This article was first published in the August 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine
Take a walk around a British stately home and you will encounter some of the finest examples of the country’s artistry. You might glimpse a Hogarth, Constable or Gainsborough painting hanging upon a wall or chance upon a Dickens novel, a Shakespeare play or a volume of Keats in the library. Among the furnishings you will perhaps encounter an exquisite Chippendale cabinet, while the grandiose ceiling could testify to the skills of the architect James Wyatt.
But if you want to appreciate what the scholar of architectural history Nikolaus Pevsner, among others, believed to be England’s greatest contribution to aesthetics, you’ll need to leave the house altogether and explore the landscape garden that surrounds it.
With spades as their paintbrushes, English landscape gardeners created masterpieces that surpassed anything on the continent. Other countries were quick to appreciate the English style, which is why the French liked to create jardins anglais and the Germans made their own Englischer Garten. The designs they hoped to emulate were the ones that came to the fore in the 18th century, undoubtedly the heyday of the English landscape garden.
Gardens were far from an 18th-century invention of course. The ancient Babylonians had them (albeit in hanging form) and in England wealthy landowners had long been flaunting their fortunes with pretty plants and other external ornaments.
However, a crucial development that occurred at the dawn of the Georgian era was the shift from formal to much looser, informal garden designs. Such gardens had the advantage of being less expensive to maintain and they also had an intellectual dimension, featuring several garden buildings that harked back to the ancient world.
“The gentlemen who had these gardens designed for them had all been on the Grand Tour and learned the classics,” says Timothy Mowl of the University of Bristol. “It was part of their make-up and they wanted to display their taste and learning within gardens.”
The man best associated with the new style of landscape gardening was William Kent (c1686–1748), a Yorkshire-born artist and architect who turned to gardens later in his career. His work at estates such as Chiswick and Stowe pioneered the classical Arcadian style, which dominated the 1720s and 30s. Kent’s vision even impressed royalty, notably Queen Caroline, wife of George II, who employed him on the garden that became Kew.
An upsurge in interest in the orient, sparked by the publication of several books on the subject, was reflected in some of the gardens of the 1740s and 50s. Although sharing several features with the classical Arcadia, these often incorporated buildings with Chinese or Turkish designs, providing more eclectic landscapes. This was a transitional phase before the arrival on the scene of Britain’s greatest landscape designer: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.
Brown first came to prominence working with Kent at Stowe in the 1740s, and by 1750 he was accepting his own commissions. He rapidly became one of the most prolific garden designers – and one of the most influential. His minimalist landscapes represented a move away from the classical world. He dispensed with ornate buildings and instead utilised natural devices such as water features and strategically placed tree clumps.
Aside from their visual qualities, Brown’s landscapes also appealed to landowners on commercial and practical levels. They were cheaper to produce and the trees could be harvested for profit. They also reflected changes to upper-class leisure in the 18th century. Lighter guns enabled sportsmen to shoot birds on the wing, so landscapes needed to incorporate areas of cover where game such as pheasant could be reared.
At the same time carriages were becoming faster and so designers had to take into account the fact that their work would be viewed in these vehicles. “The idea with Brownian landscapes is that you effectively go round them,” explains Mowl. “When Brown did his landscape designs they would always have drives in them. They were an essential part of what he would do.”
Brown’s talents made him a very wealthy man and his designs continue to be seen at dozens of stately homes around the country. “The images that he created are as deeply embedded in the English character as the paintings of Turner and the poetry of Wordsworth,” wrote John Phibbs in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
After Brown’s death in 1783, the golden age of English landscape gardens drew to an end. Humphry Repton (1752–1818), England’s next great garden designer, took a very different tack from Brown, reintroducing people and buildings into the landscape and making far greater use of flowers. His gardens were closer to the pre-18th‑century formal style but also hinted at the future.
Flowers required greenhouses and drew attention to the area around the house rather than the entire landscape, a precursor to the suburban gardens that became widespread in the 20th century.
Where history happened
Kenilworth Castle, Warwickshire
Two centuries before the arrival of the Georgian landscape designers, Robert Dudley created a splendid garden at his Warwickshire home. Dudley was a favourite of Elizabeth I and it was she who granted him the estate in 1563. He used his wealth to transform Kenilworth, making it fit for the queen who visited on several occasions during her summer progresses.
A private garden was set aside for Elizabeth’s use and on her final visit in 1575 Robert Langham, a minor member of Dudley’s entourage, snuck inside the area and left a detailed description of the garden in the form of a letter. This document was the basis of a major reconstruction of the gardens at Kenilworth Castle that was undertaken by English Heritage last year. As virtually no other Elizabethan gardens survive, Kenilworth Castle is the best place in the country to see the Tudor garden aesthetic today.
