The Landscape Guide

Petworth Park by Lancelot Brown (photo M Lancaster)

Petworth Park (Photo courtesy Michael Lancaster) - a classic Brownian scene.

The Landscape Style, named the Transition Style in the first edition of this book, is arguably the greatest in the history of British garden and landscape design: it combined the best of eighteenth century landscape practice into one magnificent conception. The theory on which the style rests is often described as the 'picturesque theory' because it requires the composition of landscape scenery 'like a picture' into:

  •  a foreground: regular, geometrical and designed for human use
  •  a middleground: a serpentine park in the manner of Lancelot Brown
  •  a background: natural scenery, as little affected by man as possible 

The idea was applied to country estates by making a terrace as a 'Beautiful' foreground, and then forming a 'transition' to a 'Picturesque' park, and beyond to a 'Sublime' background which could be a mountain range, an ocean, a river, a forest or a distant view.

[Note on typography of the two meanings of picturesque: as explained below, in this chapter 'Picturesque' spelt with a capital P is used in a special eighteenth century sense to mean 'intermediate between Beautiful and Sublime].

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The Landscape Style is also the chief support for the claim that British designers made a unique contribution to western culture during the eighteenth century. Several proponents of the claim were mentioned in the Preface. Nikolaus Pevsner's name can be added to their number. In his 1955 Reith Lectures Pevsner identified an 'English picturesque theory' which 'lies hidden in the writings of the improvers from Pope to Uvedale Price, and Payne Knight ', as the foundation for an 'English national planning theory'. Pevsner asserted that the theory gave English planners 'something of great value to offer to other nations', and asked whether 'the same can be said of painting, of sculpture, and of architecture proper?'. His answer was that Henry Moore and other contemporary sculptors had 'given England a position in European sculpture such as she has never before held', but that painting and architecture were of a lower order of excellence. A large body of design theory was developed to support the Landscape Style and its influence outside the realm of garden design has been amazing.

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The first and most obvious application of the theory was to architecture. It provided a rationale for irregular planning to suit with a building's functional requirements, and for the design of buildings as a pictorial contribution to the scenery. When applied to urban design, the theory led to the picturesque planning of streets to create a sequence of visual experiences as Nash did in London's Regent Street.

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When applied to planning, the theory produced the idea that there should be a grand transition from an urbane city centre, through healthy suburbs and a green belt, through a rural landscape which is protected from urban sprawl, and finally to the National Parks, undeveloped coasts and other natural places. From the perspective of the 1980s the picturesque theory can be seen as a precursor of the conservation movement: it provided sound reasons for preserving ancient buildings, for conserving natural vegetation and for designing new buildings which fit well with their surroundings. These developments are further discussed in City as Landscape: a post-Postmodern view of planning and design (Turner, T. 1996) and Landscape Planning and Environmental Impact Design (Turner, T., 1998).

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In geometrical terms the Landscape Style made use of elements which derive from four earlier styles of British garden design: the foreground terrace came from the Enclosed style, the taste for extensive prospects from the Forest style, the middleground park from the Serpentine style, and the background scenery from the Picturesque Style. The first hint that these ideas could be combined came from William Gilpin. He included the following observation in his Remarks on Forest Scenery (1791):  

As the park is an appendage of the house, it follows, that it should participate of it's neatness, and elegance. Nature, in all her great walks of landscape, observes this accommodating rule. She seldom passes abruptly from one mode of scenery to another; but genrally connects different species of landscape by some third species, which participates of both. A mountainous country rarely sinks immediately into a level one; the swellings and heavings of the earth, grow gradually less. Thus as the house is connected with the country through the medium of the park; the park should partake of the neatness of the one, and of the wildness of the other.  

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Gilpin's remark was taken up and developed by the 'three squires' of landscape theory: Sir Uvedale Price,, Richard Payne Knight and Humphry Repton. Their writings look back on the literature and practice of the eighteenth century and form the starting point from which all nineteenth century theorists began their consideration of the subject.  

