Garden Architecture in Peter Greenaway’s "The Draughtsman’s Contract"

Seminar Paper, 2016

21 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Main Body
1. Peter Greenaway
2. The Draughtsman’s Contract
3. Garden Architecture and The Draughtsman’s Contract
a. The Gardens of Baroque
aa. Women as gardens and men as gardeners
b. The English Landscape Garden
c. Criticism

III. Conclusion

IV. Bibliography

I. Introduction

Nature in its widest sense has always been a source of inspiration for artists. In the long history of humankind it always emanated something close, but then again something very far away, something magical or even supernatural. However, with time humans formed nature to their liking, and not only did this with the aim of necessary achievements in their minds, but also with concepts of beauty, entertainment and resemblance of power, society and structure. In short, the establishment of the garden:

A garden is any purposeful arrangement of natural objects (such as sand, water, plants, rocks, etc.) with exposure to the sky or open air, in which the form is not fully accounted for by purely practical consideration such as convenience.[1]

This work aims to examine Peter Greenaway’s movie The Draughtsman’s Contract with the approach of the above named in the historical context of the French Baroque, Anglo-Dutch and English Landscape gardens, their characteristics, paradigm shifts and most importantly their allusions and iconography. This approach will not only be able to deliver an important cultural insight into the history of garden architecture, but it is the most essential foundation of understanding the work of Peter Greenaway as a director of British auteur cinema.

In the following the outline shall be displayed, which will be the structural core of this very work. Firstly, before engaging with the analysis of the The Draughtsman’s Contract, it is of the utmost importance to get a better understanding of the movie’s creator. Thus, it is inevitable to gain an overview of Peter Greenaway’s life, his conceptions and what specific characteristics are his own and subsequently draw through all of his works. Secondly, a short summary of the contents and storyline of the film shall be presented in order to get a clear understanding of each character, position and overall context. Finally, the main body of this work will have a look at how Greenaway incorporated the topic of garden architecture into his film, making it stand in the background all the time, while it actually is the foundation, and therefore key to reach a sufficient understanding of the movie. Arising from this groundwork, the characters, the historical society of the time, the connected allegories and metaphors which are being constructed, not only by dialogue, but also by the imagery Greenaway chooses, shall be subject of this inquiry. Especially the connection of the garden as the expression of certain character traits, order of society, historical perceptions and in the biggest picture possible the seemingly paradoxical dispute of men versus nature, while men actually are part and originate from nature, shall be further material of discussion. This already indicates that the questions concerning the architecture of gardening will ultimately lead to philosophical concepts that must be an item for analysis in this very work, ending with the more recently raised question of whether or not a garden is actually able to develop a meaning.

However, before this analysis can take place and is going to have a meaningful outcome, it is most essential to have a look at the very person and creator standing behind the movie, which then allows us to discuss the topics mentioned above. Without a sufficient understanding of Peter Greenaway’s intentions, upbringing and characteristics, this would not be possible, making it an imperative to start at the beginning of the creative process of a movie, the director.

II. Main Body

1. Peter Greenaway

Born in Newport, Wales in 1942, Peter Greenaway succeeded in establishing himself among the most controversial and experimental figures of both British and international contemporary filmmakers.[2] He spent his formative years at public school and then at Walthamstow School of Art becoming a trained mural painter and a student of Western art history. For the hence visually and conceptually dense manner of Greenaway’s films it is crucial to perceive that he was not trained to be a painter in a general sense, but a muralist, as the nature of walls is a fixed one, meaning that they are literally becoming the material of a site striking the importance of the very genre’s figurative and metaphorical idiosyncrasy, which could not lead anywhere else, but standing in the tradition of illustrating, illuminating, or commenting on history or on the historical in a certain way.[3]

