You might have got the impression from the last couple of posts that it was only contemporary gardeners who were capable of doing things in the spirit of the Silly Season but there are plenty of examples in history too, even amongst the greatest names. John Evelyn the diarist, garden writer and garden maker was one such.
He’d visited plenty, designed several and was prepared to both to work hard and take the risk of trying the unusual to achieve what he wanted. But what he wanted wasn’t always exactly the kind of garden you might expect a wealthy 17thc gentleman to aim for.
I’ve written twice before about Elysium Britannicum, his vast manuscript on every aspect of horticultural imaginable in the late 17thc which is all about creating the ideal garden. One post was about how Evelyn saw the garden as a space for science, while the other was about his ideas for building artificial mountains and creating “artificial” music. If that sounds weird do go and read them and you’ll get some sense of why Evelyn can, in spite of his serious intentions, still fit neatly into the silly season. This post looks at another unusual aspect of the 17thc garden, and one that is perhaps less well known: the use of perspective and trompe l’oeil.
Evelyn began writing Elysium on his return from exile during the Civil War, although he continued to alter and update until his death some 60 years or so later in 1706. The diary of his travels round France and Italy during this period is full of garden descriptions, which are often lengthy and detailed. One theme crops up time and time again and that’s the level of artifice and contrivance that were employed to make a garden worthy of attention.
We might think that a bit shocking. After all aren’t gardens supposed to be about the natural world? While that’s a modern view it certainly wasn’t the case in the 17thc. Contrivance fabrication, and artifice in the widest sense were key features of much of the age’s intellectual and cultural life, so that rather than seeing such things as bad they were often celebrated.
Let’s start off by looking at a well-known exhibit in the National Gallery. It’s Samuel van Hoogstratens’s perspective box which probably dates from the late 1650s, and is a masterpiece of deception and trompe l’oeil. In order to see the house’s interior properly you have to peer in through the tiny aperture on either end of the box. Seen flat or from the wrong angle and out of context the house interior is distorted and almost unrecognisable yet see it in the way it was intended and you are gently deceived into thinking you are peeping through the window of a real house.
There are only five other surviving perspective boxes, although none are as elaborate as this one.
[For more on Hoogstraten’s box see these articles in the National Gallery Technical Bulletin 1987 and for how it was drawn see this detailed video analysis of the box by Claus Jensen taken from the Science and the City 1500-1700 conference in 2020. Susan Koslow has written an article outlining the history of Perspective boxes in the Netherlands ]
Hoogstraten himself defined all painting as ‘a mirror of Nature, making things appear to be that are not, and deceiving in a permissible, delightful and commendable way’. It certainly worked at the court of Emperor Ferdinand III in Vienna. Hoogstarten was on a tour of Europe and in August 1651, the emperor saw one of his still-life paintings and commented Hoogstraten “is the first painter who has cheated me!” So it’s not surprising perhaps that when Hoogstraten came to London to work for several years in the late 1650s and early 1660s his work was much in demand, and five pictures are known to have survived from this period.
A contemporary noted….. they “shew’d me a prety Perspective & well represented in a triangular Box, the greate Church at Harlem in Holland, to be seene thro a small hole at one of the Corners, & contrived into a hansome Cabinet. It was so rarely don, that all the Artists and Painters in Towne, came flocking to see & admire it.”
That contemporary was John Evelyn.
Hoogstraten’s box was based in part at least on newish understandings of optics and perspective, but it is only one obvious sign of the 17thc fascination with artifice and contrivance. Think about puzzle jugs, dummy boards, or cabinet making with secret compartments or fake finishes. Think too of the role played by masks and fans in social rituals of pretence or, if you’ve ever seen a Restoration comedy remember the constant dissimulation and subterfuges that underlie the plots.
We tend to think most such things as being generally confined to the world of the interior, but that’s only because that’s where they have survived. Evelyn’s diary shows very clearly that fakery and the gentle art of deception existed in the garden as well, particularly on the continent.
Evelyn’s first trip abroad was in 1641 when he seems to have tagged along with a royal party going to the Netherlands accompanying Charles I ‘s 9 year old daughter Princess Mary who was to marry the heir to the stadholder. Evelyn soon set off travelling round the country and its here that we start seeing his interest in gardens showing. However, although he visits several well known gardens there is no mention of any form of perspective painting until he reaches Honselersdijk, the Prince of Orange’s palace. It’s there we get our first description of trompe l’oeil murals … “at one end a Gordian knot, with rustical instruments so artificially represented, as to deceive an accurate eye to distinguish it from actual relievo.”
