Hard or Soft?

No I’m not talking about how you like boiled eggs [or even Brexit] but one of the great debates in the history of garden design which has been between the relative importance of the hard landscaping of architects and the soft landscaping of  plantsmen. It came to a head in the later 19thc with the arguments in print between those, like William Robinson who thought that plants should be the dominant player, and those like Reginald Blomfield who claimed it was architecture that should be the prevailing force.

The Downes, Hayle

Blomfield was backed by another architect, nowadays often overlooked in this debate, whose book Garden-Craft Old and New I bought from the bookstall of Essex Gardens Trust when I went to speak to them a few months ago. This was John Dando Sedding, another bearded Victorian you probably won’t have heard of, so read on  to discover more about him and how he launched “a little raft of bladders”.

John Dando Sedding                    (1838 – 1891)

Sedding is best remembered as a church architect,  who apart from designing new buildings, specialised in  repairing and adapting older Gothic style ones.  Like his brother Edmund, he trained in the studio of the great Gothic Revival architect, George Edmund Street , before, in 1875, setting up his own practice on Oxford Street in London’s West End, right next door to William Morris’s design company.

Once established Sedding was lucky enough to meet John Ruskin whose theories on the importance of nature as a design source he embraced wholeheartedly.  Sedding  drew together a small team of skilled craftsmen who shared his belief, and  he insisted that the flowers, leaves and fauna used in the ornamentation of his buildings were all  modelled from life. He was a founder member of the Art Workers Guild when it was established in 1884, and its second  Master, becoming very influential in the Arts and Crafts movement.

As his ideas evolved Sedding  began to formalize them and in 1889 he gave a lecture on  “The Architectural Treatment of Gardens”. It  was a call for a return to traditional, almost old-fashioned, largely formal geometric gardens, and stressed the importance to the garden structure of architectural features such as terraces, covered walks, clipped yew hedges and topiary,  In 1891 he took his ideas further and in Garden-Craft Old and New showed how they could be combined  with some of the aesthetic elements of Arts and Crafts planting.  His book was one of the earliest attempts to lay out the theoretical essentials  behind what has become known as the Arts and Crafts garden,  and it was to lead the way to the writings of Thomas Mawson as well as those of Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll.

The images in this post come from Garden-Craft unless otherwise stated, and can be found by following this link

J. D. Sedding and His Wife Rose by Frederick W. Pomeroy, 1891. from The Victorian Web

Garden-Craft was published posthumously, and was prefaced by a short biographical tribute from Rev EF Russell, the vicar of St Alban’s Holborn in London where Sedding took an active part in church life. Russell writes that “it seems to have taken some of his friends by surprise that John Sedding should write on Gardens” although they “knew him as a master of many crafts”. Apparently his love of gardening came late in life [as with so many of us],  and  “the instant he had a garden of his own” every evening between 5 and 6 “you might have seen him step out of the little station of West Wickham, run across the bridge, and greeting and greeted by everybody, swing along the shady road leading to his house.” After a quick “kiss for his wife and children… his coat was off and he fell to work at once with spade or trowel.. absorbed in his plants and flowers.”

Garden-Craft  is in 9 chapters. The first, “The Theory of the Garden”,  is a poetically written, discursive ramble through ideas of what makes a garden, which is in some ways a re-run of the long-standing debate about the relationship between Nature and Art, or rather Nature and Man. In a good garden argues Sedding “they work no longer in a spirit of rivalry, but for the attainment of a common  end… A garden is man’s transcript of the woodland world; it is common vegetation ennobled; outdoor scenery neatly writ in man’s small hand… nature’s rustic language made fluent… her prose tersely recast – changed into imaginable shapes….earth emancipated from the commonplace.”   And much much more in the same vein.  But the sense that prevails is of his love of “old gardens, mellowed by time” and which are “a sort of repository of old secrets.”