Price and Knight were wealthy landowners, old friends and neighbours in Herefordshire. Repton came from Norfolk and met the other two as a result of an invitation to design an estate at Ferney Hall in Herefordshire which belonged to a friend of Knight's. The three friends were each preparing to publish books on landscape design in the year 1794. Knight was first off the mark and hurried the others into print. Repton succeeded in getting his book printed in 1794 but did not manage to publish until early in the following year because he required the services of a small army of women and children to colour up the illustrations. The measure of agreement between the opinions expressed by the three men was considerable and a modern textbook editor might have persuaded them to put their names to a single treatise. The sparkle of individuality would have been lost but the three would surely have agreed if they had had any conception of how seriously readers were going to overstate their differences and misunderstand their writings. It has been blown into a 'picturesque controversy'.

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Many of the differences between Price, Knight and Repton can in fact be removed by distinguishing between the specialised and ordinary meanings of the words beautiful, sublime and picturesque. In the remainder of this book the words will be written with a capital letter when they are used in a special eighteenth century sense. Thus 'Beautiful' will refer to smoothness, delicacy and gradual variation, 'Sublime' to the great, terrible and awe-inspiring, and 'Picturesque' to the intermediate aesthetic category of roughness, wildness and irregularity. When using the words in their modern sense they will be written with the first letter in the lower case. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines beautiful as 'delighting the eye', sublime as 'so distinguished by elevation or size or nobility or grandeur or other impressive quality as to inspire awe or wonder', and picturesque as 'fit to be the subject of a striking picture'. The meaning of sublime has undergone the least change.  

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Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Repton wrote: The aspect of a house requires the first consideration, since no beauty of prospect can compensate for the cold exposure to the north, the glaring blaze of a setting sun, or the frequent boistrous winds and rains from the west and south-west'. He often recommended sites on rising ground, but well below the crest of a hill, as in this proposal for Bayham Abbey in Kent. Repton's sketch of Prospect Hill at Longleat where 'parties are permitted to bring their refreshments; which circumstance tends to enliven the scene .. and to mark the liberality of its noble proprietor
'Let us have a small temple in the park where we can join you.. on hot summer days'. At Hatchlands, Surrey, there is a transition from the terrace to the temple. Both were designed in the 1920s - though Repton produced a Red Book for the estate c 1797. It is a polite and picturesque scene of the typehe admired and recommended

In order to bring out the points of agreement between the three men and avoid the anachronism of a technical editor we can consider the advice which they might have given to a friend who had recently inherited a country seat. Knight and Price occasionally gave advice to their friends but did not make a charge for it. Repton was an impoverished squire who asked a fee for his advice and summarised his opinion in beautiful hand written volumes illustrated with his own water-colours and bound in red morocco leather. They were known as Red Books. Let us assume then that having come into possession of a 500 hectare estate in 1795, we have asked the three literary squires for their opinion on how to improve the estate in the modern taste. Their collective advice can can be expressed in modern English except for the words Beautiful, Sublime and Picturesque:

Good morning. We have completed a thorough study of your estate and Mr Repton has made sketches from numerous points of view in order to fully appraise its present character. The changes which we propose will be designed to fit in with the existing site and to make improvements which will create a landscape which is both useful and beautiful. 

It is highly desirable that there should be a smooth transition between your house and the natural landscape. We can best explain this idea by referring to the work of the great landscape painters from whom we have learnt our aesthetics. The foreground of the view from your house should be a terrace garden with a profusion of flowers. It should be Beautiful and well-kept for your family's use, with something of the character of a garden scene by Watteau or, if you decide to have a lake, a Claudian seaport. The middleground of the view should be a noble park, laid out with a view to Picturesque effect but available for agricultural use. Claude and Poussin often show how Picturesque scenes can be when they contain sheep and herdsmen. The background of your view should be Sublime and we recommend felling some trees to open up the view of the waterfall and the forest scenery. You have the makings of a Salvator Rosa on the edge of your estate and should most certainly keep the ancient oak and shepherd's cottage which lie at the foot of the hill.  

Each of the three grounds in the scene can contain more than one of the aesthetic qualities but the Beautiful should predominate in the foreground, the Picturesque in the middleground and the Sublime in the background. Nature shows us how to combine the qualities when we see the Beauty of a rose set off by the Picturesque setting of its sharp thorns and serrated leaves. We can also learn from nature and from the landscape painters how best to combine unity with variety. New planting will unify the scene, like the light of the setting sun. It will also provide shelter from the harsh north easterly winds.  

