A1 Research: Landscape Gardening – “Britain’s Greatest Contribution to the Visual Arts”

The Rotunda and the Queen's Theatre, Stowe - Jean Baptiste Claude Chatelain 1753

The Rotunda and the Queen’s Theatre, Stowe – Jean Baptiste Claude Chatelain 1753

Nikolaus Pevsner (i) referred to the English Landscape garden as “Britains’ greatest contribution to the visual arts” (1: loc.270), Tim Robinson expands, saying:

“The English Landscape is the greatest artform ever to have been devised in the British Isles. What is more, it is an artform that has gone on to influence the rest of the world like no other in our history.” (1: loc. 254)

The English Landscape garden was one of many artistic and cultural responses to the fashionable Grand Tour (ii) that had started in the late sixteenth century and was still fashionable as late as the early part of the twentieth century. The British have long exhibited an inferiority complex in regards to culture, often appearing to believe that it is an imported commodity with its roots firmly planted in classical art and history, that the Romans created the foundations of all that is good in Britain and that their departure heralded a dark age of ignorance and violence (iii) only fully relieved by the Enlightenment in the sixteenth century. For three hundred years the Grand Tourists imported the latest trends in every aspect of the arts from painting to gardening.

It is often suggested that the early English landscape garden was strongly influenced by the paintings of the likes of Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin but both Kenneth Woodbridge (6) and Richardson  argue that this is an over simplification. Richardson believes that classical poetry, contemporary literature and the gardens of Italy were more significant influences (1: loc.197) and that the conception of these gardens was intrinsically linked to the Whig movement and the restructuring of rural British life (1: loc.119) which included the Enclosures, new agrarian technologies and crops. Woodbridge argues that, whilst architecture was intrinsic to the great French gardens, in Britain it was built to idealise the scene and reflected the influence of Leone Battista Alberti who had promoted the idea of the perfect country estate as including grottos, monuments, caves and springs (6: p.8)

Jacob with Laban and his Daughters - Claude Lorrain 1654

Jacob with Laban and his Daughters – Claude Lorrain 1654

In 1712 Joseph Addison wrote an essay for The Spectator magazine, a call to arms that is often viewed as a manifesto for English garden design although it must have bemused many landowners at the time and was perhaps less revolutionary than it first appears (iv). Addison criticises the contemporary European style of gardening which exhibited, what Robinson calls “a strict demarkation between garden and surrounding agriculture” (1: p.1708) and as then pursued by British gardeners “Our trees rise in cones, lobes, and pyramids. We see the marks of the scissors upon every plant and bush …… I would rather look upon a tree in all its luxuriancy and diffusion of boughs and branches, than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a mathematical figure” (3) Addison argues for a different and more natural approach:

“But why may not a whole estate be thrown into a kind of garden by frequent plantations, that may turn as much to the profit as the pleasure of the owner? A marsh overgrown with willows, or a mountain shaded with oaks, are not only more beautiful, but more beneficial, than when they lie bare and unadorned. fields of corn make a pleasant prospect, and if the walks were a little taken care of that lie between them, if the natural embroidery of the meadows were helped and improved by some small additions of art, and the several rows of hedges set off by trees and flowers that the soil was capable of receiving, a man might make a pretty landskip of his own possessions.” (3)

This is the first known use of the word landskip to describe land as opposed to a painting of land (v) so in this essay Addison not only documents what would become the agenda for gardening in the next fifty years of English gardening but presaged the term landscape garden and the distinction between the terms land and landscape.

Badminton Gloucestershire ca. 1682

Badminton Gloucestershire ca. 1682

In the mid to late seventeenth century the vogue was for Baroque gardens with complex, symmetrical patterns organised in distinct parterres or sections surrounding the house. Badminton in Gloucestershire was a remarkable example of this style where the mansion was dwarfed by its geometric architectural gardens.

Chatsworth, View of Mansion and Gardens ca. 1685

Chatsworth, View of Mansion and Gardens ca. 1685

The extent of the symmetrical garden was even greater at Chatsworth in Derbyshire which had been laid out when the house was rebuilt in 1685. Woodbridge points out that the English landscape style that was to follow created landscapes that were “self-contained worlds” (6: p.11) often detached or remote from the house which had previously laid at the centre of garden design as seen in these examples.

The new English Landscape movement must have been attractive to landowners not just for its aesthetic appeal but for pragmatic financial reasons; the Baroque garden required professional surveyors and designers, vast numbers of plants and significant construction of paths, walls and outbuildings. A more natural, and cost effective look, must have appealed to many landowners. It should also be recognised that timber was the raw material of industry and the technologies of the age so garden designs that included the planting of managed woodland were not just aesthetic additions but prudent investments that spoke to the patriotism of a landowner in a country so dependant on its navy and trading fleets.