Dudley’s garden was highly ornate and vivid with colour. A large central aviary testifies to the Elizabethan love of bird song and a double statue of Atlas hints at a fascination with the classical world. Langham was deeply impressed with Dudley’s efforts. At Kenilworth he wrote that it was possible “at one moment, in one place, at hand, without travel, to have so full fruition of so many of God’s blessings, by entire delight unto all senses (if all can take) at once”.
Hampton Court Palace, Surrey
Visitors may head to Hampton Court hoping to immerse themselves in the Tudors or lose their children in the maze but the reconstructed privy garden is also well worth exploring. It was originally laid out in 1702 during the closing months of William III’s reign.
Fifteen years ago the garden was carefully remade, based on archaeological research and the accounts of workmen who were employed on the project.This garden is now a rare example of the formal landscape style that dominated before the ideas of Kent, Brown, et al took hold.
It is notable for its precise arrangement and manicured appearance, which give it something of an artificial feel. Gardens like these needed regular maintenance to prevent them growing out of shape and the expense of doing so was one reason why so many of them were swept away in the 18th century.
Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire
Stowe Landscape Gardens are a famous example of the classical Arcadian style. The viscounts of Cobham, who owned the estate, were one of the richest and most powerful families in the country and under the 1st Viscount (1675–1749) extensive modifications were undertaken.
Some of the foremost architects of the day, including John Vanbrugh, James Gibbs and William Kent were drafted in to design the multitude of garden buildings, almost all classical, that dot the landscape.
These structures were not simply bland decorations. Some were designed to make political points, especially those in the Elysian Fields, which were created in the 1730s. Here a Temple of Ancient Virtue was erected with statues of classical heroes alongside an already ruined Temple of Modern Virtue – a sharp critique of early-18th century society.
In front of the Modern temple stood a statue of Robert Walpole, Cobham’s political opponent, with his head lopped off. There was also a Temple of British Worthies that celebrated approved Britons such as Shakespeare, Elizabeth I and John Milton.
As with several gardens of the time, sex and sexual imagery are evident at Stowe. The most obvious example is William Kent’s Temple of Venus, which was plastered with erotic imagery and included couches for pleasuring purposes. A curious aside is the nickname of the 1720s building officially called Dido’s Cave. It is popularly known as the Randibus after the local vicar, Conway Rand, who once chased a woman into it in a sexual frenzy.
Not all of the original buildings survive today – the Temple of Modern Virtue is among the casualties – but over 40 monuments and temples do remain. The National Trust has been caring for the gardens since the 1980s.
Castle Howard, Yorkshire
Roughly contemporaneous with Stowe, the landscape at Castle Howard was created in the 1720s and 1730s under the direction of the 3rd Earl of Carlisle. As at Stowe, the house is bathed in a huge landscape containing large classically themed buildings. The chief designers were John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor.
One of the highlights of Castle Howard is the grand mausoleum, created under the orders of the 3rd Earl to be a memorial to himself. It was designed by Hawksmoor and completed in 1741 after 12 years of work, by which point both Hawksmoor and the earl had died.
The latter was buried there on the year of its completion and the mausoleum is still the resting ground for the Howard family. A further reference to the passing of life is Hawksmoor’s 1728 hollow pyramid that contains a statue of Lord William Howard, who founded a branch of the family.
Rousham Garden, Oxfordshire
General James Dormer, owner of the Rousham estate, was a personal friend of William Kent. He employed the architect to work on the house and then from 1737–41 Kent designed the grounds around it.
Although only a small landscape, Kent’s work at Rousham is regularly deemed to be one of his finest achievements. Horace Walpole called it “the most engaging of all Kent’s works.” It is also his best-preserved landscape.
As with other classical Arcadia, garden buildings and statues have been placed amid the greenery. Sexual connotations are evident at Kent’s magnificent Vale of Venus, while other highlights include the Praeneste with its seven arches and the fake ruin known as the ‘eyecatcher’.
Interestingly, visitors can’t actually see the landscape from the house. The gardens are all below the building and within wooded glades so it is only by walking through the gardens that Kent’s genius can be appreciated. “For me Rousham is the most poetic of all the 18th-century Arcadia,” says Timothy Mowl. “It is probably the most perfect landscape garden in the country.”
Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire
In the 1740s Benjamin Hyett created a small, delightful garden to accompany his mansion at Painswick. It is significant today as a rare example of the fleeting eclectic moment in garden design between the classical Arcadian and Brownian landscapes.
Much like Kenilworth, this garden only exists nowadays because of a contemporary record of the design. When garden historians took an interest in the site in the 1970s and 1980s it was badly overgrown.
