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Britain's garden state

Gardens as evocative as paintings are among Britain's greatest contributions to world culture. Jonathan Jones visits a newly restored classic – and learns about time, suffering and renewal

London's air is being sucked away by the traffic on Hogarth Lane, a brutal western conduit into the capital apparently named by someone with a rich sense of irony – a characterless streak of tar named after the 18th century's most characterful painter. The reason for the incongruous moniker is Hogarth's House, once the artist's country retreat, and currently closed after fire damage.

This part of west London seems the last place you might come in search of beauty. But then you see a gateway, and escape down a sleepy, tree-lined avenue that leads to one of Britain's most influential works of art. A garden is not a sculpture, or a painting, or a sketch. In the language of 21st-century art, we might call it an installation; the older, more Wagnerian term would be a gesamtkunstwerk, or total work of art. Whatever your preferred term, the gardens of Chiswick House, which unite architecture, landscaping, sculpture and pictorial vistas, is the perfect place to learn about one of Britain's most original contributions to world culture: the garden as a work of art. This month, the gardens reopen to the public following an expensive restoration project.

There is more than one irony to Hogarth's association with this spot. In his day, it was odd that he chose to live next door to someone whose pretensions he mocked. Chiswick House and its garden are the creation of Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, a super-patron of the early 1700s and a man whose attempts to import chic Italian architecture into Britain are ridiculed in Hogarth's painting Marriage A-la-Mode I. Here, builders take a break from working on one of Burlington's classical buildings, while a gouty aristocrat brokers a wedding between his soppy son and a merchant's daughter – to raise cash for yet more architectural follies and poncey gardens.

The real Burlington was stupendously rich. If Hogarth satirised his taste, Burlington's friend the poet Alexander Pope praised it. "You show us Rome was glorious, not profuse," he enthused in a poem addressed to the earl. He meant that Burlington tried to impose what we might now call a minimalist sensibility on early 18th-century Britain, preaching the architecture of Andrea Palladio, a calm, elegant style. Chiswick House is not so much a home as a white pavilion, floating coolly between park and sky, built in imitation of one of Palladio's masterpieces.

Chiswick was the earl's weekend home. This was free, rural space then: all along the Thames, from here to Hampton Court, anyone who could afford it built a pleasure house on London's Riviera. Here Burlington would entertain the glitterati and educate them in his architectural ideals. When the games of cards and the lectures on the Vitruvian orders palled, ladies and gentlemen clad in floral-patterned silk could wander in his gardens. Burlington's stretch of parkland, created with his architect William Kent, became one of the most imitated in the country.

The earlier formal gardens of 17th-century Britain were in their way more "modern", more scientific, than those that followed. Gardens of the Stuart age – you can see them in tapestries and paintings, and visit examples such as the unfortunately-named Privy Garden at Hampton Court – gloried in isolation and repetition. Rows of conifers trimmed to perfect cones, lemon trees in pots, ranks of equally spaced tulips: the uniformity of such gardens had the merit of showing off individual species, in a way that suited the scientific revolution. Between the potted plants, there was space – lots of space.

At Chiswick, by contrast, the garden is not a grid: it is a landscape. A man-made waterfall sends glittering walls of water tumbling past artfully rusticated blocks of mossy stone towards the curling, riverine lake. A bridge crossing the lake's narrowest part might have been imported stone by stone from Venice. There is an obelisk, then a corridor of trees towards woodland, where terrapins sunbathe on a log raised from the still waters. Another sightline leads to a building modelled on the grottoes of Renaissance Italy.

After centuries of evolution, the new restoration makes clear the shape of Burlington's original design. An 18th-century map of the garden, on permanent display in the V&A British galleries, helps. You can see how rich the garden was with labyrinths of serpentine paths; how its statues, temples and other structures were set in natural-seeming vales and glades. Pope wrote that the originality of this garden was to be "natural", to go with the flow of the land and its climate, rather than imposing a chilly order on imprisoned flowers.

A semi-circular hedge is home to a group of Roman senators, their stone robes mouldered by time. Nearby, a bearded face tops a marble term. The classical faces emerging from foliage recall the French painter Watteau, whose misty pastoral scenes are contemporary with Chiswick. The garden's most brilliant coup is a grass amphitheatre sculpted out of a natural hollow, whose banks were carved to a circular harmony. At one side of this harmonised valley stands a temple with a little dome; at its centre is a pool crowned by an obelisk. This combination deliberately recalls the paintings of Claude, the French landscape artist beloved of British aristocrats (and of anyone who likes to daydream). Any pomposity is diffused by a stone monument close to the path: its Latin epitaph playfully commemorates a pet dog.

The poet Ian Hamilton Finlay would have liked this. His garden, Little Sparta, which has just reopened for its annual summer season, is proof that the garden can still be a work of art. Finlay followed the example of aristocrats such as Burlington in creating a landscape saturated with meaning. Buildings, statues and inscriptions turned his Scottish garden into a text, written in nature, ripe with myth and history, Apollo and Pan cavorting among stone submarines and hand grenades.

A walk through sublime vistas

Between Chiswick and Little Sparta runs a glorious history of British gardens. After Burlington, other landowners went to even greater lengths to sculpt their landscapes. At Stowe in Buckinghamshire, the classical allegories were mixed with oblique political references (a Temple of Liberty, populated by statues of Saxon gods). Stourhead in Wiltshire is another masterpiece, a walk through sublime vistas. The art of the garden came to be seen as specifically British, and it was the British who naturalised its poetry, setting it in parklands so finely tuned to the living contours of hill and lake that it is hard to tell what is nature and what is art.

On Hogarth Lane, the traffic à la mode scorns stillness. At Chiswick, the art of the garden affords visions of time slowed. It's one thing to see gardens as art. You can call cooking art, or fashion, and much else besides. But great art is more than a brilliant display. Great art is profound: it teaches us about death, suffering, time. This is where the British art of the landscape garden triumphs. When you walk the paths of Chiswick, you intuit something about permanence and renewal, time and eternity. The grasses and trees, reborn every spring; the breezes, passing in an instant; ourselves, as children climbing trees and as adults, all speak of change and action, while the garden and its architecture allude to eternal, elusive truths. It is serious, in the way a painting by Claude is serious. It's not just art – it's great art.

Menace, anger and beauty: Britain's art gardens

Little Sparta, Ian Hamilton Finlay

Increasingly recognised as one of the most important British artworks of the last half century, this is a place of poetry and history. Finlay infused it with images of violence and war – stone hand grenades, submerged submarines – to create, paradoxically, an angry garden.

Dolphinston, near Edinburgh, open Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, 2.30-5pm, until 29 September. Details:

Prospect Cottage, Derek Jarman

The film-maker created something from nothing, an outsider artwork that is now his enduring monument, at a place both beautiful and menaced by the nearby power station.

Prospect Cottage, Dungeness, Kent.

The Garden of Cosmic Speculation, Charles Jencks

Architectural writer Jencks, champion of postmodernism, pursued an openly new age theme in his garden of orotund earthworks and soothing lakes.

Portrack House, Dumfries and Galloway. By appointment only. Details: © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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