Garden Review: ‘Chinese Scholar’s Garden’, Hamilton Gardens

GARDEN REVIEW: ‘Chinese Scholar’s Garden’, Hamilton Gardens


Figure 1: Chinese Scholar’s Garden


First-time visitors to Hamilton Gardens who arrive expecting a collection of plants in a traditional botanic garden will be in for a surprise. Rather than simply focussing on plant collections, at Hamilton Gardens the emphasis is on the gardens themselves. While botanic gardens concentrate on plant taxonomy and classifi cation, Hamilton Gardens concentrates on the cultural meanings and contexts that gardens have historically had.

Throughout history, gardens have been a way of expressing the important philosophical ideas of their time, and in many respects the story of gardens corresponds with the story of human thought. There is more to be learnt from gardens than plant names. They can also increase our understanding of the beliefs and values of the people who made them. Hamilton Gardens tells the story of gardens by recreating some of the most historically important garden styles from a wide variety of times and places. The aim of this short article, the first of several, is to explain a little bit about each style of garden and to place each of them in their historical context.

According to sixth century Chinese art critic Xie He, the primary aim of the artist is to capture the qi, or ‘vital spirit’, of his or her object. When painting a mountain, for example,the artist should aim to capture the essence of mountain, rather than simply aim for a representation of this particular mountain. There is a similar principle at work within the Chinese garden tradition. While it is true to say the Chinese Scholar’s Garden is a representation of nature, it is also important to recognise the garden is a representation of Nature as a whole, and not of a little piece of nature. The aim of the garden is to capture and express the inner essence of Nature itself. In some ways, when we walk through the Chinese Scholar’s Garden we are walking through a painting of a fantastical landscape; a painting in which the underlying reality of Nature is exposed and presented to us.

Figure 2: Pavilion

One of the most important features of Nature is that it sometimes conceals itself and sometimes reveals itself. The garden imitates nature’s play of concealment and discovery by leading the visitor on a winding path with unexpected twists and turns. The Taihu Rock from China can be seen in the Court of the Frozen Clouds, but like a distant mountain peak, it cannot be approached. In the cave across the pond from the Wisteria Bridge, the philosopher Xuan Zang sits in quiet contemplation – is Xuan Zang being revealed to the visitor, or is the visitor being revealed to Xuan Zang?

According to Chinese thought, Nature always encompasses pairs of complimentary opposites, and the gardeners of China made use of this concept in their designs. In the Chinese Scholar’s Garden we can see movement and stillness, light and shade, high towers and underground caves, water and rock, brightly painted buildings and rough stone. Using these pairs of opposites in gardens was thought to help in capturing the essence of the eternal ‘Yin and Yang’ present in all Nature.

This excerpt is taken from The Story of Gardens by Peter Sergel and Geoff Doube.