After a couple of years back in England Evelyn senses the way the Civil War is going and returns to the continent in self-imposed exile, this time travelling to France and then Italy. His diary from now on includes a lot of garden visiting especially in and around Paris.
In March 1644, for example, Evelyn went to see the Count de Liancourt’s Palace in the Rue de Seine. “Toward his study and bedchamber joins a little garden, which, though very narrow, by the addition of a well-painted perspective, is to appearance greatly enlarged; to this there is another part, supported by arches in which runs a stream of water, rising in the aviary, out of a statue, and seeming to flow for some miles, by being artificially continued in the painting, when it sinks down at the wall. It is a very agreeable deceit.”
Later that year he describes the garden of the Archbishop of Paris at Saint Cloud where there were more perspectives “seeming to enlarge the alleys, and in this garden are many other ingenious contrivances”. He then went a few miles further on to Cardinal Richelieu’s villa, at Rueil, and it’s there that we have what I think is the only surviving images of one of these perspective paintings.
From the engraving its not easy to decide what and where the trompe l’oeil was! Is it the whole scene or just a small part? Actually its quite a large part because Evelyn tells us that at the end of one of the garden walks was “the Arch of Constantine, painted on a wall in oil, as large as the real one at Rome, so well done, that even a man skilled in painting, may mistake it for stone and sculpture.”
He went on… “The sky and hills, which seem to be between the arches, are so natural, that swallows and other birds, thinking to fly through, have dashed themselves against the wall. I was infinitely taken with this agreeable cheat.” Evelyn was not alone in his admiration as other visitors to Rueil made similar observations even years later. In 1665, for example, the Dutch diplomat Lodewijck Huygens noted birds trying – and failing of course – to perch on the Arch.
Neither the birds or Evelyn seem to have noticed the one major flaw in Jean Lemaire’s painting and/or Silvestre’s second interpretation of it.
Take a careful look and see if you can work out what it was. There’s a clue in the image of another trompe l’oeil painting below. If you still see the problem take a look at Prof Philip Steadman’s blog about it.
So leaving France Evelyn would have had his head filled with large illusionistic paintings, with artificial music, cascades and other contrivances and clever tricks that appealed to him.
But where did these ideas on perspective come from? Surprisingly perspective is a relatively modern western concept, thought to have been “discovered” by the architect Filippo Brunelleschi in Florence in the early 15thc. Its too long to go into all that here but follow this link for a detailed history of the idea/technique.
Suffice it to say it was French and Dutch theorists who refined the theory and practice in a series of books the 16th and 17th centuries. One of these, La Perspective by Salomon de Caus, was published in 1612.
As you’d expect from an engineer and garden designer, de Caus’ book was practical. It has a whole series of examples, laid out in order of increasing complexity, complete with explanatory diagrams. One of these explains how to paint a mural of a garden and make it look natural when seen from an upstairs window.
Rather than try and explain exactly how that worked I’m going to add some photographs from Philip Steadman’s blog showing the work of Gregorio Astengo, who recently completed his PhD at the Bartlett School of Archietcture. But first you need to imagine the page with the engraving is the pattern for a 3D shape.
By the mid/late 17thc there were plenty of other books, including one by Hoogstraten himself, which developed these ideas further and which would have been known to Evelyn.
The extraordinary sights that Evelyn saw in France and Italy stayed with him for the rest of his life, and coloured his understanding of what constituted a great garden. Of course there were examples of this sort of trompe l’oeil artifice in England too although only on a much smaller scale.
That’s clear from diary entries made by him and by Samuel Pepys who visited the home on Lincoln’s Inn Fields of their mutual friend Thomas Povey a wealthy merchant and courtier. Povey collected art and became a major patron of Hoogstraten. The artist described a lavish evening’s entertainment there with a 10 course dinner and 24 different kinds of wine, and it’s known that Povey bought at least two large paintings from him [left and below].
One of these was described by Pepys : “above all things I do the most admire his piece of perspective especially, he opening me the closet door, and there I saw that there is nothing but only a plain picture hung upon the wall.” Both surviving paintings can still be seen at Dyrham Park which was country seat of Povey’s nephew and heir William Blathwayt who was a diplomat and politician, serving for many years as Secretary of War.
But outside in Povey’s small garden there was more : Evelyn noted that “the perspective in his court, painted by Streeter, is indeede excellent, with the vases in imitation of porphyrie and fountains”.
