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26 June, 2013
The Pleasure Gardens
In the closing days of the twentieth century, we are fond of thinking of this century as the one in which "anything was possible." We might be surprised to realise that much the same attitude prevailed during the previous century as well. And nowhere was this feeling more prevalent than amongst artists. As painters took on ever larger and larger canvases and the Academicians took ever greater pains in researching the authenticity of their painting endeavours, artists such as Jean-Louis-Ernst Meissonier would spend up to fifteen years on a single work (The Battle of Friedland) while Mariano Fortuny y Carbo spent his entire life planning The Battle of Tetuan. He died before completing it. Despite his early demise, as we might say today, these men clearly had too much time on their hands. After all, they were only paintings.

Artists yearned to work on a grander scale. Tired of merely painting landscapes, there developed in Europe, a group of artists who worked to create landscapes. Today we would call them landscape architects, but at that time, they were still considered artists, in the grandest sense of the word. Imagine taking a nondescript strip of land and moving it, reshaping it, moulding it, dressing it in greenery, decorating it with winding paths, formal reflecting pools, seemingly accidental lakes, magnificent architectural gems of no great practical value, graceful, romantic, stone bridges, or ancient Roman ruins for no other purpose than to excite the senses and lull away the hours dreaming of times past, of beautiful maidens and heroic knights, righting wrongs and modelling the latest in medieval armour. It was better than even the most realistic, Romantic painting was because it was real. And these horticultural masterpieces were not just for the nobility, but were open to the public!

Cities actually competed in building the most glorious fantasy lands to which their burgeoning populations could escape the blight of the Industrial Revolution, if only on Sunday afternoons (after church of course). Paris had its Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Vienna its Museen der Stadt Park, New York its Central Park, while London clearly out did them all with its Kew Gardens, Regent's Park Zoological Garden, its Cremorne Gardens, and its Vauxhall Gardens, which was accessible only by boat across the Thames. They came to be known as "pleasure gardens." Charles Dickens describes the experience: "We loved to wander among these illuminated groves. The temples and saloons and cosoramas and fountains glittered and sparkled before our eyes; the beauty of the lady singers and the elegant deportment of the gentlemen captivated our hearts; a few hundred thousand of additional lamps dazzled our senses, a bowl or two of punch bewildered our brains; and we were happy." All things were possible. It was art on the grandest possible scale--or maybe a day at Disney World.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
19 April 1999

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