What is a water garden?
A ‘water garden’ is a broad term that can be applied to any garden that makes use of water for ornamental effect, be that a series of cascades or a decorative canal.
Water gardens could be found on the Continent since the Renaissance, such as at the Villa d’Este in Italy, but it was the construction of Louis XIV’s elaborate waterworks in the gardens of Versailles during the latter part of the seventeenth century that led to water gardens becoming increasingly admired in Britain.
The fashion for canals and fountains could be seen in the great gardens of royal palaces as well as gentlemen’s country seats.
Important contributors to the development of water gardens in Britain included the landscape designer Stephen Switzer (1682-1745) who in 1729 published his Introduction to a General System of Hydrostaticks and Hydraulicks which detailed ‘the most reasonable and advantageous methods of raising and conducting water for the watering noblemen’s and gentlemen’s seats, buildings, gardens, etc.’
Changes in style
As wider gardening tastes changed, so did the nature of water gardens. For example, the 1720s saw the creation of the formal Octagon Lake at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. As more naturalistic gardening became more fashionable later in the century, the shape of the Octagon Lake was softened and altered between the 1750s and 1820s until it became today’s irregular body of water.
Other outmoded water gardens were simply allowed to deteriorate such as the elaborate water features of Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, constructed for the politician William Blathwayt around 1700. Described in 1779 as ‘much neglected and going to decay’, surviving traces of this lost water garden include a statue of the god Neptune.
Water gardens today
The legacy of historic water gardens, many of which do not survive, can be seen in ornamental water features in today’s back gardens and public parks. Those historic gardens that do survive are invaluable evidence of the development of the water garden in British garden history.