Today, if you want to make a statement in your garden you might invest in a koi pond, a gazebo or a particularly large water feature. But hundreds of years ago, the garden was far more than just the patch of grass at the back of your house, and the aristocracy were keen to show off just how much money they could spend on the acres of land surrounding their estates.
Let’s say you’ve decided to buy a fountain for your garden. You head over to Primrose to see what sort of classical tiered fountains we’ve got on offer. You pick a few out…then you notice something. No, you think, it’s an illusion – just a trick of the light – so you open a few tabs for a better look and, yes, there it is: a pineapple, bold as day, sat atop a fountain. Sat atop several fountains, in fact. Some are a little more pineapply than others, but there’s a whole range of water features finished with this prickly plant.
So…why? A pineapple of all things seems a particularly random choice when it come to water feature architecture. The pineapple, however, has a rich history both inside the house and out on the lawn, which makes it one of garden’s most enduring icons.
Pineapples were first introduced to European shores after Christopher Columbus stumbled upon them in the 1400s. He brought them back to Spain where this strange, sweet fruit became an instant hit – but was virtually impossible to grow properly in Europe. The only sure-fire way to get your hands on a pineapple was to purchase one that had been imported across the ocean. This wasn’t only expensive, it was also time consuming, and fruit regularly arrived somewhat worse for wear after months at sea.
This didn’t put people off, however, and by the 1700s a pineapple craze had swept Europe. Engineers and architects in England and the Netherlands were building specialist hothouses designed to mimic tropical climates so they could grow pineapples themselves, but the process was costly and could take years. The skyrocketing demand for the odd fruit meant that they were extraordinarily expensive, and only the most wealthy members of society could afford them.
The pineapple very quickly became synonymous with opulence and money. Hosts of lavish parties would amaze their guests by bringing out trays of pineapples, and you could even rent a pineapple for your party (for the small fee of around $8000 today). Of course, a rental pineapple was not for eating; just for showing off how fabulously rich you were. This rent-a-pineapple scheme was so popular that the same pineapple would often appear at several different parties, only being sold to consume once it had begun to rot.
While the richer echelons of society were spending thousands of dollars just to be in the presence of a pineapple for a single evening, those who could not afford the fruit had their own ways of celebrating it. Pineapples were printed on fabric napkins, carved into furniture and even made their way into wallpaper. There were pineapple plates, pineapple teapots and pineapple china.
Architecture of the time was also affected by the pineapple’s boom in popularity, and it became a common finial on gates, columns and of course: fountains. While today the pineapple isn’t as fashionable as it once was, it had a huge impact on classic architecture and design and so still carries with it a feeling of opulence.
The Garden Folly
Is your garden enormous and you’ve got plenty of cash to burn? Then why not invest in a garden folly – a garden extravagance popular in the 18th Century. So named because they were seen as foolish due to their cost and size, follies were ornamental buildings built within gardens or on estates with no practical purpose.
A folly was built for pleasure alone – and while they were often designed to mimic Roman villas or monastic houses, they were purposefully built and regularly had an element of fakery to their construction. By the early 17th century, many houses were built near or around archaeological remains and having such ruins in your garden or on your estate was hugely fashionable, so the wealthy simply made their own. Follies were often highly decorative and represented the owner’s own personal eccentricities. Pyramids were popular, as well as castles and other fortifications. Gothic architecture was particularly in vogue, from tall towers to ruins covered in ivy. In the late 18th Century, inspiration was coming from the East and pagodas, bridges and even tents were cropping up across the countryside.
Not all follies were strictly ornamental, and many of them were used as rooms to take tea, admire one’s garden or even as hides for birdwatching (or hunting). When famine struck Ireland in the 1740s, famine follies began to spring up as wealthy landowners were keen to help starving farmers but felt that simply giving them money would be undignified. When another potato famine struck the country a century later, even more famine follies were erected. These projects were, essentially, useless – piers, gateways, roads to nowhere – but were a way to pay those who could no longer farm.
So, let’s say you’ve decided to build a folly on one of your spare acres of land and you’re a big fan of the pineapple. Why not take a leaf out of the 4th Earl of Dunmore John Murray’s book, and combine the two?
