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Garden Follies

Mary Anne Liljedahl and Joan Fountain

What is a Garden Folly?   English country estates are often associated with intricate networks of rooms and strict social hierarchies. But just outside the country house is an entirely different world—the garden, a freer, more whimsical space where the rules are relaxed.  A garden is a place of diversion, distraction and sometimes fantasy.  While the house itself is an organized, ordered culture, outside one encounters rain and heat and wind and various surprises.  A walk through the garden is different every time.  One means of diversion was through the construction of garden follies, little structures that punctuate the landscape.  Garden follies can be found today in England, Europe and America.


Wildly popular in 18th-century garden design, they serve no purpose aside from delighting the eye and sparking conversation. While garden pavilions gained popularity through the 18th century, they took inspiration from centuries-old landscape architecture:  Our modern garden is rooted in the Italian Renaissance, among many other influences, where the garden was a fanciful place, with fountains and grottos and eccentric grotesque carvings and sculptures. The concept of a pleasure pavilion in the garden can be traced back to ancient Greece.

In the 18th century, as the British Empire reached the height of its expansion and its trade economy boomed, England saw an influx of wealth. As a result, the architecture being constructed in England reflected the country’s new fascination with the building styles traders encountered on their routes.

Books of drawings and prints helped popularize varying architectural styles. Garden follies took a variety of styles. One of the most popular was a chinoiserie folly, which appropriated Chinese architecture. Other examples followed Moorish, Greek or Roman architecture and ancient ruins. The adaptions tended to be exaggerated and not accurate.

Whether it is an Asian-influenced pavilion, a faux crumbling medieval ruin, or a domed neoclassical temple, garden follies have dotted the British landscape for some 300 years, frequently adapted to practical purposes for modern living. Garden follies are a charming way to ground a garden, add visual interest, and create a unique conversation piece. 

The Winterthur Museum’s current exhibit, “Follies: Architectural Whimsy in the Garden” displays 13 garden follies throughout its gardens until January 2020.  The various follies include a Gothic Tower, Chinese Pavilion, a 1750 house and a Faerie Cottage!  Please click here for more information.

Please follow this link to a slide show of English and American garden follies.

Adapted, in part, from The Whimsical World of Follies by Robert Khederlan, October 12, 2017

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