You will require a new mansion and it should be very carefully sited to have a good microclimate and to command fine views. The house should dominate the foreground but should only be an incident in the background which contributes to the scenery. Lancelot Brown was too much interested in the middleground but he had excellent taste in the selection of sites and in the composition of land and woods to make a middleground for the view. It is very important that a balance should be achieved between the competing demands of prospect and aspect: a good view is pleasant but a good microclimate is essential. A well designed garden will lengthen the summer by catching the winter sun and keeping out cold winds. It should also contain shady groves in which the family can relax on hot afternoons.  

The principle of association which has helped us to plan the grounds should also be used to guide the design of your house. It should look like a building which belongs to the age, country and place in which it will be built. The materials should be of a colour and texture which suits the style and the site - preferably a local stone. Since all the rooms and outbuildings should be planned to meet the needs of your family and servants we think that an irregular floor plan is more convenient than strict symmetry.  

The next task is to select an architectural style. We often think that an Italian style is best for a Claudian site, a Grecian style for a Poussinesque site and an English style for a typically English site. It is also important for your house to look its part; it should not resemble a church, a university or a temple. Since your estate is near the Welsh Border and your house will be larger than a manor house but smaller than a palace, we think that the English Castle style would be a very appropriate choice.  

Your estate is large and we have suggested the incorporation of many different sources of pleasure into its layout. It would therefore be delightful to have a circuitous carriage drive. When driving round the estate you and your visitors will be able to experience all the views and qualities which we have aimed to create: congruity, utility, order, symmetry, picturesque effects, intricacy, simplicity, variety, novelty, contrast, continuity, association, appropriation, animation, grandeur and the ever-changing effects the seasons, the weather and the times of day.  

Finally, let us have a small Palladian temple in the park where we can join you for an outdoor meal or drink on hot summer days. It should be sited on the brow of the hill which can be seen from your drawing room window and we suggest that you inscribe it with the famous lines by Alexander Pope which have guided us in the design of your estate:  

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the Column, or the Arch to bend,
To swell the Terras, or to sink the Grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.
Consult the Genius of the Place in all
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall....
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades
Now Breaks, or now directs, th'intending
Lines; Paints as you plant, and as you work, Designs

There are eleven key ideas embodied in the above advice on estate layout: existing character, nature, utility, the transition, landscape painting, planting, unity in variety (etc), the balance of prospect and aspect, appropriation, irregular architecture and the principle of association. If the three squires views were set out individually and then compared, we would find some cases of complete agreement, some of differing emphasis and some of near disagreement.  

They would have been in complete agreement over the importance of existing character, nature, planting, irregular architecture and the combination of unity with variety.

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Cases of differing emphasis would be found over prospect and aspect, appropriation, the transition and the principle of association. Repton and Price give the fullest accounts of how to form a transition between the terrace and wild nature. Repton was the first of the three to propose the reintroduction of terraces to English gardens but the demand for a paved area near the house had been growing since the 1750s. In 1771 even the Encyclopaedia Britancia had advised that 'regularity is required in that part of a garden which joins the dwelling house', but the paved area was recommended for purely utilitarian reasons. Price and Knight were the first to argue on visual grounds that a terrace would be an asset in composing the foreground of the view. Repton originally recommended terraces for utility but came to agree with his friends on this point.  

From 1794 onwards each of the three advocated the transition from regularity to wildness. As shown on the diagram, the transition runs from a 'regular' terrace beside the house, through a serpentine park to a wild forest or other sublime feature. Repton, as the only professional designer in the trio, has the best advice on how to achieve a balance between a good prospect and a good microclimate. He was also, perhaps for the same reason, the only one to recommend the idea of appropriation.  

Knight persuaded the owner of Powis Castle, Powys, to keep the terraces which step down the hillside. Knight believed that  a terrace creates a foreground  can have the same role in a real landscape as it does in a landscape painting.