However, it wasn’t until 1965 that Greenaway began experimenting with film. He started out to become an editor for documentaries at the Central Office of Information, a public-information body in London, while also producing his own short films, which during the seventies culminated in receiving the blessing and funding of the British Film Institute, securing Greenaway’s financial future.[4] The latter part once again clearly illustrates the connection of art and money, leading to the important question of the artist working in the understanding of his benefactor. This question, however, seems to be of little critical relevance to Greenaway himself, as an ingratiation is hardly to be found in his approach to cinema, which is rather dismissive of the popular, psychologically motivated plots he calls Hollywood cinema. In his eyes these tell stories and are to be translated by means of literature, while he focuses on the visual elements. This results in him trying to bring the aesthetics of painting to filmmaking, diminishing the influence of the narrative.[5] Consequently resorting to the analogy of the picture frame onto his own work, Greenaway explores the possibilities and limitations of this very frame, depicting it as a human construct to be uncreated. Going back to notions of the likes of Karl Philip Moritz and contemporaries of Classicism, who saw the frame as the limitations of the accomplished, defining the accomplished itself, without it being naturally in context with the surrounding rather than an isolated world in itself.[6] Yet, Greenaway chooses to uncreate this very frame by multiplying and de-centralizing it, and in this way challenging the audience’s habitual fixed and frontal positions.[7] Thus, his films are marked by astonishing proliferation of detail and a remarkable breadth of reference, centering around theories of history and art, which are demanded to be kept in mind simultaneously, since one element illuminates another and those elements taken together seem to be paradoxical, contradictory making the metaphorical and allegorical approach to his films the one to choose in order to get a grip of the artistic density Greenaway offers.[8]

Nudity, since ancient times being a part of the long history of art, thus plays, besides other things, an important role in all of his movies, displaying sex and death as one of Greenaway’s leitmotifs. This often led his movies to success through scandal, also known as a succès de scandale. Nonetheless, the endeavour of bringing the aesthetics of art to cinema is something that will never attract as many people as will Hollywood films. Still, his films have brought him enough financial success so that he can continue making the kinds of films he wants to.[9] Amy Lawrence summarises befittingly:

Greenaway’s films are easy to recognize and difficult to describe.[10]

This short extract also encompasses and understands Peter Greenaway in the light of the auteur theory, which in its initial form is meant to describe directors who work in relatively small industries like that of Great Britain, and are therefore able to control nearly all aspects of film creation, making their movies distinguishably different from others in style, content, context and their general being.[11] Greenaway’s main concern is about how to craft art with ideas about art, ultimately leading to the display of art and artists, their perceived purity interstratified by the political regimes in which they operate and thus finally to criticism of Greenaway’s very own position as an artist.[12]

Keeping this short kept overview of Greenaway’s most central traits as an auteur of British cinema in mind, the following chapters will try to describe firstly, the general plot of his breakthrough film, The Draughtsman’s Contract, until after this a decoding of the dense material Greenaway delivers shall be undertaken with the topic of garden architecture and its connected allusions in mind.

2. The Draughtsman’s Contract

The Draughtsman’s Contract (1982) was Peter Greenaway’s breakthrough as a director, and is considered as a well-balanced mixture of avant-garde and mainstream elements, the latter probably being responsible for the movie’s commercial success.[13]

The film is set in the English countryside of the late 17th century, beginning with the arrival of the draughtsman, Mr. Neville, at Compton Anstey, the estate of Mr. Herbert. During the latter’s absence, Mrs. Herbert forms a contract with Mr. Neville. She recruits the draughtsman to craft twelve drawings of the property in exchange for a monetary fee and free access to Mr. Herbert’s property, including access to Mrs. Herbert and thus, sexual intercourse for each of the paintings. The drawings are meant to be presents of surprise to the garden and estate loving husband, in order to smoothen the marital surges.

As the draughtsman’s assignment proceeds certain irregularities begin to manifest around the estate, which the artist naturally also depicts in his drawings. These strange clues finally result in the discovery of Mr. Herbert’s dead body, making The Draughtsman’s Contract in simple terms a tale of murder. However, there is more to this basic plot than first meets the eye, since the film also includes a conspiracy of inheritance and gender conflict besides other allusions.

According to Mr. Herbert’s wish, the estate shall only be inherited by a male heir, although the estate originally was owned by Mrs. Herbert’s father, showing the position of contemporary women as totally unequal. This very fact is the key to conspiracy. Both, his wife as well as his grown up daughter Sarah Talman are in this way excluded to inherit the estate making the need of a male heir crucial in holding their social positions. The latter is married to the German Louis Talman, who is sexually impotent and hence naturally not able to impregnate his wife. This subsumes two things, firstly, denying any claims of inheritance for anybody living on the estate and secondly, making everyone who is living on the estate a potential murderer. The solution to the problem arrives with the help of the naïve draughtsman Mr. Neville. As an artist and observer he depicts all of the orchestrated changes on the estate in his pictures, making him seem not as innocent as he actually is. By telling him to grant him protection Mrs. Talman is able to force Mr. Neville into a sexually orientated contract of her conditions, as opposed to the one of her mother’s which followed the conditions of Mr. Neville. However, the naïve draughtsman is not able to see that both of these contracts were negotiated with the ultimate aim of producing an heir.