The Father of Psyche Sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo - Claude Lorrain 1662 - 63

The Father of Psyche Sacrificing at the Temple of Apollo – Claude Lorrain 1662 – 63

The English Landscape gardens of the early eighteenth century were typically laid out by land owning enthusiasts rather than by professionals. A landowner with an artistic bent could create a garden by eye rather than by set square and measuring tape, so its classification as an art form holds true with the gardener (vi) approaching his land in the way of a painter not an engineer. The resulting gardens are more idiosyncratic that the conventional and idealised designs of men like Capability Brown and Humphry Repton who were working later in the middle of the century.

Another significant difference between the early and later gardens is that these pioneering gardeners saw their designs as an expression of more complex ideas, in essence they were conceptual art. On first glance the temples, grottos, obelisks, statuary and topographical features appear merely to mimic the classical structures and Italian gardens seen on the Grand Tour or to ape the buildings in Claude’s idealised landscape paintings, and there is a strong element of these influences. However, the men who laid out these early gardens appropriated the style of those structures and invested them with new meanings so the features at Leasowes become a tribute to friendship and others like Castle Howard a statement of their family status, whilst at Stourhead the memorials, grottos and buildings are dedicated to pagan deities and heroes such as Aeneas, Hercules and King Alfred (6: p.10) . By linking the development of the English garden with the prevailing socio-political climate Robinson extends the expressionism in these gardens to much wider meanings:

“The garden was a realm in which aesthetic theories, philosophical ideals, poetic trends and even political ideologies could be illustrated to dramatic and innovative effect.” (1: loc.254)

Moor Park Farnham ca. 1690s

Moor Park Farnham ca. 1690s

By the beginning of the eighteenth century garden design in Britain had already significantly moved away from the rigid symmetry of the Baroque style. In the 1650s Sir William Temple had laid out the garden at Moor Park in Farnham based on his ideas of a “wholly irregular” garden (1: loc.535). The surviving plan, as shown above, illustrates the formal, symmetrical gardens adjoining the house but also includes a ‘serpentine” area (coloured green on the engraving) that led Pevsner to argue that Temple had:

“Started a line of thought and visual conceptions which was to dominate first England and then the World for two centuries. It is the first suggestion ever of a possible beauty fundamentally different from the formal, a beauty of irregularity and fancy.” (4)

Robinson refers to this concept as the introduction of “wiggles” which had first been pioneered by William Bentinck, the 1st Earl of Portland, in his garden at Bulstrode Park. Temple and Bentinck became friends and companions to William of Orange who acceded to the British throne in 1688. This relationships brought together a natural garden movement that was already underway in Holland, the design of William’s estate in Holland with its emphasis on hunting grounds and the irregularity and wiggles pioneered by Temple and Bentinck. Royalty has always set fashions but in the wake of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ it was politically expedient to make tangible expressions of support of the new order. As bizarre as this sounds today adopting William and his friends’ ideas on gardening made good political sense. These changes did not immediately result in a wholesale replanting of the formal country house garden but were represented by a more gradual change in emphasis with the “ratio of decorative parterre to forest and planted enclosures …. tilted much more in the favour of the latter” (1: loc.816)

Temple of the Four Winds, Castle Howard - Carl Loubin 1997

Temple of the Four Winds, Castle Howard – Carl Loubin 1997

In 1700 Charles Howard, the 3rd Earl of Carlisle commissioned the re-deisgn of Wray Wood, a forty acre plantation at Castle Howard. The designer, George London, proposed a geometrically laid out star of rides in the continental Baroque style but Howard rejected the proposal. Howard was the product of his time and the Grand Tour and “steeped in classical poetry” (5); he wanted to created an idealised landscape with gravel walks, statuary and water features. The eventual designer is unknown but by 1705 the new garden area had matured, the Temple of the Four Winds was added in 1728 followed by a Roman Bridge and Mausoleum in 1744. Stephen Switzer, a contemporary designer was fulsome in his praise:

“From the wood which lyes much higher are many pretty views. In it is an artificial romantick cave or grotto and cascades of water that run down from it and by a pretty summer house at the bottom into a fountain.” (1: loc.1119)

Castle Howard marks the identifiable beginning of the style that would become known as the English Landscape garden. The style had developed gradually from the Baroque with various transitional gardens like Moor Park but Castle Howard is of such scale and ambition that it feels like the first fully thought through naturalistic design that makes no attempt to adopt any previous English or continental formal style.

The Deer in Petworth Park - J.M.W. Turner 1827

The Deer in Petworth Park – J.M.W. Turner 1827

The English Landscape garden in, what is now referred to as, the Arcadian style was to become a significant artistic and culture achievement of the eighteenth century. Designers like William Kent laid out Chiswick, Stowe, Rousham and Kew and Henry Hoare created Stourhead. In the 1750’s Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who had worked with Kent in the 1740s, began a second phase where the Arcadian garden was simplified and reflected social changes so his gardens were more often designed to be viewed by carriage rather than the walks of Stowe or Stourhead.

