The Landscape Guide
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1.6 Empiricism and garden design
Empiricism and rationalism
Early-eighteenth century: Locke and Shaftesbury
Mid-eighteenth century: Brown
Late-eighteenth century: The Gilpins
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Empiricism holds that our knowledge of the world comes primarily from experience, and rationalism that it comes primarily from reason. An extreme rationalist would believe that we are born with knowledge of all the universal forms tucked away in our minds, and that we only come to know the world in the light of this knowledge. An extreme empiricist, on the other hand, would believe that our minds contain nothing at birth and only acquire knowledge by seeing and experiencing the world. When applied to aesthetics, rationalism tends towards the view that art should represent the world of the forms, and empiricism to the the view that it should represent the world of experience. Rationalist art makes great use of regularity, proportion and mathematics, while empiricist art delights in wildness, irregularity and unexpected details. The two conceptions of art depend on two views of how man comes to know the 'nature' of the world.

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John Locke was the most important empiricist philosopher to influence the course of eighteenth century garden design but he was not an extreme empiricist: elements of both views are to be found in his writings. He is however more empiricist than any British philosopher who preceded him. It would be fascinating to learn more of Locke's views on gardening. We know that he advised his patron on 'the layout of his gardens' but it was probably on technical matters. His little book on gardening contains nothing on aesthetics but a good deal of information about the cultivation of the vine. Locke's influence on garden design came about through his patron, the First Earl of Shaftesbury, and through his pupil, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury.

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The third Earl of Shaftesbury was a firm supporter of the Neoplatonic theory of art. He believed that the artist should represent the simplest and purest forms. 'Why', Shaftesbury asks, 'is the sphere or globe, the cylinder and obilisk preferred; and the irregular figures in respect of these, rejected and despised?'. His answer to the question is thoroughly Neoplatonic. Simple and pure shapes are preferred because 'the beautiful, the fair, the comely were never in the matter.....but in the form or forming power'. It is clear that Shaftesbury has assigned each of the geometrical shapes a hierarchical position. The sphere and cylinder occupy high positions and the irregular figures lowly positions. Neoplatonists have often interpreted Plato in this manner, but though he does refer to the sphere as 'the most perfect and most like itself of all the figures', Plato himself was uninterested in the positions of the other shapes.


It is also notable that Shaftesbury, like Pope, uses the word 'nature' in several different senses. In the following passage he uses 'unnatural' to describe the painter who 'strictly copies life', but 'nature' to describe the scene which he copies: A painter, if he has any genius, understands the truth and unity of design; and knows he is even unnatural when he copies nature too close, and strictly copies life.


The injunction not to copy life too strictly appears to conflict with Shaftesbury's oft-quoted remark that 'I shall no longer resist the passion growing in me for things of natural kind'. The apparent conflict is explained by the presence of a strong current of empiricism running through Shaftesbury's essentially rationalist philosophy. Like Plato, he believed that our knowledge of the forms can be increased by a study of the particulars which compose the visible world. A visual symbol of this truth could be provided by a Palladian villa, based on the circle and square, set in a wild and irregular landscape. Had Shaftesbury lived for another twelve years (ie until 1725) he could have seen beautiful illustrations of this idea at Mereworth Castle in Kent (designed by Colen Campbell) and at Chiswick House (designed by Lord Burlington and William Kent). Both are closely based on Andrea Palladio's design of 1552 for the Villa Capra at Vicenza. The small Palladian temples which were later used to adorn Stourhead and many other English landscape gardens also illustrate Shaftesbury's point.

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Andrea Palladio's Villa Capra, near Vicenza. The design was based on the principle of harmonic proportion, incorporating the circle and the square. The imitation of these 'forms' in architecture was a method by which buildings were enabled to partake of the 'nature' of the world.

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In the middle years of the eighteenth century, when Stourhead was being laid out and Lancelot Brown held the post of Royal Gardener at Hampton Court, there was a balance in the minds of garden designers between the regular and irregular conceptions of nature. By the end of the century the irregular conception had scored a complete victory.


William Gilpin's partisan enthusiasm for the rough and rugged aspects of nature turned the Neoplatonic theory of art completely upside down. There is no clearer illustration of what happened than in the writings of William Gilpin's nephew, a nineteenth century landscape gardener with the name William Sawry Gilpin.

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Sawry Gilpin published a book in 1832 with the title Practical Hints upon Landscape Gardening. In it he expresses his confusion and total exasperation over a footnote in the first edition of Sir Henry Steuart's Planter's Guide. Steuart had suggested that if anyone was not so fortunate as to have the use of a Lancelot Brown tree transplanter to produce instant irregularity then, as a temporary expedient, it would be acceptable to plant the trees in circular or oval clumps. He believed that:


There is no man whose taste has been formed on any correct model, that does not feel and acknowledge the beauty of these elegant forms, the Oval, the Circle, and the Cone..... and there are few well-educated persons, who will for a moment compare to them a multitude of obtuse and acute angles, great and small, following each other, in fantastical and unmeaning succession.


Sawry Gilpin was horrified by Steuart's remarks and and quoted all the available authorities in an effort to ridicule them. 'Did nature ever bound planatations by a circular or oval form?' he asks, and 'are they to be traced in Claude or Poussin - in Wilson or in Turner?'. Sawry Gilpin was also able to invoke the names of his famous uncle, William Gilpin, of Sir Uvedale Price, who had done so much to popularise picturesque irregularity, and of Sir Walter Scott, who had reviewed Steuart's book in the Quarterly Review. The really maddening thing for Sawry Gilpin was that Steuart had claimed, in full accord with Neoplatonism, that the circle and the oval are 'prevalent in all the most beautiful objects in nature'. 'It appears singular', says Gilpin, 'that the advocates on each side of the question before us, should appeal to nature as the foundation of their diametrically opposite systems'. Gilpin recommended 'the author of the Planter's Guide to 'spend a day admist the splendid scenery of the New Forest' in the hope that the experience would convince him that 'nature' is irregular and not at all like the circles and ovals of a Neoplatonic dream. We do not know if Steuart took Sawry Gilpin's advice but the footnote on circles and ovals was dropped from later editions of the Planter's Guide.

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Sawry Gilpin hoped the 'splendid scenery' of the New Forest would persuade Steuart that 'nature' is fundamentally irregular. His expostulations provide a clear illustration of how the predominant usage of 'nature' had changed. It had described the circles and squares which defined the nature of the world and the plan of the Villa Capra. By Gilpin's time it meant the 'shaggy wildness' of areas like the New Forest.

It can be seen from the controversy between Gilpin and Steuart that by the nineteenth century the 'nature' which Gilpin, and most landscape gardeners, believed they should imitate was located near the bottom of the Neoplatonic hierarchy of forms. 'Nature' had become the empirical world of everyday experience: not the world of the forms. The steady advance of empiricism, exerting its inflence through the axiom that art should imitate nature, became the engine which drove the aesthetic development of garden and landscape design in the eighteenth century. The engine faltered after the turn of the century but flickered back to life towards the end of the nineteenth century in the work of Robinson and Jekyll. Indeed if abstract art is conceived as an attempt to analyse the nature of the visible world, as will be suggested in Chapter 5, then it might be said that a derivative of the engine is chugging away in the garden to this day.

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