Introduction to Dutch gardens and garden architecture


The following text was based on the first chapter of the "Gids voor de Nederlandse Tuin- en Landschapsarchitectuur", and was originally published in The new Royal Horticultural Society dictionary of gardening. - London : Macmillan, 1992. - Vol.3, p. 315-318.

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Middle Ages (500-1550)

Small garden from: In commodorum cum figuris libri duodecim / P. Crescentiis. Speyer, ca. 1490


Gardening in the Netherlands, as in most of Europe, had its earliest expression in abbey and monastery gardens of the Middle Ages where vegetables, fruit and herbs were cultivated. The layout of a medieval garden usually consisted of a square or slightly elongated rectangle. Cloister gardens usually consisted of a more or less square space divided by a cross-shaped path. A feature - perhaps water or a tree - often marked the centre of the cross. It is likely that the courtyard was planted with grass rather than herbs. The vegetable gardens and orchards within the monastery walls were also of a mainly square or rectangular shape, usually subdivided into a number of smaller beds in which the vegetabies, culinary and medicinal herbs, ornamental flowers for the altar, and fruit trees were grown.

... a square lawn surrounded by aromatic herbs and a variety of flowers, with trees and vines planted against the southern and western walls. Water from a well was channelled towards the centre where seating was placed in the form of a so-called turf bench, a bench constructed of masonry on top of which turf and wild flowers were laid to form a soft cushion ....
Illustrations of this kind of garden can be found in f.e. the Roman de la Rose and in paintings of the Flemish Primitives. Plants were selected for cultivation because they were either useful - medicinal and kitchen herbs, vegetables and fruit from the orchard - or ornamental, cultivated because of their Christian symbolism - the rose, the white lily, the blue iris and the columbine, for example.

Dutch Renaissance (1500-1650)

General View of House Zuylenstein. Engraving, ca. 1700
After the long struggle for independence from Spain with the retreat of Spanish troops in 1609,the Dutch Renaissance began. Gardens in the Netherlands became more open, since walls were no longer needed for a defensive function. Houses and castles were built outside the town walls, often surrounded by a canal, with vegetable gardens and orchards beyond, separated from the surrounding agricultural land by another canal or moat. Gardens were designed on a rectangular pattern and divided into small, separate, square and rectangular areas; the axis of the garden was usually not related to the building or to an overall plan.

The structural elements comprised leafy walks (berceaux) between the various subdivisions of the garden. Also featured were parterres de broderie, arbours at the crossing-points of paths, fountains, and mazes formed by low beds with ornamental flowers.

In the prints of architect Vredeman de Vries (1527-1604) bulbs are often depicted in smaller gardens.

Lay-out of J. Vredeman de Vries. Engraving, ca. 1583.
Bulbs were widely introduced at the end of the 16th century and became something of a status symbol, giving rise to the frantic speculation in the 1630s known as 'tulipomania'. Speculation in tulips was forbidden by the State in 1637. Other plants portrayed in illustrations of the day included sunflowers, African marigolds, tobacco plants, carnations, poppies and roses. Notable examples include the castle of Breda (1536), Muiderslot (1609), the botanical gardens of Leiden (1590), as well as the strictly mannerist gardens of the Nassau family such as Het Buitenhof (c1620).

Lay-out of S. Serlio, from: Van de Architecturen, Boek 4. Amsterdam, 1616. With the increasing prosperity from trade, shipping and industry in the northern Netherlands in the early 17th century, many newly rich merchants began to build country houses and lay out gardens. The increasing number of young Netherlanders who embarked on a 'Grand Tour' to complete their education developed a taste for the Italian style which influenced the development of both architecture and landscape gardening in the Republic of the Netherlands. Treatises by the Italian designers Alberti, Serlio, Vignola, Palladio and Scamozzi (all based on Vitruvius) were translated into Dutch. These books contributed to the creation of a new style of garden architecture, the Dutch Classical style, with its emphasis on proportion, symmetry and harmony.

Dutch classical garden (1630-1690)

The Dutch classical style generally decreed that garden layout be a rectangle, usually in the classic proportions of 4:3, or sometimes 2:1 as advocated by the architect Philip Vingboons (1607-78). The axis of symmetry, usually the longitudinal axis, divided this rectangle into two equal parts to either side of the centre of the house. The whole of the rectangular garden was then enclosed by tree-lined canals, as are common in the polder landscape. The total area of the garden was often further subdivided into separate square gardens, parterres and beds of flowers.

