Everyone knows gardens are sexy. Ever since Eden, the garden has been associated with nudity and breaking the rules. I just finished writing a book about the great age of English garden design, the eighteenth century, and I gave the bawdy garden of the period some attention.
The most famous example is Sir Francis Dashwood’s West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. In addition to being a politician and art collector, Dashwood was a notorious rake who led a secret society called the Hell Fire Club, which met in a network of prehistoric chalk caves that surfaced on his West Wycombe estate. (They became know as—what else?—the Hell Fire Caves, and you can still go visit them.) Sir Francis and his associates were either “happy disciples of Venus and Bacchus” or “subversive of all decency,” depending on your point of view.
Here’s one of many period portraits of Sir Francis. It's called Sir Francis Dashwood Worshipping Venus, and it shows our loose-living subject kneeling blasphemously in front of an erotic novel instead of the Bible, with his equally notorious friend Lord Sandwich peering from the halo instead of an angel:
To facilitate his Venus-worshipping tendencies, Sir Francis carried out a series of ambitious renovations to his West Wycombe estate in the 1760s and 1770s. Like a lot of eighteenth-century gardens, the updated West Wycombe included a temple to Venus. But Dashwood’s Venus Temple is special. The temple is built into a hillside with the arch-shaped door opening into a dark interior space. Another Hell Fire Club participant, John Wilkes, said this archway was meant to represent “the Door of Life, through which we all enter”—in other words, the vagina. The small rotunda on top of the hill, which looked like a belly button, emphasized the bawdy meaning of this part of the garden:
Yeah, the belly button is a little oversized. The symbolic effect was probably strengthened at the time by the fact that there were apparently two swelling mounds with their own, smaller rounded porticos on top visible behind and to each side of the vagina-and-belly construction above—i.e., the breasts complete with nipples.
In the eighteenth century people were either scandalized or titillated—or both--by Dashwood’s Venus Temple. As a feminist I was intrigued to find a similar design by an eighteenth-century woman garden designer named Mary Delany Delany knew about West Wycombe and Sir Francis’ highjinks both through family connections and because he was a neighbor of her longtime girlfriend (more on eighteenth-century lesbian relationships later) the Duchess of Portland, whose estate at Bulstrode was just a few miles away. Delany collaborated with the Duchess on the Bulstrode renovations (everybody was doing it; that’s why it’s the great age of English garden design!), but here’s the Beggar’s Hut she designed for her own garden outside Dublin:
See the similarity? In the middle of the drawing you can see the arched doorway of the "hut," which is actually an underground cave, drawn just below the belly-like mound of the hillside. This image was a starting point for me in realizing that women participated in the tradition of the bawdy garden. I’m sure some of them made gardens that looked like penises (actually Dashwood made a church steeple with a golden ball on top of it that was even more scandalous than the Venus Temple) but since I’m a lesbian, I was less interested in that possibility. I liked the idea that women in the eighteenth century made gardens that looked like the sexy bodies of other women. And my book, Sister Arts: The Erotics of Lesbian Landscapes, was born.
Next time: the erotic gardens of the 21st century.