Knight, as the most philosophically able, gives most attention to the principle of association which underlies each of the author's aesthetic views. Knight believed that our aesthetic judgement of phenomena is governed by our understanding of their associations, history and symbolic significance. For example:  

Ruined buildings, with fragments of sculptured walls and broken columns, the mouldering remnants of obsolete taste and fallen magnificance, afford pleasure to every learned beholder, imperceptible to the ignorant, and wholly independent of their real beauty . 

Knight was a great collector of Greek and Roman coins and thought their vivid sexual imagery gave them a greater interest than they would have had merely as abstract designs.

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The cases of near disagreement between Repton, Price and Knight would have arisen over their interpretation of utility and landscape painting. These disagreements have received considerable attention from commentators but are of much more philosophical than practical consequence. They turn on the precise meaning and significance given to the words 'picturesque' and 'utility'.  

Price wished to restrict the word 'Picturesque' to the sense which we have distinguished by a capital P, and to use it to describe the aesthetic pleasure which we receive from rough, shaggy and irregular scenes. Knight disagreed with this restriction and believed that 'picturesque' should be used to describe a scene which resembled a landscape painting. Repton misunderstood both the Herefordshire squires. He thought that Price advocated the Picturesque in preference to the Sublime and the Beautiful, and that Knight advocated the picturesque in disregard of utility.  

Neither charge is substantiated by a close reading of Price and Knight - but it is easy to see how the mistakes arose. Price does concentrate on the Picturesque and Knight has very little to say about utility. Price's reason for giving more attention to the Picturesque was that earlier writers, especially Burke, had given it insufficient attention. He insisted that he was 'by no means bigotted to the Picturesque or insensible to the charms of Beauty'. His favourite instance of the Picturesque was a river with rocky banks, overhanging trees, rushing water and reedy swamps.  

The difference between the three squires over utility also arose because Repton misunderstood his friends' books. Repton thought that Price's Essay of 1794 had advocated a wild, rugged and Picturesque area near the house, and that this idea was preposterous. When Price wrote in favour of terraces in his 1795 Letter, Repton declared the dispute settled. Price's remarks, he wrote, 'left no room for further controversy'.  

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

The lake at Wingerworth, Derbyshire, was designed by Repton as 'an object of beauty' to be 'so managed as to admit of being occasionally drawn down two or three feet to supply canals, and other circumstances of advantage, in this populous and commercial part of the kingdom; exclusive of the increased supply of fish, where such food is in constant requisition'. It is a good example of Repton's admiration for a landscape which is useful as well as beautiful.

Repton criticised Knight for disregarding utility in his advocacy of the picturesque. In fact Knight's position was close to Burke's: he believed that utility and aesthetic pleasure are both good things but unconnected. Of the qualities which a herdsman and a poet see in a field of grass, Knight asks 'who shall presume to decide that the one are more truely and properly beauties than the other?'. His dispute with Repton was over what to say, not over what to do. They agreed that there should be a terrace between the house and the fields. Indeed Price tells us that the owner of Powis Castle was persuaded by Knight not to destroy the great terraces which step down the hillside in front of the castle.  

Repton did not see the estate's profitability as the primary objective of his work. He aimed to produce 'a harmony of parts to the whole' and lamented the fact that he often had to 'contend with the opposition of stewards, the presumption and ignorance of gardeners and the jealousy of architects and builders'. To accept that profit rather than harmony was his objective would have been to give way to one or other interested party. For this reason Repton preferred to see profit as a 'collateral prop' for his views. When beauty and profit did coincide he was delighted. For example the lake which he designed at Wingerworth was beautiful and also served to supply a canal with water and his client's table with fish. Repton also liked the idea of a belt of copse woodland which could provide pleasant walks, shelter the corn, protect the cattle, supply cover for game, and provide the framework for his landscape design. He was however sorry to note that 'pecuniary advantage and ornament are seldom strictly compatible', and he criticised Shenstone's ferm ornee for failing to unite ornament with profit.

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'The mouldering remains of obsolete taste and fallen magnificence' The quote is from Knight, but the drawing of a Picturesque ruin comes from the 1842 edition of Price's essays. John Ruskin's drawing of Abstract Lines (from The Stones of Venice, Vol 1, 1851) was used to show that all the most beautiful curves derive from nature.