View of Villa Estense, Tivoli

“Art in the Garden” is the title of the second chapter, and it is here the debate really gets going, and gets going very quickly. In the very first paragraph Sedding asks us to “notice the claims of the modern ‘landscape gardener’ to monopolize to himself all the right principles of garden-craft… all dealings with Nature other than his are mere distortions.” But he claims that William Kent and Capability Brown, those “heaven-directed geniuses” [according to the landscape movement] , discovered nothing new, and had no new sources of inspiration because all gardens are “but Nature idealised, pastoral scenery rendered in a fanciful manner.”

To prove this point Sedding moves on in Chapter 3 to give “An Historical and Comparative Sketch of the English Garden” as well as digressing on the state of gardening on the continent. He asks the reader to see “what a rude slatternly affair this much-lauded landscape-garden of the immortal Brown was! Here are two sorts of garden – the traditional garden according to Bacon, and the garden according to Brown. Both are Nature, but the first is Nature in an ideal dress, the second is Nature with no dress at all. The first is a garden for a civilized man, the second a garden for the gypsy. The first is a picture  painted from a cherished model, the second a photograph of the same model undressed.”

He concludes that “a true garden should have equal regard for nature and art; it should represent a marriage of contraries… rather than [them] being unequally yoked.” And argued that the English formal garden had always been thus.

I shall spare you a detailed analysis of the rest of the chapters but he ascribes the destruction of  “old fashioned gardens” to the vast increase in the number of trees and shrubs available which allowed ” a new choice of decoration in the way of local colours of planting… and as there was some difficulty in accommodating the new and the old, the problem was met by the abolition of the old altogether.”

Plate 8: A Garden Enclosed

Sedding’s principles are outlined  quite succinctly.  Like Lutyens he argued that a garden should be intimately linked with the house it serves, and its design should be determined by that relationship.   Windows and views from the house should be the ruling factor in deciding the axes and disposition of spaces within the garden and moving  from the terrace to the house, for example,  “should only seem like going from one room to another”. He would have approved of Lutyens’s comments that even “the position of a staircase window may materially affect a garden plan”.

No.4 Plan shewing arrangement of Sunk Flower Garden, YewWalk and Tennis Court

He was firm believer too that gardens should be enclosed,  writing : “A garden should be well fenced, and there should always be facility for getting real seclusion, … indeed, the provision of places of retreat has always been a note of an English garden….” To create these enclosures he used a range of architectural or plant forms, but stressed that where possible local materials should be used especially for permanent barriers such as walls.  These should also match, wherever possible the materials of the house, and be carefully detailed by proper craftsmen in the best Arts and Crafts tradition.  The role of plants was to soften the harder edges and act as a foil.

Unfortunately Sedding seems rarely to put his garden design ideas into practice   As far as I can see  just one garden he designed survives, and this is the one that he includes in Garden-Craft: The Downes a small country house at Hayle in Cornwall built in 1867 to designs by his brother Edmund, who had retired to Cornwall for his health.

I can’t  find a list of his commissions, perhaps because there were no other others. Certainly none are mentioned in his obituary in The Builder of October 1891.

Perspective View of part of Garden at “Downes”, Hayle


Built in a semi-Gothic style, The Downes stands on a hill above the town overlooking the sea. It was described in The British Architect (1887) in an article which stressed the integral link between the house and garden: “The most noticeable fact about  The Downes is that you may consider the house and gardens as parts of one whole scheme of design. This is not one of those houses dropped down from the clouds into an ill-considered spot, and with no architecture or design outside the house except the garden gate.”   The grounds stretched to some six acres, and the owner,  William Rawlings,  who was  a partner in Harveys an important local industrial company,  was said to have been ambitious “to equal or surpass his neighbours in the variety and rarity of the plants and trees in his collection.