Robert Streater specialised in large-scale architectural and decorative paintings and was a master of perspective. George Vertue called him: “a compleat Master therein… and his works of Architecture and Perspective, not a line but is true to the Rules of Art and Symmetry.” Although no known garden schemes survive Dyrham has these two internal decorative panels originally from Povey’s house.
There must have been many other outdoor perspectives seen by Evelyn, although they were clearly not all particularly skilfully executed. This explains his oft-quoted comments about his “abhorrency of those painted and formal projections of our cockney gardens and plotts, which appeare like gardens of paste-board and marchpane, and smell more of paynt then of flowers and verdure”.
It’s usually assumed that this means he hated all such contrivances, but I think it’s the poor quality or obvious execution he’s condemning rather than the idea itself. As he wrote on the eve of the Restoration in Jan 1660 “even the most imperfect figure [of a garden] may, with the mysteries of Arte and fantasy receive the most graceful ornaments, but to work their effect these mysteries must remain just that.”
For example when he was writing the chapter called “Of Statues..[and] other ornaments.” Evelyn included “something concerning Perspective as it relates to Gardens and the extraordinary & stupendious effects of it for the amplifying of contracted and straitened places” with grids and diagrams to show how it should be done.
He explains that “the places where perspectives are the most naturall & properly erected be at the entrances of short walkes and Nil Ultras [dead ends]… For upon such an obstacle Perspective can do wonders & is able to give the eye a Lyncean passage through a stone wall, by seemingly protracting a walk a perte de vue & to loss of object as the French say.”
To back this up he uses other examples from his travels:
A Parisian architect living in the Rue Tarane “having nothing but a dead wall at the end of the entry to his little house which [when the door was open] might be seene: caused a Garden to be so rarely painted & dressed in perspective that everybody stopped as they passed by to look on it and divers considerable desire to go into Garden.”
He had also “admired a very small garden of not more than 50ft square seeming as if had bin an enclosure of many miles but what appeared extraordinary was a very short streame of water which after it had not really run above 40ft the aspect was so well represented where it sunk at the base of the wall and had there a clandestine passage made for it there, as it were a continued streame of long course”.
An even grander illusion was created “where at the extreme of an ample walke stoode a very high wall of stone on which was painted only a skie with Clowdes, before this wall was erected another wall or screene of equal height and convenient distance whereon the ruine of a roman antiquitie was painted; which having several openings as windoes, arches and breaches cut and abated in the stone work did, as the spectators walked or changed their steps represent the motions or the rack of clowdes, seeming to fly before the wind as we familiarly behold it.”
So Evelyn has plenty of examples to back up his theorising and cites them because he wants his elite readership to understand the science behind Hoogstraten’s and Streater’s art so that they could in turn tell their gardeners and painter how to exactly how to draw accurate “perspectives.” That way “we shall not oblige our workman to passe through all the precognita’s and Rules which the exquisite masters of this rare Arte deliver” which is a polite way of saying he thought some knowledge too difficult for the hoi-polloi to understand.
Of course his theorising drew heavily on the work of others – a polite way of saying he copied large chunks of other peoples books, including La Perspective Pratique which he had bought when in Paris, although that was, of course, the accepted order of the day. But he clearly was able to develop what he had read because, for example, ever practical Evelyn notes that these “perspectives are common in southern climes where the air is more benign but in our climate they will require to be well layed in oyle.” He would also have investigated the various instruments used by artists for the drawing of perspectives.
Trompe l’oeil garden art must have been important to Evelyn because it drew on all sorts of interests. The scientific process of being to construct something that could genuinely deceive was held in high regard, especially when compared to the amateur efforts of the Cockney gardener. It summoned up greater glories than were possible on the site, giving an impression of space, & aspiration to grander more perfect things. Perspectives could mimic nature in whatever shape or form you wanted, so in the Elysium Evelyn puts all the various conceptual and practical little tricks he has seen together in a comprehensive way, and so reveals the full extent of the artificiality of the much of the early modern garden.
For more information on Hoogstraten a good palce to start The Universal Art of Samuel van Hoogstraten (1627-1678): Painter, Writer, and Courtier edited by Thijs Weststeijn which is availble in free open access online.
There are several articles about the perspective box including the ones on the National Gallery website and Jun P. Nakamura’s Seeing Outside the Box There is also a detailed video analysis of the box by Claus Jensen taken from the Science and the City 1500-1700 conference in 2020.