History explorer: The English landscape garden

Timothy Mowl visits Rousham House and Gardens in Oxfordshire, where an 18th-century polymath showcased his revolutionary landscape designs.

William Kent, a Yorkshire-born artist and architect

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine 

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At some point in the 1730s, the polymath William Kent (c1686–1748), a Yorkshire-born artist and architect who turned to gardens later in his career, hit upon the novel idea of doing away with surveying instruments, electing instead to conjure up a garden scene as if he was painting a landscape. Moves towards a more informal style of landscape design after the confining rigidities of the Franco-Dutch formal garden had been made earlier by Alexander Pope, in his own small garden on the Thames at Twickenham. But it was only when Kent began applying his own uniquely eclectic style to the process – incorporating elements of architecture and interior design – that the true potential of this brave new world of garden design was realised.

The genius of Kent’s gardens is that they invited viewers not only to admire them for their beauty but to engage with them intellectually. Gone were the ranks of flower-bedded parterres (formal gardens), angular canals, basins and regimented wilderness areas sharply defined by clipped hedges that had characterised the great estates from the Restoration in 1660, to the establishment of the Hanoverian dynasty after 1714. These formulaic layouts, inspired by gardens in France and Holland, were meant to exude power and control over the terrain, but by the 1720s they had begun to pall, and became increasingly expensive to keep up.

In their place, a much looser treatment of groves, woods and lawns took over, in which eclectic garden buildings – mainly classical to begin with, but increasingly stylistically diverse (Gothick, Turkish, Chinese) – were sited for contemplation and intellectual diversion.

Many of the gentlemen who had these types of gardens designed for them had been inspired by what they had seen on their Grand Tour of Europe, returning to England with a desire to display their taste and learning within their gardens.

For an age that knew more about the ancient world than it did about its own history, the significance of these classical temples was easily understood, their mythological and metaphorical messages enlivening any excursion around the grounds.

One of Kent’s finest masterworks survives almost intact at Rousham, just north of Oxford. Here, a subtle combination of evergreens, watercourses, eclectic garden buildings and beguiling mythological statuary, some sexually ambivalent, produced the perfect backdrop to the Oxfordshire countryside.

An arcaded garden loggia inspired by the terraces at Palestrina (in central Italy) gives onto framed views of fields where cattle graze, as if in a landscape painting by Aelbert Cuyp or Claude Lorrain. Leering fauns peer over hedges; everywhere there is greenery; light fades into cavernous shades; and rural shepherds encourage visitors to look out and contemplate the beauty of nature. At no point can you view the garden as a whole; it is an interactive experience, both physically and intellectually.

Kent’s other landscape revolution, as the usually waspish Horace Walpole, later 5th Earl of Orford, wrote, was that “he leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden”.

Kent drew the surrounding countryside into the visual bounds at Rousham by artfully placed, eye-catching buildings on land not even owned by the Dormers. A small mill was tricked up to look like a Gothick cottage, while further out a triumphal arch still marks the far horizon. In the foreground, a sculpture of a lion attacks a horse, symbolic perhaps of the horrors of war. This is flanked by Gothick-trellised seats and terms – stone pedestals topped by the heads of deities – sited to snare the visitor into Kent’s mind games of classical reference.

Along a shaded gravel path between the pleasure grounds and a paddock of long-horned cattle the way leads to a statue of the Dying Gladiator, a reminder again of war and of mortality. At the heart of the gardens is Venus’s Vale, where the arched cascade is contoured in a sexually suggestive way and a statue of a naked, modest Venus is threatened by a wicked-looking faun and by the goat god, Pan. Finally, at the head of a long axial walk, lounges a louche yet oddly commanding statue of Antinous, Emperor Hadrian’s male lover, as befitted the taste of General James Dormer, an owner besotted with the ideal of male beauty.

More often than not Kent was commissioned to remodel an existing formal landscape – as at Esher and Claremont, also in Surrey – by a dextrous softening and loosening of the planting and a judicious opening out of lawns and the creation of sinuous reaches of water.

Kent’s great garden achievement at Esher Place has all but gone. However, if one delighted account of 1763 by Horace Walpole is to be believed – of an evening where the guests dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses and French horn-players hidden in the shrubberies serenaded them in their dancing – it was a magical place. Its garden buildings, rolling lawns and sylvan glades have all been swept away. Only a fragment of Kent’s Gothick house, fashioned around an existing Tudor tower, hangs on among executive housing as a sad reminder of one of the great landscapes of the century.

But other Kent designs do survive around the country and chart the contemporary political and aesthetic motivations of the Whig aristocracy that ruled England in the decades before Kent’s death in 1748.

But already in the 1740s, before Kent had died, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was busily devising the next fashion – one that would eventually banish all buildings and with them any form of intellectual engagement from the landscape – to be replaced by sporting estates. These were insipid, tree-clumped parkscapes planted up with handy coppices from which to beat out pheasants for slaughter on the wing. The sophistication of the early century aristocrats was gradually supplanted by a new generation who seemed more intent on shooting, riding around their parks on horseback or dashing headlong across them in the latest fast carriages.


The English landscape garden: five more places to explore

1

Claremont Landscape Garden, Surrey

nationaltrust.org.uk/claremont-landscape-garden

This is probably the best garden in the country to experience the shift between the angular formalism of the early Hanoverian period and the subsequent loosening of horticultural rigidity. It has work by all three of the great architect-landscape gardeners of the early 18th century: John Vanbrugh, Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. Look out in particular for Bridgeman’s grass amphitheatre, cut into the hillside like an ancient earthwork.

 

2

Stowe Gardens, Buckinghamshire

nationaltrust.org.uk/stowe

Stowe is the most significant garden and landscape of the early Hanoverian period, one where water, planting and architecture work in harmony to create a political statement of intent.

Kent’s main contribution here was a garden of love centred on his Temple of Venus, and the Elysian Fields. Here, in a series of didactic garden buildings with earnest inscriptions, Stowe’s owner, Lord Cobham, contrived a withering critique on the state of Whig political morality.

 

3

Mellor’s Garden, Cheshire

rhs.org/gardens

This is a rare and little-known garden of the 1850s, laid out by mill owner and committed Methodist James Mellor, at Hough Hole House in Rainow. Based on John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, the garden was originally planted up with species mentioned in the Bible. Set in a small valley around a lake, with garden buildings and stones carrying Biblical quotations, it is the Christian equivalent of the pagan circuit at Stourhead.

 

4

Stourhead House, Wiltshire

nationaltrust.org.uk/stourhead

Stourhead was planted to echo Aeneas’s adventures in Virgil’s Aeneid – his descent into the Underworld, appeals to the gods and the quest to found a family home. There is, though, more to this sheltered Wiltshire valley, where stately classical buildings overlook a sinuous lake, and a deep-delved grotto frames views of the temples of Apollo and Flora.

 

5

Little Sparta, Dunsyre, near Edinburgh

littlesparta.org.uk

This modern intellectual garden, set in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, was devised after 1966 by the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay. He aimed to provide moral, as well as philosophical themes by using the surrounding countryside as both inspiration and backdrop for his visual poems.

War, art and antiquity are among the many themes explored in this garden. By his death in 2006, Finlay had devised over 200 artworks to be produced by artists and craftsmen for placement in the garden to stand as sources of metaphor and imagery.

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Timothy Mowl is a professorial research fellow in the history of architecture and designed landscapes at the University of Buckingham.