View from the gravel terrace along the central axis to the northern boundary. Photo by June Fenwick

After Rawlings death in the early 1890s the site became run-down but was still considered important enough to be written about in 1898 in Gardeners’ Chronicle as  “a very favourable specimen” of “architect’s gardening.”  The fact that the garden had been neglected seemed to quite please the article’s author, Harry Roberts, who it’s pretty clear was on the plantsman’s side of the great debate, although this makes him a somewhat biased critic to put it mildly.   The lack of maintenance meant, for example, that  “one is spared the more dreadful puerilities of which Mr Sedding has elsewhere expressed himself  as capable.”  By this he meant Sedding’s love of topiary:  “In the formal part of my garden my Yews should take the shape of pyramids or peacocks or cocked hats or rampant lions in Lincoln green… or any other conceit I had a mind to.” [Garden-Craft p.181]

Roberts went on to argue that “the architect’s influence in the garden, even when the formalizing is moderated as at The Downes, is seen to be essentially evil. The compasses and rules of the office have little function in the garden”  Mr Rawlings collected “choice hollies…at much trouble and cost” but then “clipped them as one would a privet-hedge so that the leaves alone remain to show up the natural beauty of the trees.”

If that wasn’t bad enough Sedding designed a formal geometric garden over a series of low shallow terraces.  Roberts was scathing about it saying it “must in its day have rivalled a child’s sampler in artistic significance” although by 1898 all that was  left was the tiled edging to the beds.  [By 1994 there was no trace at all].   This design was apparently influenced by the famous garden at Heidelberg laid out by Saloman de Caus in 1623, [which is going to be the subject of another post soon] and  based on the principle of using coloured gravels and minerals as infill/covering for the compartments in the parterre.

from On Colour

Rawlings drew up different colour /planting schemes each year  based on the ideas of  Sir Gardner Wilkinson’s “On Colour…and Remarks on Laying Out Dressed or Geometrical Gardens.”] and sent them to Sedding for approval. Wilkinson was the father of Egyptology but also an early protagonist of “traditional” gardens, and houses and gardens planned together in the same style, following in the footsteps of William Sawrey Gilpin.

from On Colour

Despite his horror Roberts admits that the gardens formality is by no means its only feature and that even this will appeal to many. Sedding scores much more highly in the rest of the garden’s design – at least in Robert’s eyes.  Once away from the formal paths “we come across beautiful little pieces of garden where herbaceous plants grow in pleasant natural groups and all is retired and reposeful.” There were lawns and a bowling-green, and near the main entrance a courtyard with ivy-covered walls.

“From the point of view of those who hold the opinion that a garden should be a piece of architecture” The Downes is “nearly perfect; whilst even to those who feel a great part of the art of gardening is the concealment of artifice, the place will appeal as a fine example of formal gardening, which has been pursued without altogether forgetting the beauty of hardy plants naturally grouped, and of unbroken greensward’.

East face of arbour St Germoe’s Chair. Photo by June Fenwick

Three years later in 1901 the property was purchased by Miss Frances Ellis, and given to the Daughters of the Cross of Liege as a convent.  Subsequently the nuns founded St Michael’s Hospital on adjacent land. The house remained a convent until quite recently when it became a residential care home. Most of the images of the garden came from its website

It was spot listed in 1994 by English Heritage [now Historic England, and you can find the listing here], and the Cornwall Gardens Trust were asked to record the grounds as a matter of urgency. This led to an article in 2003 by June Fenwick in The Lie of the Land, ed by Robert Wilson-North, which includes a very detailed description of the garden at the time. It is the only registered urban garden in Cornwall.

It is clear that although the original buildings and much of the hard landscaping and some of the original tree planting had survived, as can be seen by the photos from the current owners website, most of the rest of the planting and detail has disappeared without trace.


My newly acquired copy  of Garden Craft formerly belonged to Alice Douglas-Pennant [who deserves a post of her own] and I’ll leave you with the comment about Sedding from William Robinson that she copied onto the fly-leaf:  “A gentleman, unfortunately without knowledge of plants, trees or landscape beauty, lately launched forth of a little raft of bladders into a dreary sea of quotations from old gardening books, and knew so little of where he was going that he was put out of his course by every little drift of wind. His aim is to decry, so far as he may, the natural and artistic revival in gardening: an architect, he is not satisfied with his own sphere, but wishes to teach us how to lay out our gardens.”

More on the great debate one day I’m sure!

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