The Dunmore Pineapple is an impressive building in Stirlingshire, Scotland, which was first built as a hothouse in which those prized pineapples could be grown. Murray left Scotland to take up the position of the Governor of Virginia, and it was only upon his return to the country that the enormous stone pineapple was added to the building. Today, the Dunmore Pineapple is widely regarded as one of the most ambitious and impressive follies and you can even rent it out as a holiday home.
You’ve got a pineapple on your fountain and a fake roman ruin at the bottom of your garden: so what now? Why not invest in your very own hermit for that added does of intelleculatism?
In Georgian Britain, it was the very height of fashion and entertainment to have a hermit living somewhere on your land. These ornamental hermits would remain in the grounds of a house or estate where they would dwell in a purpose-built hermitage or folly and pass out sage advice to your visitors.
Garden hermits would be encouraged to dress as a philosopher or druid, usually draped in robes with long, unkempt hair and beards. They would often be seen carrying around large, heavy books from which they would preach to dinner guests. Often, a hermit was expected to go unwashed and ungroomed and had to act sombre and introspective, embodying the 18th century obsession with the melancholy. Guests could gain entrance to a hermit’s residence where you would expect to find him living humbly, sat behind a desk with the key tools of his trade: an hourglass and skull (to remind his guests of time and mortality), a pair of glasses and a large book. If you couldn’t afford to pay a hermit to live in your garden, it wasn’t uncommon to leave a skull, book or hourglass outside a folly or other structure to give the impression that a hermit did live there but was currently otherwise occupied.
Hermits served a variety of purposes in the Georgian household staff. Some hermits wrote and memorised poetry while others might serve wine. Many hermits were immediately accessible to guests, answering their deep questions of philosophy, religion or morality or providing them with wisdom. Some would merely go about their business quietly and silently, designed to be observed from afar.
The job was incredibly popular and quite sought-after – if you agreed to the landowner’s often rather strange stipulations, you would be provided with food and living quarters as well as a small stipend. Charles Hamilton, in Painshill, once posted an advertisement looking for a man to live in the hermitage and temple on his estate for seven years in exchange for £700 (around £60,000 today) on the understanding that the successful applicant did not speak to anyone, leave the estate or cut his hair for the duration of the role. While this is an excellent example of the high premium that people were willing to pay for their own personal hermit, It’s not so good an example of Hamilton’s judge of character: three weeks later, the hermit he hired was found at the local pub and was swiftly removed from his post.
Let’s glance back a couple of hundred years to 1592 and travel across the sea to Denmark, where the tulip was becoming the flower of choice for the fabulously rich. In this year, Carolus Clusius, one of the most important botanists of the time, wrote the first book on tulip care and their popularity exploded. At one stage, Clusius’ personal garden was regularly broken into by fans of the iconic plant, who would steal his bulbs and raid his flowerbeds.
Tulip-mania (or tulpenmanie, in Dutch) continued into the 17th Century. Demand was at an all-time high as the flowers were unlike any seen in Europe before. The bright, intensely saturated colours were perfect for creating intense flower beds and soon horticulturalists and botanists were working to create a wider range of tulip variety – for example the white and red Rosen.
By 1623, 10 rare tulip bulbs would set you back around 12,000 guilders – more than the cost of an upmarket townhouse in the center of Amsterdam. The tulip boom, which had been started by the wealthy seeking extravagant gardens, was exacerbated by those trying to make a quick profit in what was quickly becoming one of the world’s first speculative markets. Soon, tulip bulbs were even being used as a form of currency, being traded for goods and land. Tulips were bought and sold by everyone, from the aristocracy to farmers, chimney sweeps or butchers.
And then, in 1637, the tulip market collapsed virtually overnight. Even the cheapest bulbs were far too expensive and speculators could no longer afford to continue buying and selling. Just like that, the trade vanished. But the tulip did not – and the bulbs worth hundreds of guilders had made their way into the soil at last, where they could grow.
Lotti works with the Primrose Product Loading team, creating product descriptions and newsletter headers.
When not writing, Lotti enjoys watching (and over-analyzing) indie movies with a pint from the local craft brewery or cosplaying at London Comic Con.
Lotti is learning to roller skate, with limited success.