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Dutch Baroque Gardens - Introduction

The Dutch Baroque Gardens cover
British Library Add. MS 59874
Copyright © The British Library Board

These views of Dutch country houses and gardens form three volumes of an atlas devoted to the Netherlands. It was put together between 1718 and 1748 from the best available maps, views, portraits and plans by a wealthy Amsterdam businessman and landowner, Christoffel Beudeker (1675-1756). He expanded Joan Blaeu's two-volume atlas of Dutch town plans (1649) and the Netherlands' section of his Grand Atlas of 1662 to 27 volumes. The British Library purchased 24 of them in 1861. They are still in their original gold-tooled white vellum bindings. The writer Sir Sacheverell Sitwell called the volumes devoted to gardens "one of the most important documents of the art and history of the formal garden".

The seventeenth century saw the greatest flowering of Dutch civilisation, not least in the field of printed maps and views. Professional artists, called afsetters, were employed to colour them. They had ideal opportunities to display their skills with these prints, some of which were engraved by one of the greatest engravers of all time, Romeyn de Hooghe (1645-1708).

The cost of employing de Hooghe and the afsetters was felt to be justified for the gardens since they too were an important aspect of Dutch baroque culture. Though inspired by French and ultimately Italian models, the Dutch took advantage of their climate and landscape to amend the foreign models. Building on their own experience of land reclamation and canal-making, they disciplined and improved on nature. They made plentiful use of water, by way of ponds, canals and moats. Using hedges, often cut into spectacular shapes, they created a series of outdoor green "rooms" or "cabinets", palaces, theatres and stage sets. Unlike the prevailing, unadorned green of Italian formal gardens, the Dutch created beds or parterres filled with the vivid colours and the beautiful scents of flowers, sometimes supplemented with coloured stones. Unlike their French counterparts, Dutch gardens fitted into their landscapes and did not dominate them.

The design of the gardens embraced sophisticated intellectual allegories deriving from classical legends and philosophy and they were created in accordance with the rules of architecture and logic. As well as pleasing the eyes, the gardens were also intended to appeal to the mind, their designs symbolising the earthly paradise and being intended to impart moral and philosophical lessons to the select few who understood them. Political often co-existed with philosophical symbolism, and many Dutch gardens were platforms for political propaganda that was all the more effective for being relatively subtle.

Even if the symbolism is disregarded, gardens projected messages of power and wealth, for they were extremely expensive to create and to maintain. A country estate with a beautiful garden was a status symbol for the growing numbers of socially ambitious urban burghers and merchants. It was even more important for the Dutch leader William III (1650-1702). He took an almost professional interest in their design though he also used his gardens for relaxation. After 1674, in his role as Stadholder-General, William had emerged as the principal opponent of Louis XIV of France, but, as a mere functionary of a republic and prince of Orange, a miniature fief in the South of France, he lacked international standing. To enhance his status he began acquiring new country houses and hunting lodges, enlarging those he already had and expanding and embellishing their gardens with symbolic allusions to himself, to the Orange dynasty, and to his mission. In the same years he encouraged his friends and supporters to follow his example. The splendour of the engravings of these houses and gardens were intended to buttress William's credibility as a European leader - which became even more of a necessity after his elevation to the thrones of England and Scotland in 1689 since the Pope, Louis XIV and his allies continued to recognise James II. To make their full impact only the very best artists and engravers could be employed.

 
   
   
 
     

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