20 DECEMBER 1975, Page 24

Country life

Dutch taste

Denis Wood

When in Holland a few weeks ago I was interested to see some of the old formal gardens, examples presumably of what became known as the Dutch Taste and first attracted the condemnation and ridicule of those who were chiefly responsible for the rise of the landscape garden movement in England early in the eighteenth century. This movement had many springs. One was the emergence at the surface of an undercurrent, a longing for a simple life implied and expressed by poets such 'as Cowley, Milton, Spenser and all the way back to Horace and Virgil — but emotion of this kind could probably be found in the work of every poet who ever wrote.

Certainly the feeling that was to inspire Rosseau's La Nouvelle Heloise of 1761 was abroad early in the century. With these first stirrings of the wind of romanticism came the conviction that 'all nature was a garden', not to be confined in a strait-jacket of geometry or indeed to have any visible boundaries. This was a break with the European tradition of a garden as something enclosed, deriving from Eden, through the gardens of monasteries and Italian gardens which directly influenced design not only in France but in the Netherlands, which has been familiar to Englishmen long before the accession of William III in 1689. It is not surprising therefore that it was these gardens which first provoked the wrath of the early improvers. Stephen Switzer (1682-1745), in his khnographia Rustica of 1718, drew a distinction between, on the one hand, La Grande Mani ere, whose characteristics were largely pure size, a generous, grand, expansive design as at Vaux le Vicomte or Versailles — gardens so large that the boundaries as it were disappeared (although the geometry of these was later to become anathema to Kent and Brown) — and, on the other hand, the `Dutch Taste', which was mean-spirited on account of its smaller size, its undue attention to detail, lack of overall unity and obtrusive sense of enclosure.

I could see some of this at the Kasteel Twickel, a moated castle with a two-arched bridge over tranquil water. There were oak woods on the slopes rising behind but, as if to confirm Switzer's condemnation, a fair amount of unrelated detail, ancient yews rigidly clipped into the shapes of birds, stunted trees in large pots and an irregular 'rock garden' — so called only because the sinuous edges of the beds were held up with stones and really quite innocuous. There may have been no insistent sense of overall unity, but to one not at that time crying de profundis for a manifestation of eternal verities of garden design, that garden was full of pleasure and calm. Twickel has a large orangery into which the trees, in their huge tubs, had just been trundled for the winter. Oranges had a special importance for the Dutch because of the connection of their dynasty with Orange in Provence. Every garden of consequence used to have its orangery. Of the Flerhish garden of

the Duc d'Enghien, Loudon wrote, 'the old orange grove . . . contains 108 orange trees in tubs. . , many of them presents from Kings of Spain 200 years or more ago'. This love of orange trees seems to have been universal. They lived out of doors all the year round in Italy and in Spain, where they are indispensable components of enclosed patios. In England too, as in the Netherlands where they have to be taken indoors for the winter, the good arid great all had orangeries. We passed through Zutphen, where Sir Philip Sidney died in 1586 in Leicester's disastrous campaign, at the age of thirty-two. After many wars this city, on the wide Ijssel, still preserves some of its old fortifications. It was Sunday, but the church which I had hoped to see, the Grote Kerk of St Walburg, was shut all the more disappointing for the nobility of it exterior.

Back in Amsterdam all the churches were shut too, even the Roman Catholic Russian Baroque St Nicholas of 1887 and the old Grote Kerk. The only time we were able to get into a church was to an organ recital in De Waalse Kerk, the Walloon Church, where we heard some academic Bach played on the fine baroque organ of 1680. Ironically the canals in Amsterdam are lined with elm trees, apparently indifferent to our catastrophic epidemic. But the concept of a citY that was once placidly integrated with, and sustained by canals, is destroyed by the remorseless continuous lines of cars parkeu. between the fine houses and the canals. Not only are these cars hideous in their shapes and colours, but they destroy what should be the contrast between the height of tall buildings and the level flatness of the water.