I visited the English National Trust house at Kingston Lacy recently… which is on the whole, unreservedly magnificent. The one attraction that falls short of the mark is the Japanese Garden. The garden was fully restored by the National Trust in 2005 having fallen into such neglect that the restoration needed to be researched through plant receipts and ground radar. Notwithstanding, the results are very un-Japanese and profoundly lacking the aesthetic that is central both to the design and enjoyment of the space. Unfortunately the Garden is more reminiscent of English seaside miniature towns than it is of the breathtaking nature-in-miniature that characterises the great garden spaces of Kyoto. The outcome is not the fault of the designers and volunteers on the project; the problem lies at the heart of transplanting cultural ideals from one continent to another – the inevitable result is not only pastiche, but ends up saying more about the importer than the originator.
Japanese garden design originated in China, imported to Japan as far back as the sixth century. Design for Japanese gardens varies between historic periods spanning fifteen hundred years of development and usage. As a consequence, style, intention and meaning vary hugely. The underlying thread of all Japanese gardens is a close relationship to the precepts and beliefs of Buddhism… that is nature and man’s relationship to the Gods and the natural world. Some of the earliest of these manifestations, (in the sixth century) were quite literal re-imaginings of the spiritual world in a physical context. So, for example, in 612, the Empress Suiko commissioned an artificial mountain to be built in a garden precinct which represented the legendary mountain, reputed by Buddhists to exist at the centre of the world. Other powerful figures had lakes constructed with islands built in them in miniature which represented the homes of the eight immortals of Daoist philosophy. Despite taking inspiration from religion, these early gardens were intended principally for pleasure and prestige – not unlike the gardens that would later be built in Europe. Where the gardens of Versailles in France or of Stourhead in England are so much more successful than the craze for Japanese horticulture at, say Kingston Lacy, is in their relationship to a European landscape and an inherently native philosophy.
The native philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome was however growing tired to the new sophisticates of the emerging modern class of industrialists and capitalists of Edwardian England and fin-de-siecle France. Excluded by class and education from the traditions of the ruling elite, modernists and ‘moderns’ looked elsewhere for inspiration for the new – and for something on which to spend the stupendous amounts of money flowing in from industry and empire. Put ‘Japonisme’ into Google images and you will see page after page of images from the turn of the 20th century all of which derive influence from the newly discovered and temptingly exotic island of Japan. Whether with the intelligent migration of ideas into the modern paintings of the post-impressionists or the flowing exoticism of Art Nouveau; with the Vienna secessionists like Klimt and Schiele, or the vogue for exotic costumes, and of course interior and garden design; Europe in the early twentieth century went Japan crazy.
This was partly down to a concerted effort on the part of the Meiji Government who were determined to establish Japan as a major international power – militarily, industrially and culturally. A kicking off point in England for the new craze was the Japan-British Exhibition London in 1910 at White City. This vast undertaking covered every aspect of Japanese culture and living. Although the Japanese were shamed by some aspects of the exhibit, (which they felt emphasised too much the agrarian, peasant nature of much of Japan) the exhibition was rapturously received by the press and public in England. One of those people that was so impressed was Henrietta Bankes, the chatelaine of Kingston Lacy who was inspired to turn seven acres of parkland to Japanese principles and one area specifically to a typical, contemplative Japanese garden. It is this garden that has been recently restored and is pictured at the top of the page.
Deconstructing the impression given by the formal garden though is a tricky business. Perhaps like a deconsecrated church, the space, even after several years feels soulless and empty. The features are all there – gravel paths, stone lanterns, a teahouse, pond, bridge and so on and the planting has been restored with scrupulous integrity and yet when comparing this garden with its inspiration in Japan, there is a distinct lack of expression – no sense of nature understood and re-imagined. A clue perhaps lies in a volume of garden design published two years later in 1912. Josiah Condor’s Landscape Gardening in Japan was the inspiration behind the proliferation of these miniature Japans. In it he states:
Robbed of its local garb and mannerisms, the Japanese method reveals aesthetic principles applicable to the gardens of any country, teaching, as it does, how to convert into a poem or picture a composition, which, with all its variety of detail, otherwise lacks unity and intent.
He was wrong, just as the preceding craze for rock gardens, inspired by bourgeois enthusiasm for all things Alpine failed to embed the Matterhorn in Surrey, so these transplants from the east also failed to impose a Buddhist sensibility, so crucial to Japanese garden design, on the palatial grounds of the Edwardian country house.
Buddhism is to some extent, the religion of the dispossessed; it is a religion of denial and of acceptance. The brief enthusiasms of celebrities for Tibet, or meditation; or indeed the historic desire for ‘natural’ aesthetics as a balance to the untrammelled industrialisation of Europe is not enough; equally, more thought is required than the sporadic planting of acer and bamboo or the erection of a half timbered teahouse properly to evoke the aesthetic of a distant people.