The final intrigue enrolls when Mr. Noyes, the caretaker of the estate and solicitor of the contract between Mr. Neville and Mrs. Herbert, blackmails Mrs. Herbert to give him the drawings of the estate to sell in order to make money; though, in truth he wants to circulate these very drawings in the surrounding societies to foretell Mr. Neville as the murderer of Mr. Herbert. This plot seems to be an immediate success, especially when Mr. Talman seems to notice the affair his wife had with the painter.

Nonetheless, Mr. Neville leaves the estate, though, returns just after a few weeks of absence to finish one last drawing he previously was denied to execute. While drawing, a vehmic court including all the potential murderers of Mr. Herbert takes place, which ultimately finds him not only guilty of murder, but also of adultery, leading to the death of Mr. Neville. This leaves the question of the true culprit open for discussion.

By taking a look at this plot and structure the connection of gardens and architecture to the happenings at Compton Anstey seems rather unrelated, whereas they are deeply rooted in each other. The next paragraph shall elucidate these very underlying structures, bearing not only Greenaway’s approach in mind, but also the general shifts of paradigms, which shall be topic of discussion.

3. Garden Architecture and The Draughtsman’s Contract

Greenaway, himself admitting to enjoy the experience of landscape above all, was deeply influenced by the history of landscape design and art to which he pays homage in The Draughtsman’s Contract not only by using a static composition with little camera movement, an allegory to the painterly frame that viewed the landscape, but also by referring to the architectural traditions of the English and Dutch topography.[14] By doing so he infuses the film with a plot clearly visible, but due to his more academic nature, not easily to be understood by most of the movie’s viewers. Apart from the general philosophical approach of the respective gardens and their connected historical narratives and allusions, Greenaway also understands to use the garden as a witty metaphorical device to display the gender roles and rights of the early modern age.[15] To get a better understanding of the above mentioned, it is necessary to deliver an apportionment of the understanding of a garden during this period of time in general.

a. The Gardens of Baroque

Two different approaches of garden architecture are to be found in baroque Europe: firstly, the understanding of a garden as a geometric entity and secondly, the understanding of a garden as an enclosed area of growing nature, later to be known as the landscape garden.[16] The first named type grew to its greatest heights in France, while the latter fully blossomed in England, which quite interestingly later on got majorly influenced by mainland theorists again, like the French Jean-Jacque Rousseau.[17]

Obviously, both this binary and strict classification are generalizations, as Jacopo Sannazaros’ popular Arcadia proves. A peaceful, beautiful, secluded landscape in which simple, pastoral lives were enjoyed was not only accepted and subject of the gardening which culminated in the English landscape garden, but was also subject of interest to French, Dutch and Italian garden architects and theorists, while also delivering creative input to painters and artists.[18]

Greenway chooses to set the plot of his film at the end of the 17th century and thus, at the end of the French baroque garden and at the very advent of landscape gardening, which was not in full development just, yet, and found impetus from another widely spread form of garden types, as Greenaway clearly illustrates by Mrs. Talman stating:

Van Hoyten has come at our request to soften the geometry that my father found to his taste and to introduce a new ease and complexion.[19]

Before being able to understand this extract, a more general survey about the contrasts and paradigm shifts of the French geometrical and the English landscape garden needs to be undertaken.

French baroque gardening took inspiration from the Italian Renaissance, which replaced the medieval ancillary conglomerate and subdued it to geometry. However, it was just when baroque garden architecture in France developed that building architecture and garden architecture got set into a relation rather than the garden being an insignificant attachment to a construction, combining both to a total work of art representing the European monarchy and its courtly world in an aesthetic sense.[20] The French André le Nôtre undisputedly became the master of the French garden, developing the ideas for the vast gardens of Louis XIV’s Versailles.[21] The gardens of Versailles mirror the ideological approach of how the power of the state and thus monarch is to be understood, and above this how the world order generally is to be seen.[22]

Apollo is present throughout the gardens of Versailles equating him with Louis XIV., which is to be understood as pure political calculatio. Apollo representing universal harmony was intrinsically connected to the aim of Louis to be the new leader of a Christian world only he rules and pacifies. In this way the garden represents the principles of classification and organization of how state power works to guide civilization.[23]

This instantly reminds of the various statues depicted on the estate of Mr. Herbert, which get mainly represented by the interesting figure of the genius loci. It portrays the gods Hermes in one scene and Bacchus in another.[24] In an architectural sense the term of genius loci is an impersonal power detached from any particular body or construction, expressed as a singular emission of autonomous elements, or in other words the character of an environment. The architecture’s purpose is to visualize this distinct character of a site, making the expressive mysteriousness of a place evocative.[25] In this way, Greenaway helps the viewer to get to the quint essence of certain aspects of the plot, just like Apollo in the Gardens of Versailles captured the allegories of the geometrically formed garden.

