Of Francis Bacon’s garden and the “local” moral emblem

The essayist, moral philosopher, and statesman Francis Bacon claims that gardens are “the purest of human pleasures” (430).  In the essay “Of Gardens,” he details the varying perfumes of flowers and the planting of trees, “wild vine…violets, strawberries, and primroses.”  Bacon advises the reader of the ideal sizes, division, and shape of a garden, the appropriate extravagance of fountains and heaths, and the planning of walkways and alleys, “ranged on both sides, with fruit trees; and some pretty tufts of fruit trees, and arbours with seats, set in some decent order” (434).  All this aesthetic “pleasure,” however, is framed at the outset by the consideration of a garden’s moral importance:

God Almighty first planted a Garden…It is the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man; without which, buildings and palaces are but gross handy-works: and a man shall ever see that when ages grow to civility and elegancy, men come to build stately sooner than to garden finely; as if gardening were the greater perfection…(430).

One must remember that architecture was an extremely common metaphor for thought in early modern England.  It ranged from use in the “memory arts,” a spatially constructed space in the mind, to the commonplace comparisons of the human body to buildings, what Michael Schoenfeldt calls an “architectural model of the self” (46) that allows for self-fashioning, self-control, and self-improvement.  In this light, Bacon’s championing of the garden as a “greater perfection” places some impressive ethical weight on gardening. Not only does it bring with it a particularly significant Biblical precedent, but it is a crowning sign of moral, civil, and personal improvement.

Of Bacon’s house in Gorambery, then, one is unsurprised to learn that “the garden is large.”  The seventeenth-century biographer John Aubrey guesses that it “was (no doubt) rarely planted and kept in his lordship’s time” (82).  True to the horticultural and landscaping advice in “Of Gardens,” “the walkes, both in the coppices and other boscages, were most ingeniosely designed : at severall good viewes were erected elegant  sommer-howses well built of Roman architecture, well wainscotted and cieled,” and “under every tree he planted some fine flower, or flowers, some wherof are there still (1656), viz. paeonies, tulips…” (83).

In this context, the presence of emblems in the house and the garden requires some thought.  In Thomas Blount’s translation of Henry Estienne, an “Embleme is properly a sweet and morall Symbole, which consists of picture and words, by which some weighty sentence is declared” (B4r), (although the term is more complicated and more varied in the period that this definition suggests).  Emblems can act as exercises in classical rhetoric, forays into the “book of Nature,” or sententious, moralising messages, amongst other uses and intentions.

So where do they fit into Bacon’s house at Gorembery? Aubrey informs us that there is a “noble portico, which fronts the garden to the south.”  There is a “stately gallerie” that sits above this portico, which contains panes with “several figures of beast, bird, or flower,” and Aubrey conjectures that they might serve “as topiques for local memory” (82).  The question, then, is what is “local memory”?

“Local memory” might refer to the property’s rural setting or to the “local” of Francis Bacon himself, his “personal” memory.  Early modern emblems lend themselves to both possible meanings, often composed of hieroglyphic symbols that draw their roots (no pun intended) from images of the natural world in order to signify some weightier, universal meaning that might be applied to individual situations and lives.  The emblematist Geoffrey Whitney uses imagery in precisely this way, warning his readers to be wary of those “latet anguis in herba,” ‘lurking snake-like in flowers’ (C4r).  Similarly, George Wither’s sheaths of corn are a sign of personal comfort; they assure that if “in honest Hopes, thou persevere, / A Ioyfull Harvest will at last appeare” (G2v) – and such a message in such a visual surrounding might have proved comforting to Bacon during the trials of his public disgrace.

Inside his house, on a wall by the chimney, is painted the image of “Ceres teaching the sowing of corn,” with the motto “Moniti meliora” ‘better having been taught’ (Aubrey 82).  The image illustrates the way early modern emblems were used as part of architectural surroundings and interior decoration, especially for the inculcation of moral values.  Elizabethans loved pasting and drawing over walls.  The motto, an abbreviation from the Aeneid, also appears on the engraved frontispiece to the first English translation of Bacon’s The Advancement of Learning in 1640, on the left and right pillars:

Moniti meliora

Frontispiece to The Advancement of Learning, British Museum.

The frontispiece was designed by the engraver William Marshall, who is known for illustrating a number of prominent English emblem books.  Again, it emphasises the architectural structure of thought and its moral implications – the sententious caption from the Aeneid sits above books of philosophy and history, on pillars that represent the building of human knowledge.

