Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The rise of the English landscape garden

by M.M. Bennetts

Throughout the early part of the 17th century, under James I and Charles I, English gardens continued to develop along the lines discussed previously in The Elizabethan Gardening Craze.

But with the onset of the Civil War in 1642 and the subsequent Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, gardening, such as it had been, ground to a halt for many different reasons. Armies tramping across the countryside, particularly armies of Levellers, aren't good for the preservation of gardens. Taxes were high and remained very high under Cromwell which meant substantially less disposable income.

Also, many of the keen gardeners and plantsmen had been Royalists. And they, like the famed garden writer John Evelyn, chose to spend the decade of Cromwell's rule on the Continent studying gardens, or travelling, often to stay close to Charles II in exile, or further afield, even plant collecting in the Americas.

Which is not to say that Cromwell's period in power didn't have a marked effect on the countryside as a whole. For during the Protectorate, huge swathes of forest, particularly in the Midlands, had been chopped down. As Daniel Defoe wrote of Theobalds, King James's former palace: " has suffered several depredations since that, and in particular in the late Time of Usurpation, when it was stript, both of Game and Timber..." And in the place of pleasure gardens, Cromwell and his advisers encouraged, both on moral and economic grounds, the planting of vast orchards.

With the Restoration of Charles II, the idea of a pleasure garden was once again permitted. But now, after their experience on the Continent, the large landowners and fashionable gardeners sought to recreate versions of the most splendid garden of their age: Versailles. And this formal style, full of grand canals, classical statuary, fountains and extensive geometrical beds edged in box, held sway into the early years of the 18th century.

But vast, formal gardens are very expensive to maintain--they are not only labour intensive, they also take up so much land that might be otherwise profitably employed. And it was the garden writer and designer, Stephen Switzer, who suggested a cheaper alternative in his Ichnografia Rustica, published in 1718. He was writing mainly for the owners of villas--successful businessmen mostly--whose smallish estates were near London.

His proposal was that one should open up the countryside so that one might enjoy "the extensive charms of Nature, and the voluminous Tracts of a pleasant retreat, and breathe the sweet and fragrant Air of gardens." He went on to suggest that the garden be "open to all View, to the unbounded Felicities of distant Prospect, and the expansive Volumes of Nature herself."

Switzer examine costs and expenses, he proposed that the designs be more rural and natural and relaxed, that garden walls were an unnecessary expense, etc. In short, Switzer proposed the landscape movement which would transform the gardens of England.

But garden taste--the same as everything else--is never the work of a single individual. There are always many other motives and forces which contribute in some proportion or other to the evolving result. And several other significant influences must be cited here, all of which come into play to a greater or lesser extent over the next century.

The first, perhaps, is the rise in popularity of the Grand Tour. The 18th century was the century when 'taste' mattered, when demonstrating one's qualifications as a gentleman meant being a collector or connoisseur--of books, of art, of music, of gardens. And where did one acquire the polish that gave that aristocratic and classically educated sheen? Italy, of course.

So off troop our young Englishmen of the era, with their tutors, to Italy. Where they study the paintings of Renaissance masters, the glories of classical antiquity in Rome, the elegance of Tuscan gardens, the refinements of Venetian music? Well, yes and no. If one believes the pious letters they wrote home, then yes. If one reads the despairing accounts of their tutors and their Italian hosts, and their letters to each other, then the view leans a little more heavily towards Carnivale, carousing and wenching with their fellow Englishmen. And in their last weeks picking up a few 'souvenirs' in the form of lesser Italian artists--often copies of 17th century Italian landscapes--which yes, do present the soon to be idealised vision of Nature is Art.

Yet Englishmen abroad rarely behave as do Englishmen at home.

So the 18th century Englishmen--without a centralised, all-powerful royal court in which to play politics and power, such was at Versailles--created their own recreational playgrounds.

The play is still about power, prestige and status, but here it's married to a cultivated aesthetic as well as to forestry, farming, economy, and sport--riding, shooting, fishing, hunting--a gentleman's concerns and country pursuits, whether he is a Whig grandee or a gentry landowner of the Tory persuasion.

And the acquisition of land (and more land), with all the rights, privileges and status it conferred, gives these landholders the scope to create these gardens which still hold the visitor rapt. Whether for the nouveaux riches--the titans of commerce such as Henry Hoare who was buying his way into the landowning gentry and created Stourhead--or for the greatest of all Whig aristocrats, like the Duke of Devonshire at Chatsworth, these gardens become a expression of a unified landed class based on 'good taste', political power and economics.