When the aristocrats applaud Mr. Neville for praising the delights of Mrs. Herbert’s maturing garden, Greenaway decides to show the genius loci during the act of urination. This alludes to the fact of the ambiguity of Mr. Neville’s statement, who enjoys a sexually delightful exchange with Mrs. Herbert, depicting her as the garden in this very scene and him as the gardener who enjoys his fruits of work. The urinating genius loci shows how the draughtsman gets applauded by the aristocrats for seemingly pissing on them with his actions and ambiguous words.[26] This leads to the gender orientated question in how far the image of women being seen as gardens and thus objects and men as their gardeners and therefore, active, living humans, is to be found in this film.

aa. Women as gardens and men as gardeners

Greenaway’s carefully crafted plot starts with a contract between Mrs. Herbert and Mr. Neville, with the latter’s intentions in mind to have free access to Mr. Herbert’s property, including the garden and thus also naturally Mrs. Herbert.

Women were always identified with nature, whereas men were identified with the realm of the mental, or in other words, women being the inferior nature, while men were seen as the superior, the culture.[27] Throughout the film the narrative tells stories about women as fruits or gardens, objectifying the whole gender and making it subject to men’s desire and power.

Mr. Noyes retells a story that a man planted fruit trees every time his wife conceived, and every time she miscarried or one of the children died the trees thrived. This already shows that the state of the garden and trees is the one of women. When Mr. Noyes continues by saying that the husband knows all the trees by their Christian names, but in the end it is the family name, and thus the male’s name that counts, the hierarchical position of the female gender is clearly illustrated.[28] In a broader sense one is able to say that women were possessions of men, who acted in a metaphorical sense as gardeners, while women are objects or in other terms the garden the gardener took possession of and formed to his will and none else’s. As the new “gardener” the draughtsman is able to impose his own ideas on the garden, and when he says:

The trees have been poorly cared for. The angle between the branches and the main trunk is too steep, but the original work is good.[29]

He for one talks about the garden, and with his mind of a draughtsman set on straight geometrical lines, about the soon to be outdated, but by him cherished forms of the geometrical garden of Le Notre. Secondly, he is talking about Mrs. Herbert’s body he has now taken possession of that needs to come back to shape, since maturity lets beauty, in the sense of geometry, fade away.

Members of high society dutifully imitated royal gardens, in size naturally according to their social rank, showing deference to the king by following his taste. However, the members of high society, which were beneficiaries as well as supporters of the monarchy, mainly fancied their rural mansions as islands of felicity rather than the sign of their position in the hierarchical society.[30] The main idea of the baroque garden, to cultivate nature in certain ways and training it into special shapes within a strong frame, is the idea of a curriculum of balanced formality in which subjects are balanced against each other, and in which each retains and preserves its unique process and form of knowledge.[31]

Connected to the film in question, it is easily visible that Mr. Neville is of this very strongly framed baroque mindset, which Greenaway illustrates not only by showing him with his framing drafting tools, but also by the concept of sterility. Coming from the concept of the baroque garden and thus trimmed and shaped idealized classical forms, in short geometry, Greenaway manages to connect this sterility to the characters of the film by depicting the property owners as dysfunctional in a sexual way. Mr. Herbert hasn’t helped to conceive a male heir, while Mr. Talman is said to be impotent. The sexual scenes between Mr. Neville and Mr. Herbert are extreme instances of sexual brutality, and still lead nowhere.[32] Not only does Greenaway allude to the connection of power and potency here, but also on a larger scale to the inability of the geometrical baroque society, standing under an absolute monarchy, to work functionally, depicting it as sterile and impotent in the sense of working for the greater human goals of a best possible cohabitation: Firstly, in a structural way of rulers vs. the ruled, secondly, concerning the society and thus gender as in men vs. women, and finally, in the widest perspective of humans vs. nature.

