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Character - Propriety

Two qualities usually distinguish professional from amateur productions—simplicity and breadth of treatment.

— Ed. Andre.

L'espressione esagerata o negletta constituisce... due difetti oppositi, il barocco, ed il secco o freddo, tra i quali precede amabile la semplicita.

— F. Cartolano.

Character is the most elusive quality of all those with which we deal. Almost all writers on gardening have talked more or less of character, assuming it as a quality, but never approaching a definition or an explanation. Thomas Wheatley did, in fact, long ago introduce a chapter "Of Character" into his remarkably clear analytical outline; but the chapter treated of subjects quite different from those discussed here. If I may venture on the dangerous experiment of a provisional definition, I will say that I intend to suggest by the term character those more delicate distinctions in the general method of treatment, such as may mark one composition from another, even of the same general style. We understand clearly what is meant by character in a man or woman, and I should like to transfer this notion undisturbed to use in the descriptions of gardens. It is a common saying that the face of such and such an acquaintance is pretty but it lacks character. It is perfectly conceivable that a garden might be faultless in the unity and the harmony of its appointments, with everything beautiful and appropriate withal, and yet lack character.

In different words, we might say that character is the personal impress of the designer. Thus we would never expect a poem of pure and lofty character to flow from a wicked heart. We would not expect a painting of great power to originate in a dull, unsensitive mind. No more can we hope to see vigor and dignity displayed in a garden designed by a weak and puerile author. In this close and proper connection of the character of the garden with the character of its designer we may perhaps more clearly understand its present signification.

Certain terms are commonly associated in criticism of gardens, such as simplicity, dignity, boldness, and others. These I take to represent different types of character. I think this is the use commonly made by those who apply them to art compositions, even though those who use them thus have never stopped to generalize under any common term the qualities expressed. These terms, simplicity, dignity, and boldness, are sufficiently suggestive of certain characters. This list is not intended to be complete, for, theoretically at least, there may be an indefinite variety of character. The term complexity is added to the list only because it seems to be implied in simplicity. Perhaps elaborateness would be preferred to complexity as a term for a more careful classification.

Between the terms propriety and appropriateness it is hard to choose the better. The latter is the more explicit in its suggestions, but the former has the advantage of brevity and of good associations, which I think ought to be operative in our criticisms of taste in gardening. For as we inquire whether this or that social appointment is marked by strict propriety, so ought we to criticise the items of the gardener's work. It must be said that such criticism is sorely needed, and that many gardeners of some reputation seem never to have reflected that such a test as propriety can be applied to their work. Our American cemeteries are often striking exemplifications of this statement. In them one continually meets objects of such childish conception, such incongruous effect or such gaudy color, as to jar on nerves of any appreciative sensitiveness. Much has recently been said and written on the subject of cemetery ornamentation, and we may assume that we are on the way to inculcate a better taste in this respect. Although every tenet of gardening art is habitually violated in our cemeteries, the most common and disagreeable violations are doubtless instances of disregard for propriety. The matters introduced are not appropriate to the place.

But this is only a single class of improprieties, and is mentioned chiefly for illustration. Propriety is a universal test. Every object and group of objects must submit to it. Thus we would often consider an aviary, or a zoological collection, or a suite of dog kennels inadmissible in a garden because they were inappropriate to the surroundings, even though they might be in themselves beautiful and interesting.

I wish to speak here again of a particular class of improprieties to which I have already alluded, namely, the prominent display of monstrous or deformed horticultural specimens. Deformity and monstrosity have a strange fascination to uncultured minds; and there is no more unequivocal testimony to a general poverty of cultivated taste in gardening than the constantly recurring sight of such disfigurements in the gardens of people whose houses are furnished inside with scrupulous taste and propriety. It is surpassingly strange that the city resident, who has room between his house and the street for only a single specimen, will choose for that position the one plant which offers the most blemishes, as though Aesop were better to look upon than Apollo. The commonest vagary of this sort is the little weeping tree, in which the writhing agonies of one monstrous variety are grafted on the top of some straight, courageous stock for better exhibition. As one passes along a residence street in almost any town seeking something in the gardens to admire, how often must he decide that this and that plant was used for its striking incongruities, rather than for its special appropriateness. It seems to the present scribe that propriety is the one thing to be chiefly studied by that large and needy class of Americans who have houses of their own with small grounds attached.


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