Huis ten Bosch, from: Den Nederlandtsen Hovenier. Amsterdam, 1617
The structural elements of the Dutch classical garden comprised an outer walled enclosure, perhaps dating from earlier times, or a hedge or planting of trees along the canals, with a divided interior of mazes, parterres. Low ornamental plants were used such as thyme, carnations, camomile and other flowering plants in tubs on tiles, with box hedges, leafy walks and arbours and mazes. Water played a more modest role. There were fountains and small water features with an element of surprise (bedriegertjes). Few garden statues were used. The plants used at this time are described in Den Nederlandtsen Hovenier written by the gardener of the prince of Orange, Jan van der Groen in 1669. Plants he describes are bear's breeches, marsh mallow, yellow asphodel, larkspur, wild pink, common lavender, love-in-a-mist, auriculas and many more. The best-known house in this style is the present Royal Palaces Huis ten Bosch (1647). The statesman Constantine Huygens and Jacob Cats followed him with Hofwijck (1640) and Sorgvliet (1651), now the Cats-house. All are in the vicinity of The Hague.

In other parts of the Republic, too, large country estates were laid out. Popular locations were along the large waterways such as the Haarlemmermeer and the Wijkermeer or in the new polders such as the Beemster, the Diemermeer and the Zeeland polders.

French baroque gardens (1680-1750)

Map of the Beemster by P. van den Keere. Engraving. Amsterdam, 1617.
From about 1680 the layout of Dutch country house gardens was strongly influenced by the French baroque. The rectangular classical Dutch garden, enclosed by canals, was modified so that the main axis seems to extend beyond the outer perimeter of the garden into the landscape beyond; the main axis was often continued into the countryside with a lane and, or atatues. Gardens were still subdivided into symmetrical sections aligned along the central axis. The central garden was often enclosed in the classical halfcircle manner. Daniel Marot (1661-1752), garden architect of William and Mary, and author of Nouveaux Livre de Parterres (1703), liked to work with the half circle enclosed in the form of a leafy walk or colonnade, and often used this Serliana form in his parterre decorations.

Variety and liveliness were characteristic of the baroque gardens of the time. This was achieved by variation in all the structural elements, in scent and colour, the appearance and sounds of water - tumbling from fountains or trickling over water steps - and in the profusion of statues, depicting figures from Greek mythology and symbolizing the life or character of the owner or his wife. The water in the fountains and cascades, in the absence of a spring or different ground levels, was often propelled by a small windmill. The details of these various garden conceits - buildings, waterworks and decorative elements - were described in detail in design books of the day.

The orangery of Sorgvliet (Catshouse) in The Hague, by J. van den Avelen. Engraving, ca. 1730. The principal structural elements of these French classical gardens consisted of parterres, starwoods, galleries, cabinets and wildernesses, mazes, hedges, cupolas and colonnades, orchards and vegetable gardens with serpentine walls. Water, as well as spouting from fountains and 'surprise' sources, was also employed for its reflective function in the water-way around the central part of the garden and in the perspective waterways. Statuary, sundials, shell grottoes and galleries, arbours and latticework all added to this rich picture. Further interest was added by menageries, aviaries and orangeries. From 1720 to 1750 the plethora of decorative elements was constantly increasing, while the paths in the woods and coppices became more winding and irregular - a reaction away from the heaviness of the baroque. Further variation took the form of additional axes radiating from other focal points, as well as so-called 'over gardens' and 'side gardens' outside the original design. Planting, too, became more varied. The exotic plant collections of Sorgvliet, Honselersdijk, Gunterstein, Leeuwenhorst and Het Loo were well known and favoured hothouse plants of the day included citrus trees, pomegranates, olives, oleanders, myrtles, laurels, laurustinus, strawberry trees, Judas trees, agaves and aloes.

Examples of gardens laid out in the French classical style include Slot Zeist (1677), Clingendaal (1680), Het Loo (1689), Kasteel Heemstede (ca.1690). The most known designers in the French classical style were Jacob Roman and Daniel Marot.

