morning-glory.”  Of course, these plants were “elect” because they had symbolic meanings for the Japanese, but such nuance seems to have passed Farrer by.

imagePoster for Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado

Lithograph by John Stetson, 1885, via wiki

The style gained further popular credibility in 1910 during the incredibly influential Japanese-British exhibition held that year at White City, west London (the advertisements for which showed geishas performing the Tea Ceremony in a garden setting – the garden style and the country now being inextricably linked with each other in the public’s consciousness).  This exhibition proved just as influential as the Knightsbridge show of 1862, so phenomenally successful it continued for at least fifteen years, becoming a semi-permanent attraction in the area (In The Mikado, the title character’s son is reported to have fled the Imperial Court and taken up residence in Knightsbridge; contemporary audiences would have had no difficulty appreciating the reference). A series of Japanese gardens were laid out for the 1901 exhibition; their location at the exhibitions’ entrance made it possible to view their gradual construction from the public highway, no doubt engendering much public interest and speculation.  Certainly, the gardens influenced those actually attending the exhibition – the Japanese garden at Tatton Park, Cheshire, was almost certainly the result of a visit by Alan de Tatton later that year. 

imagePost card from the 1910 Japanese-British Exhibition

Image: Time Travel Britain

Further credence was bestowed on the style when Kew Gardens accepted the gift of a replica 16th century Buddhist gateway from the exhibitions’ organisers. Originally intended to be placed in the Bamboo garden, it was finally erected, somewhat ironically perhaps, on a small mound within sight of Chambers’ 18th century pagoda.  Some attempt was made to give the gateway an appropriate setting by surrounding it with azaleas.

The fact that a Japanese garden could be reduced to a number of key elements, miniaturised (much in the fashion of a bonsai tree) and fitted into any available space must have made it attractive to those without rolling acres – a social class suddenly able to create gardens for themselves with relatively limited resources. That these key elements were readily available through garden suppliers and fashionable stores of the period such as Liberty’s undoubtedly helped.  Part of the style’s popularity must have been due to the impetus of fashion, as things Japanese were considered to be the dernier cri both inside and outside the house. Theatrical works set in Japan (The Mikado, The Geisha, Madame Butterfly – all of which featured gardens)  were lapped up by a society in which theatre-going was becoming increasingly popular and accessible.  Exhibitions of Japanese culture were incredibly influential with the public. 

The craze, continuing well into the 1920s and 1930s, was overshadowed by the approaching clouds of World War Two, only to re-emerge, fresh as the lacquer on a wooden footbridge. In the late 20th century, many Edwardian Japanese gardens such as Tatton underwent sensitive and scholarly reconstruction, taking their rightful place alongside the modern interpretations of the style still popular today.

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 07/28 at 10:44 AM


Commenting is not available in this channel entry.