Call us biased, but garden history has some of the best stories – from the sacking of Painshill’s hermit for abandoning his post in the garden to go to the pub, to the rumours of libertine Hell-fire Club activities in the grotto at West Wycombe.
So why, when explaining the subject for visitors, do we not foreground these fabulous stories of how gardens were experienced in the past? Why do we instead place our emphasis on cataloguing the chronological development of individual gardens, the minutiae of changes in ownership and the detail of construction techniques? The result is that today’s garden visitors rarely consider the landscape as more than a beautiful painting to be admired, or as a canvas for a collection of plants to be cooed over.
[Francis Wheatley, 1747–1801, British, The Browne Family, ca. 1778, Oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection]
Just think about what they are missing. They have no idea of how much fun was had in the garden when there were musicians, games, fireworks, poetry readings, feasts, miniature naval battles on the lake and noisy menageries! Or what it was like to experience the garden at night, or if you were a child, or perhaps a woman in an unwieldy dress and unsuitable shoes?
We would like to bring these experiences of historic gardens to life for today’s visitors and really inspire and engage them with the past. In an ideal world the way to achieve this would be to offer our visitors the chance to totter round a garden in high eighteenth-century heels, drink tea in a tea house, punt a boat down the canal, roll a hoop across a terrace, or sit for hours sketching a view before returning to the house for dinner and late-night cultured chat with our friends. By creating a complete immersive historic experience we could truly ignite an understanding, connection, and passion for our historic gardens and their direct link to the hearts and minds of the past.
We realize that this level of immersion would be a challenge too far for all but the most bold and well-resourced gardens. This project has therefore trialled an easily achievable alternative – harnessing digital technology to bring the garden to life for visitors.