History of Japanese Gardens in the UK

Kew GardensEarly gardens 1850 -1930

By Dr. Jill Raggett, Reader in Gardens and Designed Landscapes, Writtle College, Essex.

Until 1868 Japan was a country which had self-imposed political and cultural isolation from the outside world for nearly 250 years. With the opening of Japan’s doors to the West, many aspects of Japan’s culture created great interest, including their gardens.

Enchantment with Japan

Within 30 years of opening to the world, Japanese arts were the height of fashion. The opening of Japan in 1854, at first to diplomats, then to traders, led to visitors of all types viewing and writing of Japan in the most lyrical terms, and many Japanese-style gardens were the results of these travels.

As demand for all things Japanese increased items could be purchased from firms such as Gauntlett’s Nursery, in Surrey, who specialised in plants and items from Japan.

In 1877 Josiah Conder, a young English architect, went to Japan to teach architecture at the Imperial University. In 1893 he published ‘Landscape Gardening in Japan’, the first serious description in English of the gardens of Japan, and which became very popular and influential.

Gardens of Exhibitions and Shows – the Japan-British Exhibition of 1910

The latter part of the nineteenth century saw a series of international exhibitions in Britain, mainland Europe and the United States. It was these exhibitions that were to become the showcase for the Japanese garden in the West. The Japan-British Exhibition of 1910 attracted over eight million visitors in just a six-month period, with two major gardens constructed to display the skills of Japanese landscapers.

Interpretations of the Gardens of Japan

The expression of Japanese-style gardens in Britain was extremely diverse ranging from carefully constructed replicas striving for authenticity to a nod to ‘the fair Japan’ with the addition of such novelties as a random lantern, bridge or plant.

Gardens where there was a greater degree of involvement from a Japanese designer came closest to gaining the appearance of a garden as they would have been found in Japan. The work of Taki Handa (and later J. Suzuki) at Cowden Castle (1907), Perthshire; of Seyemon Kusumoto’s involvement, from 1923, at Cheynes (Cottered) (1906), Hertfordshire, and finally the designs of J. Suzuki at The Node (c.1930), Hertfordshire, and possibly at Trewince (1935), Cornwall, were examples of much stronger and convincing designs.

Evaluating the early Japanese-style gardens

The early Japanese-style gardens of Britain are only just beginning to receive the attention they deserve. However they are often considered to lack a resemblance to the refined gardens of Japan as we see them today.

Conservation of early Japanese-style gardens

Where are these gardens now? A few are well known and cared for such as the Japanese-style garden at Tatton Park, Cheshire, but the majority are lost, hidden under encroaching undergrowth and suffering the effects of neglect, vandalism or the sale of the more valuable ornaments.

Those that remain are perhaps best, as far as possible, through the eyes of their contemporary creators, builders and garden visitors, both for their accurate restoration and for an understanding of the complex history they represent.

Recent gardens (1960s onwards)

By the mid 20th century Japanese gardens were wholly out of fashion. Many existing gardens had been left to decay or were destroyed.

By the late ‘60s and early ‘70s an interest in Japanese gardens began to re-emerge in the UK and Europe. During the last 50 years many new Japanese-style gardens have been built in the UK, some of which are open to the public. Most of these are smaller and less ambitious than the earlier gardens, perhaps reflecting financial constraints.

Today the interest in and awareness of Japanese gardens is probably stronger than ever. The Japanese Garden Society has several hundred members in the UK alone, and the number of Japanese styled gardens in the UK is increasing all the time.

Appreciation and assessment of recent gardens

As in earlier times it is perhaps unfortunate that many gardens have been labelled ‘Japanese’ that fail to capture the true feeling of gardens in Japan. However judging the success of particular gardens is more dependent on our personal opinions than on an objective set of criteria. These opinions are informed by our personal experience and knowledge of Japanese arts and particularly of the garden tradition.

One issue that undoubtedly affects the gardens and our appreciation of them is maintenance. Japanese gardens, whether traditional or modern in style are very dependent for their success on the meticulous maintenance that such gardens would receive in Japan. Sadly some of our public Japanese-style gardens suffer in this regard, due in part to limited financial resources, but also to a lack of real understanding of the maintenance and skills required.