The Theory of Gardens

by Jean-Marie Morel
Reviewed by Valerie Joynt, June 2020

Translated from the French by Emily T. Cooperman; introduction and notes by Joseph Disponzio.
Published by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library as part of the exhorto series, 2019

Jean-Marie Morel’s work Théorie des jardins was first published in France in 1775 with an updated second edition in 1802, but until now it has not been translated into English.  This may be why Morel enjoyed a short-lived popularity compared with his contemporaries Claude Henri Watelet, Renée-Louis de Girardin, George-Louis le Rouge and Antoine-Nicholas Duchesne all of whom made significant literary contributions during the decade 1770-1780.

Morel’s life (1728-1810) coincided with the emergence and development of the Age of Enlightenment.  In 1751 came the first volume of Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie, which invited a new spirit of change and challenge to the old order.  A few years later (1757) saw the publication in England of Edmund Burke A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  The flood gates were opened and a rush of texts appeared re-evaluating the role of God, Art and Nature as Cartesian rationalism was replaced by a new spirit of empiricism.

In this Morel was authoritatively positioned.  He had trained as an ingénieur géographe surveying and mapping landscapes, followed by study in Paris under the leading architectural theorist of the day Jacques Francois Blondel.  Morel’s field experience from these years is apparent in his writing;  he has an eye for detail and a remarkable feel for the landscape.  It is claimed that he coined the expression ‘architecte paysagiste’.  Morel defined four classes of garden: the countryside, the park, the farm and the garden proper.  He was influenced by the development of Watelet’s Moulin Joli at Neuilly and was commissioned by Renée-Louis Girardin for the complete redesign of the landscape at Ermenonville.  A detailed description and plan of this estate is in the text of The Theory of Gardens as an example of a ‘countryside’ garden.  Also included in the text is the Château de Guiscard, north-east of Compiègne where he designed a parc à l’anglaise for the duc d’Aumont (c.1775).

Although Morel never visited England, his garden designs both in theory and practice are much closer to a Brownian landscape than most other jardins anglo-chinois or jardins anglais with their innumerable fabriques and sinuous paths.  Morel’s ideal was that the mansion should be subservient to the landscape and best sited with the grass of the parkland sweeping right up to the house and all terraces and formal parterres swept away.  Many of Morel’s designed landscapes date from after the years of revolution, including the (now lost) wider landscape of La Malmaison, which he designed for the Empress Josephine.

Few authors have studied Jean-Marie Morel’s text and legacy as seriously as the American academic Joseph Disponzio and his notes and introduction place Morel at the centre of the French picturesque movement.  This English translation will allow for wider recognition of that great French triumvirate of Watelet, Girardin and now Morel.