(the "gardens of William Morris" at the Red House, Bexleyheath.
Little is known of Morris' actual garden at the site.)
I've had several occasions lately to ponder what makes a historic garden 'real'. In less transient forms of art, made in the comparatively eternal (to gardens at least) mediums of paint and stone the difference between a 'real' and a 'fake' can be readily distinguished and doesn't change over time. What is done by Picasso is always Picasso. But if Picasso made a garden, and it fell into disrepair, and a hundred years later (or two or three) it was re-created, is it still a Picasso?
What would never be accepted in a painting or a sculpture must be accepted in the will-o-the-wisp world of the garden, simply because there is no other choice. If we didn't re-create historic gardens, didn't renew them, or replant them, sometimes even re-imagine them, we wouldn't have any. They go away too soon, through the insensitivity of subsequent owners or of their own accord and the will of nature to return to the wild, or as the scientist in me reminds, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, that of the ever-increasing entropy. (Thus an inevitable emphasis in garden history on garden buildings, because they stay, at least sometimes.)
(The Turkish tent at Painshill Park in Surrey has been both re-created and re-sited, its original location being now in other ownership)
But the task of the garden historian is, perhaps even more than to renew or replant or re-imagine, to re-interpret, because in the garden art as in all others there is no point but to be understood. A plant may be appreciated, even experienced, but a planting scheme can be understood, and a delicate bridge formed to the past--swaying though it may be with uncertainty--to the designer of the scheme and the owner of the house and their fashions and failings and taste and their reasons for being and planting the garden. Why make a garden? Why re-make one?
(At the Philbrook museum in my hometown of Tulsa, the nouveau riche owner once had yuccas planted in his Italianate parterres. Should they still be there?)
The difference between an homage and a forgery--a fake--is what the work is said to be. The student who paints a 'Picasso' to learn a style is simply admiring until he claims that his own hand is that of his master. The best way to keep a historic garden real is to simply be honest about what is known and what is not, and what has been changed or altered or remade.
Too often at historic properties the fact that the garden isn't completely "real" is treated as an unsavoury secret, offered up--a bit shamefacedly--by a guide only when the visitor enquires, as if in some sort of admission of guilt.
The missed opportunity is to interpret the past by celebrating its renewal, uncertain as that may be.