The Landscape Guide
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
The site of Horace's farm in the Sabine Hills
Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
The Temple of  Vesta at Tivoli inspired many tourists to
build temples in English gardens

The progress of garden design towards an empiricist conception of nature was delayed by the overwhelming influence of the Italian countryside. We do not know for certain how the Italian influence arrived in England but we do know why. Designers looked to Italy because of their belief that art should imitate nature, and that nature meant universals or essences. One way of discovering whether something was a universal was to check whether it had been accepted by mankind for a long period of time.

  Return to section heading

Poets imitated themes and verse forms from Horace and Virgil. Thinkers went back to the writings of Greek and Roman philosophers. Painters copied antique models: 'Thus the best artists', Shaftesbury tells us, 'are said to have been indefatigible in studying the best statues: as esteeming them a better rule than the perfectest human bodies could afford'. Nothing was more natural than for garden designers to try and discover what the landscape of antiquity had actually looked like.

There were five main ways in which their opinions were formed: by making a grand tour to see Roman remains, like the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli; by purchasing Italian landscape paintings (Shaftesbury is known to have admired Claude); by reading accounts of the villas of the ancients, such as Robert Castell's; by copying the settings of Italian buildings, as was done for the Temple of Four Winds at Castle Howard; and by transposing the techniques of Italian stage design to garden design.

   Return to section heading

Which of these five sources of influence was the most important? In my opinion the answer is landscape painting. The objectives of garden design have been traced to Greek and Roman philosophy with the poetry of Virgil and Horace as the most immediate source. It must have appeared a logical move to look to painting, as poetry's sister art, to discover what the landscape of antiquity actually looked like. Aristotle, whose Poetics was the standard seventeenth century text on the imitation of nature, had made a direct comparison of the two arts. Dryden discusses the Poetics at length in his preface to Du Fresnoy's The art of painting, and both Claude and Poussin turned instinctively to the Roman poets for themes. Their canvasses, illustrating scenes from Virgil and Ovid, filled with remnants of classical architecture and animated by figures in Roman dress, appeared to show a universal ideal of beauty which had been valued since the classical age. At a time when Oxford undergraduates could be fined for challenging the authority of Aristotle it was natural that designers should look to poetry's sister art to provide an ideal vision of nature to imitate.
In 1697 Dryden had recently translated Virgil's works into English and if we compare an illustration from his translation with an illustration from a contemporary manual on painting, we can see how closely the visions of antiquity given by poets and painters resemble each other. Happy husbandsmen merrily cultivate the fields in Dryden's illustrations. If they look more wooden than happy it is because they were drawn from antique models instead of from life. It is interesting to note that one of the the illustration's to Dryden's Virgil was subscribed by 'George London of his Majesties Royall Garden in St St James's Park'. George London became the most famous garden designer of his day.

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
.An illustration from Dryden's translation of Virgil, 1697. This plate was subscribed by the best known English garden designer of the period, George London. If the husbandsmen look more wooden than happy it is because they were drawn from antique models instead of from life.


  Return to section heading

Claude and Poussin were seen to be illustrating the same rural retirement theme which the poets celebrated. Sir Kenneth Clark has described their paintings as a representation of 'the most enchanting dream which has ever consoled mankind, the myth of a Golden Age in which man lived on the fruits of the earth, peacefully, piously, and with primitive simplicity'. It was an enchanating dream of an 'earthly paradise.....a harmony between man and nature'. A seventeenth century gardening author's version of this dream is shown on the frontispiece of Timothy Nourse's Campania Felix. Nourse had been a bursar at Oxford but lost his job after being converted to Roman Catholicism. He suffered during the Popish Plot and died in 1699, the same year as Sir William Temple. Like many of their contemporaries, Nourse and Temple came to believe that rural retirement offered the chance of a better life. The frontispiece of Nourse's book shows a toga-clad Happy Husbandsman ploughing his furrow towards a representative seventeenth century garden.  

We can conclude our discussion of aesthetic theory by saying that when he reached the garden he began its transformation into an eighteenth century English landscape.

Go to next Section