Such emblematic interior decoration leads me on to the garden – “the greater perfection.”  If the moral architecture of Bacon’s frontispiece and the quotation taken from Virgil’s Aeneid is to be found inside the house, then surely the emblematic illustration of a carefully designed garden indicates, too, some ethical context – especially in the light of Bacon’s beliefs about gardening.  To return to the portico, then, Aubrey details that

Opposite each arch of the portico, and as big as the arch, are drawen, by an excellent hand (but the mischief of it is, in water-colours), curious pictures, all emblematicall, with mottos under each : for example, one I remember is a ship tossed in a storme, the motto. Alter erit tum Tiphys….(82).

Tiphys is the helmsman of the Argo, the large ship of the Argonauts in Greek mythology, and the motto is taken from Virgil’s fourth eclogue.  With this in mind, it is tempting to read Aubrey’s description as a mere historical emblem.  Richard L. Williams explains that “a growing interest in the ancient world stimulated by Humanist culture resulted in the rise of numismatics, as scholars became intrigued to put a face to a famous name from antiquity” (78).  Yet, the image of Tiphys must also have some moral force, like those “topiques for local memory” that sit beside it, especially considering its privileged position overlooking the garden. Perhaps “local memory” might refer to the immediate geographical setting, an emblem’s spatial context: in this case, the garden.

Certainly, Virgil’s eclogues were often “read as moral or political allegories” (David Norbrook 59), frequently printed with annotations to explicate those underlying meanings.  It is therefore curious that a marginal note in the 1583 edition of Virgil’s works (STC 24790) ascribes to Tiphys a very moral function.  Besides the line “alter erit tum Tiphys” ‘then there will be another Tiphys’, the annotator George Fabricus has noted “ob auaritia[m] nauigare” ‘to navigate against avarice’ (C8r), suggesting an interesting contemporary signification for the classical figure – a signification that places him as a moral symbol.

More relevant, though, is that the fourth eclogue from which the Tiphys emblem is derived is often read in the early modern period as a prophetic millenarian poem in which “magnus ab integro saeclorum nascitur ordo”  ‘the great rank of peoples is being born untouched [or anew]’ (l.5).  Sixteenth-century Europe, James Romm notes, often conceived of Tiphys as “the hero who brings Christianity to disparate nations of the globe” (86).  As a millenarian prophecy, the eclogue must also remind Christian readers that “God Almighty first planted a Garden” (“Of Gardens 430).  Being born untouched, anew, calls to mind the prelapsarian world.  Indeed, Virgil describes a “world at peace,” in which heroes and gods live side by side:

And for yourself, little boy, the uncultivated earth
will scatter its first small gifts:
wandering ivy and cyclamens everywhere…

Tiphys, then, is an historical figure with considerable allegorical significance.  Not only might he be viewed as a figure who navigates against avarice, as in Fabricus’s annotation, but he is also the captain of a ship in a new age, an age that Virgil conjures by turning the world into a garden rich in horticultural delights – a “topique for local memory” indeed!

The image of Tiphys in his tempest-tossed ship would be a fitting picture for the south front of the garden.  Bacon’s belief that gardens are “the greatest refreshment to the spirits of man; without which, buildings and palaces are but gross handyworks” (“Of Gardens” 430) complements the picture of the millenarian navigator, rising out of Virgil’s bucolic fourth Eclogue in defence of virtue and offering the promise of a new Eden.


Works Cited:

Aubrey, John.  “Francis Bacon.”  Aubrey’s Brief Lives. Ed. Andrew Clark. Vol. 1.  Oxford: Clarendon, 1898. Print.
Bacon, Francis.  “Of Gardens.”  The Major Works.  Ed. Brian Vickers.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Blount, Thomas.  The art of making devises.  London, 1646. Print.
Norbrook, David.  Poetry and Politics in the English Renaissance.  London: Routledge, 1984. Print.
Romm, James.  “‘Novos Orbes’ and Seneca in the Renaissance.”  The Classical Tradition and the Americas.  Ed. Wolfgang Haase and Meyer Reinhold.  Berlin: de Gruyter, 1993.  77-116. Print.
Schoenfeldt, Michael.  Bodies and Selves in Early Modern England.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.
Virgil.  Opera P. Virgilii Maronis…Annot. George Fabricus.  London, 1583.  Early English Books Online.  Web.  03 Mar. 2013.
Whitney, Geoffrey.  A choice of Emblemes…London, 1586. Early English Books Online.  Web.  03 Mar. 2013.
Williams, Richard L.  “The Reformation of an Icon: ‘Portraits’ of Christ in Late-Tudor England.”  Art Re-formed: Re-assessing the impact of the Reformation on the Visual Arts.  Eds. Tara Hamling and Richard L. Williams.  Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007.  71-86. Print.
Wither, George.  A collection of emblemes…London, 1635.  Early English Books Online.  Web.  03 Mar. 2013.


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