Bird's Eye view of Het Loo, by C. Allard, Engraving, ca. 1700 Along the rivers, such as the Vecht, gardens could not be as deep, so that designs based on a long perspective line were not usually seen in these situations. These gardens were, however, richly provided with a wide range of garden decoration, large pools, clipped hedges and topiary. Shell grottoes from this period survive in the gardens of Kasteel Rosendael and Nienoord at Leek.
The classical style of the Republic of the Netherlands was highly influential abroad, making a deep impression on garden design in England, Germany and Russia in particular. Several Dutch landscape designers and horticulturalists went abroad to work and a number of Dutch handbooks were translated into French, German and English.

Early landscape gardening (1750-1800)

 Beeckestijn: map of house and gardens, by J.G. Michael. Engraving, 1772 The early landscape style in the Netherlands was characterised by its smaller scale and more contained character than the wider, more undulating English landscape style. It had its origins in a reaction against the strict formality and artificiality of the classical genre combined with a wide appreciation of 17th-century landscape painters - Rosa, Lorrain, Poussin, Ruysdael and Rembrandt - who portrayed an idealised landscape, and the influence of writers such as Pope, Rousseau and Delille. This style applied in the Netherlands to country houses and public parks. In the early days of the Dutch landscape style we can, in fact, talk of a transitional style which was initially applied within the confines of the earlier rigidly formal lines. Garden ornaments from the earlier period were generally taken over and included in the new layout.

A walk through the parks of this period could be imagined as a meandering stroll of discovery along winding paths. On the way one might come across follies like Chinese, neoclassical or neogothic buildings, a ruin or hermitage, either as solid structures or as paintings on wooden boardings.

Arcadian landscape from: Magazijn van tuin-sieraaden. Plaat XLVI. Amsterdam, 1802
The favoured planting of this period is best described in the book by J.C. Krauss entitled Afbeeldingen der fraaiste, meest uitheemsche boomen en heesters, ... (1802). Another important book, published in the same year, was G. van Laar's Magazijn van tuin-sieraaden (1802-1809), the standard work for follies and garden layout in the Netherlands. Among the more important garden designers working in the early landscape style were J.G. Michael, J.D. Zocher Sr., J.P. Posth and P.W. Schonk. Examples of estates which were partly redesigned to incorporate the landscape style included Groenendaal (ca. 1750) and Over-Holland (1755); shortly after that in South Kennemerland: Huis te Bennebroek (ca. 1761); Beeckestein (ca. 1770) and Manpad (1767). About 1780 an important contribution was made by J.G. Michael in South Kennemerland when designing Elswout (1781), Waterland (1781) and Welgelegen (Haarlemmerhout, 1788). J.D. Zocher Sr. is first mentioned in relation to Meerenberg at Heemstede (1794).

Later Landscape style (1815-1870)

Lay-out of the park of Zuid-Crailoo, by J.D. Zocher jr and L.P. Zocher. Gouache, 1856 After the creation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1813, the first public parks were established and some country estates were opened to the public for walking and recreation. New plant species, particularly those from China and Japan were introduced. During this ripe and later landscape period (1815-1870), the character of gardens changed for a third time, this time from enclosed to open. The en-closed, small scale park was opened up with the creation of large, open meadows, wheat fields, and lakes, and vistas across these open spaces towards points outside the park itself. Most of the old features characteristic of French classical garden architecture disappeared during this period, being replaced by a landscape of open meadows with trees planted singly or in clumps, backed by the surrounding parkland generously endowed with lakes.
So the structural elements of the later landscape style comprised curving pathways, long vistas, open meadows planted with single specimen trees, or clumps, and bordered by a backdrop of trees, large expanses of water, waterfalls and running streams, artificially created differences in levels, and meadows where animals could graze. The decorative elements now consisted predominantly of neoclassic and neogothic garden houses and hothouses and shelters for animals built in Swiss chalet-style.

The most important designers working in the late 19th century land-scape style in the Netherlands were J.D. Zocher Sr. and Jr., J.P. Posth, C.E.A. Petzold, L.P. Roodbaard, and H. and S.A. Van Lunteren. The most known country estates which were laid out in the characteristic manner of the late landscape style include Zypendaal (1802-1804), Sonsbeek (1806 and 1821), Het Loo (1807-1808), Twickel (1833) and Clingendaal (1838). New public parks included the Stadspark at Maastricht (1837) and the Vondelpark at Amsterdam (1864).

