The Fantastic Gardens of Hermann von Pückler-Muskau

 Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (1785–1871) was a German nobleman, who was an excellent artist in landscape gardening and wrote widely appreciated books, mostly about his travels in Europe and Northern Africa.

Hermann von Pückler-Muskau (1785–1871)

On October 30, 1785, German nobleman Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Pückler-Muskau was born. Von Pückler-Muskau was an excellent artist in landscape gardening and wrote widely appreciated books, mostly about his travels in Europe and Northern Africa, published under the pen name of “Semilasso“.

“Under 20 cases, 19 times the firm will and patience makes the so-called impossible easily possible beyond all expectations.”
– Hermann von Pückler-Muskau [1]

Family Background and Education

Hermann von Pückler-Muskau was the first of five children of Count Ludwig Carl Hans Erdmann von Pückler and Countess Clementine von Callenberg (1770-1850) who gave birth to him at the age of 15. Pückler grew up with three sisters in the Free Estates of Muskau, the largest of the four Upper Lusatian Free Estates.  His mother, as he put it in a letter to his father at the age of 16, treated him like a toy “without even knowing why she soon hit me, soon caressed me“. His father, Erdmann Count Pückler, was considered grumpy and poor in action. Only his grandfather Count von Callenberg and his tutor Andreas Tamm liked the young count, but the latter was forced to leave early. After the death of his mother’s father in 1792, the seven-year-old was given to the Herrnhutern in Uhyst for four years, then to the “Pedagogium” in Halle and finally to the Philanthropinum in Dessau.

Napoleonic Wars and Pückler’s True Vocation

In 1800 he enrolled to study law at the University of Leipzig, but broke off his studies early and began a military career, before undertaking extensive journeys – often on foot – to Provence and Italy. As lieutenant colonel and adjutant general of the duke (Grand Duke since 1815) Karl-August of Saxony-Weimar-Eisenach he took part in the Battle of Leipzig. In the following campaigns against Napoleon he acted as liaison officer to the Russian Tsar Alexander I and was then briefly appointed as military governor of Bruges. In 1812 he travelled with Leopold Schefer to England for the first time, where he discovered his vocation as a garden artist in view of the parks there.

After the Congress of Vienna

After the Congress of Vienna in 1815, Pückler’s part of Lusatia fell from Saxony to Prussia. According to historians, Pückler was one of the fifteen largest landowners in the Kingdom of Prussia. On 9 October 1817 Pückler married Lucie von Hardenberg (1776-1854), nine years his senior, daughter of the Prussian chancellor Karl August von Hardenberg. 1822 Pückler was raised to the rank of prince. 1826 saw the pro forma divorce of Lucie, with whom he nevertheless remained friends for life.

Looking for “Opportunities” and first Literary Success

The indebted park and garden designer wanted to travel to England in order to get married rich again. Pückler spent many months there between 1825 and 1829 in search of a wealthy heiress. He admired the lifestyle of the English landed gentry, which he regarded as the best element in English society. Nevertheless, in his letters to his wife Lucie, he sharply criticised the ruthless expulsion of the rural population in Ireland by English aristocrats who intensified sheep farming in Ireland. He found no bride, but his travelogues became a literary and financial success in Germany, then also in England and the USA. The prince therefore decided to travel to North America, but due to a duel he missed the ship’s departure.

Fürst-Pückler-Park im Bad Muskau. Sachsen. Weltkulturerbe.

Fürst-Pückler-Park in Bad Muskau. Saxony. World Cultural Heritage Site.

African Travels

Instead he made a journey via Algiers to Egypt. He travelled on to Sudan until 1838, south of Khartoum, when he reluctantly made his way back. In 1837 he bought Machbuba, about 12 years old, from the slave market in Cairo, who accompanied him on his further journey. He then took her back to Europe, but she only lived for a short time as his mistress in Muskau. Politically, he held liberal positions and was close to the Prussian reformers around Freiherr vom Stein. Thus he pleaded for political self-administration at the local level. This, his declared pantheism and his extravagant lifestyle made him suspect in the reactionary Prussia of the Biedermeier era. He remained attached to the military – in 1826 he became a colonel and already in 1833 a major general. Since 1862 he had stood à la suite in the army and was appointed Lieutenant General in 1863.

The Further Development of the English Park

Among connoisseurs he is regarded as a landscape artistic genius, his further development of the “English Park” in the landscape parks of Muskau (Fürst-Pückler-Park Bad Muskau) and Branitz is often even placed above Lenné and Sckell. Both parks and those of his pupils set international standards all the way to North America and are still among the special highlights of 19th century landscaping in Europe. What made both parks particularly costly was the fact that Pückler had huge amounts of topsoil brought in on ox carts from more distant areas, since the sandy ground was unsuitable for the planned vegetation. In addition, he succeeded for the first time in transplanting mature trees. He had them driven up on a special cart and prepared the soil at the new location “tree friendly”. In this way, he succeeded in implementing his famous concept of “eye axes” as early as during the construction of the parks.

Opening the Gardens to the Public

Pückler, who in some cases had only personally been granted access to the English country house and to the gardens in England, decided to make his landscape gardens freely accessible to everyone. Since he had taken over financially with the construction of his first park in Muskau, he sold the sovereignty of Muskau in 1845. He moved to his hereditary castle Branitz near Cottbus. He used the proceeds from the sale of Muskau to rebuild Branitz Palace (under the strong influence of Gottfried Semper) and to create another landscape garden based on the English model, today’s Fürst-Pückler-Park. Prince Pückler was known beyond his military career as foolhardy and restless: in 1815 he ascended with a free balloon from Reichard, and in 1837 he travelled to the Nile Cataracts.[3]

“Art is the highest and noblest in life, for it is creation for the benefit of mankind.”
— Pückler’s last diary entry.

Until his death in 1871 he devoted himself to writing. He was the first German writer to use carbon paper for carbon copies. He was active as a narrator, reporter and letter writer. His literary fame among his contemporaries is based on the anonymous letters of a deceased person. They were originally letters to his wife, and it was her idea to publish them in printed form. They quickly became bestsellers in Germany, England and France.

This was helped by their stylistic quality – sharp-eyed access to speaking situations, intimidating sharp-tonguedness, especially when confronted with his own status, a lack of prudery, and uncompromising irony.

Gardening with a mission | John MacLeod Lecture 2017 | Royal Horticultural Society, [8]

References and Further Reading:

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