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Jul 2, 2004 8:53 am

Where Did Green Lawns Get Their Start?

Blake Morrison, in the Guardian (June 29, 2004):

...The home of Wimbledon is the All-English Lawn Tennis Club, and there is something wholly English about a lawn. Never mind that the word itself comes from the French ( laund , an open space among woods), that it was the Americans, in the late-19th century, who pioneered seed and turf research, and that now, with no thanks to us, there are lawns even in Dubai. It is here it all began. Lawns are where Drake kept bowling while the Spanish Armada waited at sea. Lawns are the home of cricket and croquet. Lawns 'r' Us.

In fact, garden historians disagree as to when and where they originated. Some think a form of lawn existed in ancient Greece, Rome and Persia. Jenny Uglow's excellent new book A Little History of British Gardening (Chatto £15.99) includes a drawing of a game of bowls, on grass, taken from a medieval manuscript. It seems unlikely that a mere scythe could have created such a flat and level surface. But the notion of a lawn was certainly active from the 13th century. "The sight is in no way so pleasantly refreshed as by fine and close grass kept short," Albertus Magnus wrote in 1260 and soon enough came the further idea, that we Brits (we English, anyway, Celts being of rougher hue) were incomparably good at creating and maintaining lawns, the smoothies of Europe. Even the French didn't dispute it. "These even and uniform carpets of green velvet . . . which other nations have not been able to obtain for themselves, make an admirable sight," the Parisian Antoine Joseph Dezallier D'Argenville wrote. "People tried vainly to imitate them in France," he added, but "the lawns that grow in France are not fine."

Edwin Budding's invention of the cylinder mower in 1830 consolidated the national reputation: now lawns could be smooth as the felt on card tables and striped like Regency wallpaper. If the emblem of the pre-industrial age was the village green, with its stocks and maypole and folksy communality, with the Victorians and Edwardians grass was privatised, to become a ferociously tended suburban lawn: the more regular the cut, the neater the edging, the greater a chap's social respectability. In the higher echelons, lawns were seen as an expression of refinement: Henry James's Portrait of a Lady describes one as the continuation of a luxurious domestic interior, the deep, velvety carpet flowing outdoors and imperceptibly becoming nature. Lawns were part of the imperial adventure, too: the hill stations of India mightn't be Surrey, but if you planted grass you could pretend. Six years ago, in a hotel in Delhi, I sat having breakfast while a dozen men with scissors, moving with painful slowness in a line, snipped away at the coarse turf. A man with a push mower would have done the job in half an hour. But 11 men would have earned no rupees. And the illusion of Empire would have been lost....

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