Brown’s designs were more utilitarian than the idiosyncratic early gardens with their rich vein of meanings, he dispensed with the Romano-Greco buildings and focussed more on carefully designed natural plantings. The Brown landscapes played to the pragmatic nature of the English landowner whose estates needed to show a profit with trees as an aesthetic but also economic resource and the creation of ‘cover’ for shooting game birds. Brown’s most notable gardens include Petworth which J.M.W. Turner painted on several occasions, Blenheim and Sheringham Park. (7)

Kent, then Brown represent a golden age of English garden design and it is their vision and the ideas of landowners like the Hoare family that elevated the English Landscape to an artform. Their influence on gardens around the world was and continues to be significant; George Washington and Thomas Jefferson based their Virginian estates designs on the Arcadian style. (8) and the contemporary Italian garden designer Antonio Peruzzi points out that:

“The romantic British garden still has its influence: there are several young Chinese landscape architects who are now making real money designing so-called modern gardens that look like a pale imitation of ……  English garden design.” (9)

So, the artform lives on across the world and the English Landscape Garden, not least because it forms the backdrop to popular British costume drama, remains a fundamental characteristic of our nation character and the international perspective of rural England.

Notes on Text

(i) Nikolaus Prevsner was the editor in chief of Buildings of Britain and, according to Tim Richardson, “a man of impeccable modernist credentials” (9: loc. 270)

(ii) From the late sixteenth century young aristocrats from Britain, Germany and Scandinavia visited the great European capitals of London, Paris, Venice, Florence and Rome as the culmination of their classical studies. These young men had enjoyed a classical education studying Greek and Latin literature and it was considered an essential attribute of men of this class to have an appropriate interest in the arts. The Grand Tour, as it came to be known had a significant commercial influence on the arts with painters such as Claude Lorrain, Canalleto and many others basing their practices on the creation of ‘souvenirs’ for  wealthy tourists. Claude Lorrain was so popular with British tourists that at “one point fully two thirds of his paintings were in Britain and the British museum still holds 40% of his drawings” (2). Tim Robinson argues that at the beginning of the eighteenth century there were only a “few dozen” Britons who could be termed connoisseurs of painted art and that the Grand Tourists made their purchasing decisions based on the advice of art dealers rather then their own taste. (1: loc.6446) 

(iii) The view that the Roman occupation of Britan was a cultural, political, artistic and social highlight in an otherwise dark period of prehistory and history until the Enlightenment is one that has been long taught in British schools. Archeological finds and research in the last two decades have shown that this is a misconception. There is now significant evidence that Southern Britain was a sophisticated and civilised society long before the Roman invasion and that during the so-called dark ages after they left it was British monasteries that led the way in keeping learning alive whilst Europe was in turmoil. 

(iv) Apart from the fact that long before Addison’s essay there had been a gradual movement away from stylised continental designs, Robinson argues that it suited Addison and other Whigs to claim that their ideas on gardening had instigated a revolution of taste and that the new designs were the brainchild of brilliant Whig gentlemen with the de-formailsed garden expressing the victory of Protestant freedom over Catholic tyranny. Robinson calls this the “Whig interpretation of garden history” but the reality is that the new gardens included Tories and Whigs, aristocrats and new money and more surprisingly not all the new landscapes were being created on the great estates; clergymen and local squires also played their part. (1: loc.1722)

(v) Landskip was term derived from the Dutch  landschap or land shape in English. Robinson states that it was used “exclusively to describe landscape paintings” (1: p.2084).

(vi) Whenever I read of ‘gardeners’ in this context I always wonder just how often they dug a trench, pruned their roses, mulched a bed, built a compost heap or any other gardening task that requires and aching back, sweat and quite often a little blood. The reality is that most, if not all, of these men were directors of gardeners, not gardeners in any sense of word we would understand today.



(1) Richardson, Tim (2008) Arcadian Friends (kindle edition) London: Transworld

(6) Woodbridge, Kenneth ( 1986) The Stourhead Landscape. London: The National Trust


(2) Prodger, Michael (2011) Claude Lorrain: The Enchanted Landscape (accessed at The Spectator 14.2.17) – http://www.spectator.co.uk/2011/10/claude-lorrain-the-enchanted-landscape/

(3) Addison, Joseph (1712) The Pleasures of Imagination (accessed at Mnstate 14.2.17) – http://web.mnstate.edu/gracyk/courses/web%20publishing/addison414.htm

(4) Pevsner, Nikolaus (1956) Cited by Garden Visit in Moor Park Surrey (accessed at Garden Visit 14.2.17) – http://www.gardenvisit.com/gardens/moor_park_surrey

(5) Garden Visit – Castle Howard Garden (accessed at Garden Visit 14.2.17) – http://www.gardenvisit.com/gardens/castle_howard_garden

(7) Attar, Rob (2010) The English Landscape Garden (accessed at History Extra 14.2.17) – http://www.historyextra.com/feature/english-landscape-garden

(8) American Gardening (2017) Politics Influenced Modern English Garden (accessed at American Gardening 14.2.17) – http://americangardening.net/category/garden-style/

(9) Robinson, Tim (2014) What European Garden Designers Really Think of Britain (accessed at The Telegraph 14.2.17) – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/gardening/10560487/What-European-garden-designers-really-think-of-Britain.html

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