Thus as the eighteenth century progressed, influenced by their experiences of the Grand Tour, by writers such as Pope and Walpole, and by visiting other gardens, England's landed classes began to favour a less formal and more naturalistic approach to landscape design. In developing the uniquely English concept of the landscape garden, William Kent, Lancelot ('Capability') Brown and the other great landscape architects of the period, were responding to a complex assortment of social and aesthetic ideals among their clients.

As well as the integration of forestry, farming and sport into the landscape, the ambition was in many respects to create an almost 'natural' appearance, where trees, water, open grassland and carefully placed structures (bridges, temples and monuments were popular) created a carefully balanced microcosm of the English countryside.

Capability Brown is widely regarded as the most influential figure in eighteenth-century landscape design. Born in Northumberland in 1716, he moved south in 1739 and worked as an assistant to William Kent at Stowe, before embarking on what arguably became the greatest career in the history of landscape design.

Brown was more hands-on than Kent; he would always make a personal visit to a new client's estate, evaluating the constraints and opportunities it presented, before sending an assistant to undertake a detailed survey. His remarkable achievement was his ability to bring common ideals and design principles to bear on the specific topography, geology and prevailing climate of a client's estate. Above all, there is a sense of effortlessness in Brown's designs, a sense that the park and garden have grown organically out of their surroundings, requiring little or no human intervention or management (though the opposite was, of course, the case).

And it is in these respects that the 'new' landscape movement grows out of the mediaeval and Tudor deer park which was the archetypal symbol of status. Even at this late period, venison is still proscribed on the open market; it is still a sign of favour or wealth. The creation of the 'ha ha' in the late 17th century made it possible to have the expansive views--how to wow your guests, who believed, as you did, that "a gentleman should own his view"--without having the deer or cattle coming right up to the Dining Room windows.

It must be said that the concept that a gentleman should own his view, deeply engrained in the psyche of England's landed classes, sometimes led to surprising results. At Wallington in Northumberland, the seat of the Trevelyan family, the main public road passes relatively close to the house, but was sunk to a depth of several feet so that it was invisible from the house!

Likewise, the effortlessness that typefies Brown's landscapes finds a parallel in his architecture, particularly Claremont in Surrey, where his mansion sits atop its hill in splendid isolation, with no visible tradesmen's entrance to spoil the view on any side. (The tradesmen's entrance is in fact through a tunnel, the entrance to which is concealed in a stand of trees to the north-east of the building.)

And to this day, in many people's eyes, these gardens, landscapes and houses still encapsulate all that is quintessentially and timelessly English. They stand as a record of our social history; they record the ideals of landowners, great and small, through a period of quiet yet profound social and economic evolution--each estate its own ensample of Shakespeare's vision of "this scept'red isle".

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Is that one of the follies at Stourhead? It looks familiar.

  3. I really enjoy reading about the history of gardens and was especially interested in the situation during the civil war and protectorate. It is my favourite period at the moment and one I studied years ago. Intereseting post.

  4. The pictures from top to bottom are Hatchlands (painted by Repton); Stowe in Buckinghamshire; and Claremont in Surrey.

    Carol--there is a lot of information about the orchard/garden situation under Cromwell. He had a radical advisor by the name of Hartlib who advocated alloting a certain number of fruit trees to be grown by each landowner, with fines for those who disobeyed, though how close to becoming law this came, I can't tell you. John Evelyn wrote extensively about the damage to the woodlands in his "Sylva", published in 1664, and that acted as a spur for substantial plantings of woodland throughout the country--and one of Evelyn's main themes was that trees needed to be planted to provide oak for the Royal Navy. Hence planting trees became something of a patriotic duty...

  5. Really good post MM, I found it fascinating and especially seeing how garden design under Oliver Cromwell led into the latter half of the 18th century. I love Capability Brown's landscapes, I went to Petworth House last year and it's just a stunning example of his work complete with lake, ha-ha and a tunnel for the cattle so they didn't get muddy and would walk onto the landscape clean!

    I think what makes it a beautiful and technically brilliant thing for me is that you genuinely can't see that any of it's man-made. It all looks so natural and provides uninterrupted views despite the fact the lake is man-made, the trees were mostly planted by Brown and the ha-ha and cattle tunnel were, of course, dug out and built - Genius is, I believe, the word!

  6. That information about Cromwell and knocking down the forests and regulating fruit tree growth is new to me.

    Thanks for the post!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.