This criticism becomes clear when the only possible working connection is established by the sexual interaction of Mr. Neville and Mrs. Talman, the latter being in full control of the sexual act taking place in the bathtub.[33] Here Greenaway shows that the ideas of patriarchy run against nature, stating that forced sex runs against life, looking beyond the role of women as the garden that is to be formed by the gardener and thus, the men. Greenaway even goes so far in this very scene to exchange the respective positions making the man the garden and the woman the gardener. As Mrs. Talman is the responsible person for the new gardening input arriving at Compton Anstey by means of a Dutchman, her character can only be understood by the deep connection to the new ideas of landscape gardening, which therefore shall be topic of further investigation.


[1] Miller, Mara, The Garden as an Art, New York 1993, S. 15.

[2] Ellito, Bridget / George Purdy, Anthony, Peter Greenaway: Architecture and Allegory, Washington 1997, p. 6:

[3] Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula / Alemany-Galway, Mary (editors), Peter Greenaway’s Postmodern / Poststructuralistic Cinema, Plymouth 2008, p. 37.

[4] Gras, Vernon / Gras, Marguerite (editors), Peter Greenaway: Interviews, Jackson 2000, p. 92.

[5] Gras, Vernon / Gras, Marguerite (editors), Peter Greenaway: Interviews, Jackson 2000, p. VII.

[6] Beyer, Andreas, Die Kunst des Klassizismus und der Romantik, München 2011, p. 15

[7] Willoquet-Maricondi, Paula / Alemany-Galway, Mary (editors), Peter Greenaway’s Postmodern / Poststructuralistic Cinema, Plymouth 2008, p. XXXI.

[8] Lawrence, Amy, The Films of Peter Greenaway, Cambridge 1997, p. 1.

[9] Gras, Vernon / Gras, Marguerite (editors), Peter Greenaway: Interviews, Jackson 2000, p. VII.

[10] Lawrence, Amy, The Films of Peter Greenaway, Cambridge 1997, p. 1.

[11] Philips, Gene, Major Film Directors of the American and British Cinema, London 1999, p. 12.

[12] Lawrence, Amy, The Films of Peter Greenaway, Cambridge 1997, p. 5.

[13] Keesey, Douglas, The Films of Peter Greenaway: Sex, Death and Provocation, London 2006, p. 9.

[14] Bruno, Giuliana, Atlas of Emotion: Journeys in Art, Architeture, and Film, New York 2002, p. 309.

[15] Carlsten, Jenny / McGarry, Fearghal, Film, History and Memory, New York 2015, p. 141.

[16] Toman, Rolf, Die Kunst des Barock, Potsdam 2009, p. 152.

[17] Grütter, Jörg, Grundlagen der Architektur-Wahrnehmung, Wiesbaden 2015, p. 117.

[18] Wilson, Susane / Curl, James, The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture, Oxford 2015, p. 32.

[19] Lawrence, Amy, The Films of Peter Greenaway, Cambridge 1997, p. 64.

[20] Reinhard, Wolfgang, Geschichte der Staatsgewalt, München 1999, p. 87.

[21] Le Dantec, Denise / Le Dantec, Jean-Pierre, Reading the French Garden, Paris 1987, p. 119.

[22] Toman, Rolf, Die Kunst des Barock, Potsdam 2009, p. 155.

[23] Baridon, Miachael, A History oft he Gardens of Versailles, Philadelphia 2008, p. 38-49. - Toman, Rolf, Die Kunst des Barock, Potsdam 2009, p. 154.

[24] Purdy, Anthony, Literature and the Body, Amsterdam 1992, p. 188.

[25] Brott, Simone, Architecture fro a Free Subjectivity, Farnham 2011, p. 45-46.

[26] Keesey, Douglas, The Films of Peter Greenaway: Sex, Death and Provocation, London 2006, p. 22.

[27] Hagan, Susannah, Taking Shape: A New Contract Between Architecture and Nature, Oxford 2001, p. 19-20.

[28] Keesey, Douglas, The Films of Peter Greenaway: Sex, Death and Provocation, London 2006, p. 56.

[29] Kutzbach, Konstanze / Mueller, Monika, The Abject of Desire, New York 2007, p. 143.

[30] Conan, Michael (editor), Baroque Garden Cultures, Washington 2005, p. 28.

[31] Ross, Alistair, Curriculum, London 2000, p. 3.

[32] Farnsworth, Rodney, The Infernal Return, London 2002, p. 100.

[33] Farnsworth, Rodney, The Infernal Return, London 2002, p. 101.

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Garden Architecture in Peter Greenaway’s "The Draughtsman’s Contract"
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Christian Günther (Author), 2016, Garden Architecture in Peter Greenaway’s "The Draughtsman’s Contract", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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