Thankfully, inside the house was a c1748 painting by local artist Thomas Robins that showed the garden as it may have been in its prime. On the basis of this and archaeological study, together with the support of Hyett’s descendents, Painswick has been sensitively restored.
The garden contains an unusual mixture of building styles, which differentiates it from the predominantly classical designs that preceded it. There’s a statue of the love god Pan near the entrance, emphasising the garden’s role as a place of pleasure.
Petworth Park, West Sussex
Having worked and impressed at Stowe in the 1740s, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown began accepting his own commissions by 1750. The minimalist aesthetic he pioneered made him tremendously successful and he was soon regarded as the leading landscape designer of his age.
Brown was also a shrewd businessman. To ensure he always got paid he undertook each project as a series of contracts, refusing to move on to another stage until the money had been received for the previous work. In the 1760s he was regularly bringing in over £15,000 per annum, or around £1 million in today’s money.
Brown was renowned for his speed of work, which he achieved by employing large numbers of people and industrial machinery. He even used a Georgian JCB-style device that could transfer 30-foot trees from a nursery to the garden in question. Despite his talents, Brown’s nickname did not refer to himself but to his oft-repeated phrase that a site in question had ‘capabilities’.
Petworth, adapted by Brown 1751–64, contains all the hallmarks of his landscapes. There are the rolling contours, the serpentine lake and the tree clumps. Another classic Brown touch was to have the lawns sweep right up to the house itself. To prevent livestock encroaching too close to the home, Brown utilised sunken ditches known as ha-has that the animals were unable to cross.
The style might have been minimalist but the 700-acre Petworth Park was no small project. Just to make the lake, for instance, Brown needed to shift over 60,000 tonnes of earth. The results were breathtaking. JMW Turner was so taken with Brown’s landscape that he painted it several times in the 19th century. Now in the 21st century Petworth remains one of the shining examples of ‘Capability’ Brown at his best.
Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
Following his victory over the French at the battle of Blenheim in 1704, a grateful British government agreed to pay for a magnificent new home for the Duke of Marlborough. The architect brought in to design the house was John Vanbrugh and he was also the man who planned the original landscape.
Vanbrugh envisaged a formal garden that would be in keeping with the duke’s proud career, containing several military-style elements. One of the most prominent features of his design was a massive bridge that crossed the river Glyme.
Unfortunately the Blenheim project was beset with problems, many stemming from personal clashes between Vanbrugh and the Duchess of Marlborough. Vanbrugh eventually resigned and was banished from the estate before the work could be completed.
When he departed, the Blenheim landscape was far from the gorgeous spectacle of today. The giant bridge was impressive but Vanbrugh had failed to find a pleasing solution to the river valley and the canals that ran through it.
In 1763 the 4th Duke turned to the man of the moment, ‘Capability’ Brown, to improve the landscape. His alterations transformed Blenheim, which is now often regarded as his finest work.
The valley that had confounded Vanbrugh disappeared beneath a stunning man-made lake that forms a centrepiece of the estate. Brown also added contours and a number of other attractive water features. However he did not entirely remove the Vanbrugh influence, which can still be seen with his giant bridge, among other things.
Sheringham Park, Norfolk
Brown’s self-styled successor was the Suffolk-born landscape gardener Humphry Repton (1752–1818). Repton’s vision differed markedly from Brown’s minimalism. He drew inspiration from the formal gardens of the 17th century and made far greater use of floral arrangements.
In many ways Repton’s ascendency signalled the decline of the style of landscape gardening for which England had become famous, although his designs were greatly admired at the time and today as well.
Repton had a unique method of presenting his ideas to his clients. He would provide them with beautiful books bound in morocco red leather, showing the landscape as it was and as it could be. The current layout would be sketched on a flap that could be lifted up to reveal the potential for the estate underneath.
These charming volumes came with a degree of financial risk to the man who created them, for the sketches were so detailed that the landowner could quite easily have the work done themselves without having to employ Repton at all. Brown had always avoided this possibility by making less detailed plans that meant they could not be completed without his assistance.
Sheringham Park in Norfolk is widely held to be one of Repton’s greatest achievements and it was one of his own favourite estates. He began working on the park in 1812 under the orders of the owner, Abbot Upcher. Sadly Upcher died in c1817, before the job was completed, and Repton himself passed away the year afterwards, to be buried in a rose garden of his own creation.
The landscape continued to be shaped until well into the 20th century, with Repton’s designs as a blueprint. It’s been run by the National Trust since 1987. Visitors can see a copy of Repton’s red book before strolling in his magical gardens.
Words by Rob Attar. Historical advisor: Timothy Mowl, of the University of Bristol. Mowl is currently writing a garden history of every county in Britain, funded by the Leverhulme Trust.