Cultivating the art gallery in the Early Modern garden

I completed my PhD in Museum Studies at Leicester in 2015, and in 2016 was awarded a three-year Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship, which began last September. It’s fantastic (and slightly surreal) to have become a member of staff in the place where I was a student for so long!

My research project investigates the spatial, conceptual and experiential relationships between gardens and picture galleries in England from 1500 to 1750. In particular, it examines how and to what extent the cultural practices of the garden influenced those of the gallery, and helped shape its development.

I first became interested in gardens while studying for my doctorate, which examined the visual representation of the world in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosity – privately-owned collections of extraordinary objects – and their reinterpretation by contemporary artists. Early modern people tended to view their gardens as an integral part of their cabinets, using them to display works of art such as sculptures, antiquities and even paintings. At times, gardens were so full of art that the seventeenth-century diarist John Evelyn complained that ‘Our cockney gardens […] smell more of paynt th[a]n of flowers’ (Temple 1908: 175).

While a considerable body of scholarship exists on the history of gardens and of galleries, the relationship between gardens and galleries has rarely been subjected to a deep cultural analysis. I began to wonder whether instead of simply occurring to people to display works of art in their gardens as they had in galleries, there had been a more complex relationship between these two cultural forms.

Garden history is a new subject for me, so much of the last seven months has been spent understanding how these spaces were designed, conceived and experienced across the centuries. I have begun to visit potential case study sites, as well as museums and archives, and have come across some intriguing material – embroidered seventeenth-century caskets which open up to reveal miniature gardens, and evidence of mural paintings which extended gardens beyond their physical limits. Incredibly, some garden plantings do survive from as early as the 1690s, but gardens themselves are a unique and challenging form of evidence to work with. It is very easy to be seduced by a beautifully-restored garden, which despite its fine attention to detail is always only a contemporary interpretation of a single moment in the site’s history.  

In May I will travel to Florence to visit the Boboli Gardens, first laid out in the sixteenth century, and if possible, travel further afield to the ‘Garden of Monsters’ at Bomarzo, an enigmatic sixteenth-century sculpture garden populated by mythical creatures. Later this year I plan to visit the French château of Vaux-le-Vicomte, to help me understand the relationships between garden design in England and abroad.

Ultimately, I aim to propose a new way of understanding the development of the modern art galleries we know today; one which takes into account their considerable debt to the manner in which people understood and experienced the garden in the early modern era.

Stephanie Bowry