How Japan inspired the English Landscape Garden

:
Sharawadgi! by Professor Wybe Kuitert, Seoul National University, South Korea
At the origin of a voluminous discourse on the English
landscape garden and its picturesque taste stands an essay
by statesman and essayist Sir William Temple (1628–99).
His essay contains the cryptic word sharawadgi that
defined irregularity as something opposed to the prevailing
geometry and symmetry in garden design of his times. As
a result of his introducing this concept – which he claimed
was Chinese – Temple is considered to be the originator of
the English landscape garden movement. Many attempts
have been made over the past 300+ years to decipher the
word and grasp its meaning. Nonetheless, sharawadgi
cannot be comprehended merely in terms of sound and
meaning only. It needs to be understood from a functional
and historic context in the lands of its origin – Japan as we
will see – as well as a practice of landscape design in Europe
where it inspired new creative ideas.
Imported art works, such as lacquer screens or porcelain,
strikingly with their Japanese aesthetics of asymmetry,
were re-interpreted to fit a European understanding. This

Figure 1: Drawing (c.1660) of the wilderness and Hofwijck’s main play house
by Constantijn Jr.

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reconstruction in turn was framed within the complex world
of European tastes for landscape and other applied arts.
Men of letters, widely learned and erudite like Temple,
maintained their networks by writing letters and exchanging
books and other gifts, eager for the most recent news
on developments in the world of learning. In northern
Europe these savants communicated in French, English,
Dutch, German, or Latin; conceptual ideas were sometimes
expressed in Greek. Temple’s world was this cosmopolitan
Europe, receptive to the beauty of Asian art and concepts
like his enigmatic sharawadgi. It is among this network of
savants that the European context is found.
The meaning of the word in Japan on the other hand,
can only be understood by studying seventeenth century
Japanese art theory. Fortunately, I was given a chance to
work in Kyoto on this topic and discovered that sharawadgi
was indeed a term in aesthetics in Japan at the time of
Temple. It was about the design of landscape and other
motifs in applied arts and was used for the puzzling
symbolism in such design, a novel thing for the burgeoning
class of urban wealthy at the time. In the present
romanization of the Japanese language it is spelled shara’aji
and it relates straightforwardly to today’s share’aji, still
used by kimono fashion critics; it is again about symbolism
of designed patterns in the dress (indeed usually not
symmetric), and matching it to place, time and occasion.
The history, meaning, linguistics, and aesthetics of shara’aji
(洒落味) are explained in detail in my paper published in
Japan Review (see below) that also treats the route the word
has travelled.
So how did this word get to Europe, and how could William
Temple grasp it? A close gardening friend of Temple was
the Dutch state secretary, diplomat, and poet Constantijn
Huygens (1596–1687), a real savant. Huygens saw his garden

at Hofwijck, his summer house in Voorburg close to The
Hague, as the embodiment of a comprehensive philosophy
explained in his poem Hofwijck that treats the philosophy
of the garden in more than two thousand lines. Both garden
and poem intended to frame the irregularities he observed
in human life as well as in free natural growth in classic,
geometric frames. In his garden plan Huygens invented
perhaps the most literal
application of symmetry
and geometry in Vitruvian
order in all of Europe’s
architecture to that time.
The design of his flower
beds, canals, and garden
paths relied on dimensions
derived directly from the
greatest work of art: the
human body, like Vitruvius
had proposed. However,
Huygens also understood
that trees do not grow in
squares and such golden
proportions. The drawing
of his son Constantijn Jr
expresses this even better
than the words of the
poem on his garden. There
is nothing Vitruvian about
this ink sketch – it is fully
picturesque. [Figure 1]
The drawing is dated
c.1660, which makes it one
of the earliest picturesque
expressions in garden
Figure 2: Detail from the front panel of a
lacquer chest in the posession of William III representation in