Repton, Price and Knight each put the 'transition' theory into practice. Little is known of Price's design for his own estate at Foxley. The foundations of the house and of what appears to have been a terraced garden can be detected but the estate has been ruined by planting the open spaces with poplars. Knight's estate at Downton Castle is not open to the public but it remains in excellent condition and is one of the most romantic designed estates in England. In 1806 Repton wrote that Downton provided 'consumate proof' of Knight's good taste but that 'it is impossible by description to convey an idea of its natural charms, or to do justice to that taste which has displayed these charms to the greatest advantage'. Its very completeness as a work of art invites comparison with Rousham, Stourhead and Prior Park. Knight appears to have laid out the park wholly in the Picturesque Style during his youth and to have converted it to the Landscape Style by adding a neat terrace and a modest serpentine park. Comfort and convenience assume greater importance in middle age.  

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Price's estate at Foxley, Herefordshire, lay in an attractive valley. It has since been marred by ill-considered poplar planting.

Repton lived in a cottage and treated the garden as the foreground to a Picturesque view of the village of Hare Street. There was even an Irregular woodland on the hill in the background. The Landscape Style also formed the basis of Repton's extensive practice. He was most unfortunate in that the prime years of his professional career, between the publication of his first book in 1793 and the collapse of his health in 1815, coincided with the Napoleonic Wars. The number and geographical extent of his commissions was extraordinary for a country involved in a major European war but the scope of the works his clients wished to have executed was modest by peacetime standards. Repton was highly skilled in the design of forests, parks and lakes but in most cases his clients did little more than enrich the foreground of an existing scene with a garden.  

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see

Repton's cottage in Hare Street - a small scale example of a transition from a Beautiful foreground, to a Picturesque Village to a Sublimely wooded hill.

Once the fashion for sweeping the agricultural land up to the living room windows had passed, there was a considerable demand for a cheerful 'dressed' area near the house. At Ashridge, which Repton considered one of his major works, a Beautiful foreground was added to a park designed by Brown. At Sherringham Repton had a rare opportunity to lay out a completly new estate, though a modest one by peacetime standards. Repton also designed the house with the help of his sons and preferred this project 'over every other in which I have been consulted'. The foreground at Sheringham is occupied by a small terrace garden which is separated from the park by one of Repton's favourite devices, the balustrade. The middleground is most interesting: a straightforward Serpentine park which might have been designed by Brown. The North Sea forms a Sublime background to the park but cannot be seen from the house. Repton would have liked it to be visible but he was disuaded from choosing a building site in full exposure to the north wind by climatic considerations. The North Sea, he observed, 'is not like that of the Bay of Naples'.  

Illustrations on CD edition of Garden Visit and Travel Guide - see
Sherringham in Norfolk. The house and garden were designed by Repton and it is a fine example of the Landscape Style. The North Sea provides a Sublime background; the terrace in front of the house provides a Beautiful foreground and the agricultural landscape is a Picturesque middleground.

The best account of the way in which nineteenth century designers interpreted the transition idea is to be found in Charles M'intosh's Book of the Garden (1853):  

Sir Uvedale Price clearly recognises a threefold dividion of the domain, which we have already referred to - namely, the architectural terrace and flower-garden , in direct connection with the house, where he admits the formal style; the shrubbery or pleasure-ground, a transition between the flowers and the trees, "which we would hand over", says the writer in the Quarterly Review already quoted , "to the natural style of Brown and his school"; and thirdly, the park, which he considers the proper domain of his own system.  

The sketches from T H Mawson's The Art and Craft of Garden Making (1900) show how this idea was interpreted at the end of the century, but by this time it had become involved with the Italian style.

The Landscape Style, as represented by T. H. Mason in 1900. He wrote that 'any artist when painting a landscape, fills in, leaves out, or alters details, until he obtains his ideally balanced picture showing nature as he conceives it ought to be ... the gardener wishes to recompose the landscape itself, and this mainly by the help of trees'. The landscape transition runs from a Beautiful terrace, through a Picturesque middle ground to a Sublime background.
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A nineteenth century transition from house to lake to lawn at Biddulph. The transition was included as one element in the Mixed Style.


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