The Irish Formal Garden: Powerscourt

Ireland is not usually the first place considered when mentioning outstanding
formal gardens. The gardens of Ireland are not regarded in the same light as
those of nearby England, or those sublime landscapes of the continent, such as
France or Italy. Yet, in this beautiful emerald isle lie some of the most
beautiful and interesting gardens to be found anywhere in the world. The Irish
garden is a compilation. Often employing English style, as the English occupied
the country and still exert their influence over the north to the present day,
the Irish garden translates that style, as well as those of other European and
international influences. Ireland has made these adapted styles into her own,
and the nature of the Irish garden has a distinction that differs it from those
of England or the rest of Europe.

The gardens at the Powerscourt estate embody many of these characteristic
elements very well. Powerscourt stands out by being different than many other
famous Irish gardens. The gardens are important in that the overall design is
very formal, they incorporate these formal traits in a way reminiscent of
Italian and French garden design, and they bring together all these varied and
complex traits into a cohesive whole.

Upon examining the typical Irish garden, it becomes clear that the Irish did
embrace the more pastoral romantic landscapes of England that began to develop
at the beginning of the 1700’s. These influences clearly had a great effect
especially on gardens of the ninetieth century, and it is this more informal
style that tends to dominate Irish landscape design of the most famous gardens.
It is this tendency toward the more organic designs of English style that causes
such a distinction and contrast in the fewer formal Irish gardens. This is not
to say that formal gardening was not a part of the design vocabulary of Ireland,
for it was. Victorian designers such as Sir
Charles Barry
and William Nesfield were using elements Italian style in
their garden designs as the backbone of their work. Yet those landscapes of
particular distinction and fame in Ireland follow the path laid by famous Irish
landscape gardener William Robinson. Robinson’s effect on the design
theory of Ireland was similar to the more famous English names of Wise, Kent, Brown and others who pushed the transition to the
Romantic, free-flowing, naturalistic garden. As a result the Irish garden, never
fully developed an articulated formal style that gained widespread recognition
like the more natural gardens that would follow. Still, there were exceptions to
this overall trend in development of garden theory, and the gardens at
Powerscourt are one of them.

Situated fifteen miles away from the capital
city of Dublin in Wicklow County, the estate was the home of the Viscount of
Powerscourt. Encompassing at its peak 36,000 acres, the estate was quite large
and provided great opportunities for building and landscape formation. The
existing estate was finished in 1770, (although the interior was burned out in a
fire in 1974), and from that point the rest of the grounds began to develop. The
sixth Viscount of Powerscourt began development of the grounds as a start of
their eventual modern form, but it wasn’t until his son Richard, the seventh
Viscount of Powerscourt, took over the estate after his father’s death, that
estate’s grounds really begin to metamorphose. Through a somewhat complicated
series of designers and incarnations, the grounds surrounding the Manor began to
take on the shape that they still retain today.

The gardens owe they’re splendor and grandeur mainly to this principal
patron, Richard Wingfield the seventh Viscount. His travels to the gardens of
Europe, especially those to Versailles, Schönubrunn, and Schwetzingen, had a
profound impact on the overall form of the garden. It is because of these
travels that the gardens at Powerscourt show such interesting similarities with
these more mainstream gardens and their design elements and philosophies. The
gardens at Powerscourt, like Irish gardening in general, incorporated all these
influences while maintaining an individuality that gives the grounds a
uniqueness and overall sense of place.
The actual design work of Powerscourt
was done by a number of designers starting with architect Daniel Robertson. It
was Robertson’s overall vision that would set the backbone for what Powerscourt
would become. Robertson worked for the sixth Viscount and although he and the
Viscount would die before they’re plans were realized, the foundation was set
for what was to occur next. Robertson was responsible for the layout of the
rounded series of terraces and the incorporation of the existing water elements
in the overall design. Robertson also was responsible for the formal Italian
design of the gardens that he supposedly emulated from the Villa Butera in
Sicily.

The transition in designers following Daniel Robertson’s death meant a
fourteen year reprieve from development and it wasn’t until 1854 that the
Viscount’s son and Scottish gardener Alexander Robertson (no relation) would
team up and continue development of the estate. Alexander Robertson continued
and adapted the vision of his predecessor and development progressed. It was
under the steady hand, and bold vision of the new Viscount that work continued
although Alexander Roberson also died in 1860. The Viscount then entertained
plans from four other designers, and the combination of their work continued to
develop the project and its specific details. The first of these was James Howe
who continued to develop the semantics of the terraced gardens, and who
unfortunately died a year after his Powerscourt plan was created. Later
designers followed including Broderick Thomas and Lord Powerscourt’s neighbor
Sir George Hodson. These designers continued to articulate the gardens as the
design process foraged on.

The result of these no less than six designers and the two lords was nothing
less than fabulous. Through its development, Powerscourt developed into one of
the most distinctive and interesting gardens in Ireland, and for that matter in
Europe in general. The site was a microcosm of European design styles, yet with
the unique setting of the rich chromatic green of the Irish landscape, and the
backing of Sugar Loaf mountain in the distance the estate achieved something
more than its individual design elements could ever achieve alone. Distinctive
elements of the formal gardens include a beautifully constructed perron designed
by Francis Penrose. The perron evokes visions of Italian designs in its style
and beauty, using scores of small stones of black and white set eloquently into
the terraced steps. This and other elements enriched the gardens’ already strong
formal European feeling. Copies of many famous statues like the Hellenistic
Greek statue of Laocoon, ornament the many terraces of the grounds and give the
gardens a very continental flavor reminiscent of other famous formal gardens
such as Vaux le Vicomte.

Detail is present everywhere in the site, from the beautifully crafted
statuary to the magnificent intricacies of contorting wrought iron shaped in a
multitude of elegant forms. Two bold statues of the winged horse Pegasus accent
the central pond and are very distinctive in design and have their origins in
the Powerscourt coat of arms. Beauty abounds and there is a good cohesion in
site between built form and landscape. The landscape functions well as an
overall setting and extension of the manor.

Here at Powerscourt is the
unheralded Irish formal garden in all its glory. It is this somewhat unique
niche of formality that gives Powerscourt its distinction and importance. The
garden succeeded in creating a formal atmosphere, and yet with additional
gardens such as a Japanese garden addition, and a flawless integration with the
more informal countryside and other informal gardens, there was a creation of
something larger. With its unique setting and properly fit elements, Powerscourt
transcends the ordinary; and when on site or looking at photographs it can
become an almost surreal work of art.

The gardens succeed in carrying on the tradition of the Italian Villa and
French Chateau. Renaissance architect Alberti would be proud, as the estate
conforms wonderfully to his guidelines for villa planning that a site should be
oriented towards “familiar mountains”, such as are found in Sugar Loaf looming
picturesquely in the distances that lie beyond as Alberti put it, “the delicacy
of the gardens”. It has the open feel of Versailles while at the same time
combining the curvilinear themes of the romantic pastoral English designers
using its contextual setting. It is a work of combination, done perfectly to
create something that is more than its individual styles. The gardens don’t have
their own distinct style, and yet they do in their inclusion of all the
aforementioned elements. It is in this characteristic that Powerscourt achieves
greatness. It is the unlikely formation of a great formal garden in a country
not known for its articulation in this aspect of garden design. This contrarian
gesture of design against the popular preconception of the Irish garden is what
makes Powerscourt grand.

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Sources:

1. Hyams, Edward. Irish Gardens. London: Macdonald, 1967.

2. Malins, Edward, Patrick Bowe. Irish Gardens and Demesnes from 1830. New
York:
Rizzoli,1980.