European history. Huygens, always contemplating the
things he observed around him, was a literary master when
elaborating on perceptions. In his poem he accommodated
the two opposites of the Vitruvian order and the irregular
picturesque by pointing to the Japanese robe, which has an
irregular design on the symmetry of the sheets of its cloth –
similar to Huygens’s symmetric parcels cut from the swampy
soil of Holland on which his trees grew freely in irregular
forms.
William Temple, ambassador in The Hague, was of the
generation of Huygens’s sons, and was a regular visitor to
Hofwijck. Temple in turn could elevate the appreciation
of irregularity in the garden to a personal judgment, a
taste for which he introduced his sharawadgi. He picked
up the Japanese word from a conversation he had in the
Netherlands in the circles of Huygens with a merchant, who
had brought back a set of fabulous lacquer chests. [Figure 2]
These chests show irregular and picturesque scenery,
the landscapes of Japan through which merchants, like
Temple’s informant, had traveled. For the Japanese lacquer

craftsmen the sharawadgi of these chests was about
the novel aesthetics of showing a landscape with foreign
travellers. The set of chests had entered England and came
in the possession of King William III, only a few years before
Temple wrote his essay.
Not long after that, a contemporary drawing of one of
Temple’s estates showed, prominently in the foreground,
an idiosyncratic design in the lower part of the garden
featuring purposeful serpentine lines for the design of paths
and waterways [Figure 3].
Temple’s garden stream enhanced the beauty of the natural
landscape in a studied fashion with contrived bends and
curves that typified his garden paths as well. Separated from
the formal squares and rectangles of his main, traditional,
classic garden, this non-geometric sharawadgi garden
echoed Temple’s endeavour to express landscape beauty
in irregularity. It was the first experiment in asymmetric
design; many such crooked paths and streams followed,
bringing about the early beginnings of the English landscape
garden. With help of Huygens and his sons, Temple could

find an opening in the rigid prescriptions of classical garden
design, proposing irregularity as a quality of a garden
landscape, or even as aesthetics to strive for.
Japanese art work and Japanese robes form the clue in
understanding the courage to come up with new ideas
on beauty which is clearly demonstrated in the portraits
of Christiaan, another son of Huygens and Temple; both
fashionable, young men are dressed in the same Japanese
robe. The background to these portraits, as was usual at the
time, relate to the intellectual and spiritual spheres of the
sitters: a garden scene with a classic statue in the case of
Huygens’s son, picturesque scenery for Temple [Figure 4 –
Temple to the left, Christiaan Huygens to the right].
Temple’s sharawadgi derives from the Japanese shara’aji.
But we must be honest and should realize that the role of
sharawadgi as a design concept was modest in establishing
the picturesque, romanticism and the English landscape
garden. Not only Japanese, or Far Eastern arts in general, but
also many other developments within England and on the
continent as well, were far more instrumental.
Note:
Readers interested in learning more may want to read my two
papers (also available on the internet):
• “Japanese Robes, Sharawadgi, and the landscape discourse of
Sir William Temple and Constantijn Huygens” Garden History.
41, 2: (2013) pp.157-176, Plates II-VI ISSN 0307-1243 (Figures
1, 3, and 4 in the present article are taken from this paper)
See: http://www.wybekuitert.nl/gfx14/Japanese_robes.pdf
and

Figure 3: Bird’s-Eye View of Sir William Temple’s Garden at Moor Park, Farnham, Surrey (c. 1690) Attributed to Johannes Kip

“Japanese Art, Aesthetics, and a European discourse –
unraveling Sharawadgi” Japan Review 27: (2014) pp.77–101
ISSN 0915-0986 (Figure 2 in the present article is taken
from this paper) See: http://shinku.nichibun.ac.jp/jpub/pdf/jr/
JN2704.pdf

Figure 4: Portraits of Sir William Temple (dated 1675) (Left) and Christiaan
Huygens (c.1671) (Right) , by Caspar Netscher

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