Mixed garden style (1870-1925)

Map of Amsterdamse Bos. Amsterdam, 1937

From 1870 onwards, the increasingly prosperous merchants built new villas within the towns and in rural places accessible by rail. Small parks were also designed for the health and enjoyment of factory workers, such as the Sarphatipark in Amsterdam and the ´volksparken´ (people´s parks) in Dordrecht and Enschede. From 1890 various town councils took over this initiative and created parks to help combat unemployment. The most famous city park laid out that way was the Amsterdamse Bos.

After 1870 too, a more mixed style of landscaping developed, incorporating a number of elements from the earlier styles. This style was introduced into the Netherlands by the German architect H.H.A. Wentzel who designed the flower garden at the Princessetuin at De Paauw (1853), and by the Frenchman E.F. André, assisted by the Dutch landscape architect H.A.C. Poortman. at Weldam and Twickel. These gardens were generally hedged or walled to give them some protection from the wider landscape and were sometimes sunken. At the foot of the walls and hedges were colourful and scented borders of perennials and the flower beds generally were further enhanced by decorative stone troughs, balustrades and statuary. Rock gardens also became popular at this time, either as part of the garden as at Warnsborn (ca. 1900), or as an entity in itself.

Rockgarden at the country estate Groot-Warnsborn near Arnhem. Photograph in catalogue of H. Copijn and son, ca. 1920.
The most influential designers working in the Netherlands between 1870 and 1940 were H. Copijn, H.A.C. Poortman, L.A. Springer and D.F. Tersteeg. Examples of public parks laid out during this period include the Volkspark Enschede (1872) and Zuiderpark Den Haag (1920). After the Second World War and the population increase that followed it, there was a great need for large scale recreation grounds and these were generally laid out in the mixed style, incorporating both landscape and formal elements. The aim was to build a Dutch landscape rather than an exotic one. These generous sites comprise a number of different areas - lawns, lakes, playing areas - surrounded by woods with walks, bridle paths and cycle ways. Flowers and statuary are seldom used.

Nature gardens (1925- )

There is also a recognized demand in Holland for small scale wild or nature parks. As elsewhere in Europe, wild plants are endangered as a result of pollution and the inadequate maintenance of nature reserves. L.G. Le Roy pleads for letting nature run its course: he dislikes artificial fertilizers and pesticides and does not allow the clearance of dead plant material. In his wild gardens, man creates the environment - planting a wood, creating a marshland or building a rockery - nature does the rest. After several years, he claims, a natural balance of vegetation will occur. The application of Le Roy's theories may be seen at Park Lewenborg in Groningen and Kennedy-Plantsoen in Heerenveen.

The 'heem' garden is also a reaction to the disappearance of wild species. 'Heem' gardens are intended to be educational gardens where the visitor can become familiar with native plants and the environment in which they grow. The best-known are the parks in Amstelveen as J.P. Thijssepark (1940).

Functionalisme (1920-1940)

Gijsbrecht van Amstelpark at Amsterdam. Lay-out by W. Boer, 1959. A number of private gardens follow the ideas of Mien Ruys, who likes to feature hedges, pergolas, flower borders, brick and stonework, lawns and small lakes. Her perennial flower borders, rather in the style of Gertrude Jekyll, are arranged according to colour, height and flowering period. Well-known landscape architects of public parks include J.T.P. Bijhouwer, W.C.J. Boer, P.A.M. Buijs, N. de Jonge and H. Warnau. These all belong to the modernists.

House Heemstede, restoration plan by Hylkema Consultants B.V., 2001 The successful restoration of the palace gardens at Het Loo (1978-84) evoked much interest. Garden architecture in the Netherlands at the end of the 20th century has shown a trend towards geometric lay-outs and the restoration of historic gardens. Kasteel Heemstede in Houten is a recent example (2001).

In 1999 the National Year of Monuments was focused on Dutch urban parks and public green. Also in 1999 nine organisations undersigned the Declaration of Arnhem to call for greater attention to green monuments.

Carla S. Oldenburger-Ebbers

mail icon Wageningen Digital Library, 2 Augustus, 2007