The Garden Guide

Book: History of Garden Design and Gardening
Chapter: Chapter 4: British Gardens (1100-1830)

British garden authors

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575. British authors are of various opinions as to the origin of the modern style. The poet Gray (Life and Letters, &c.: Letter to Mr. How, dated 1763) is of opinion, that 'our skill in gardening, or rather laying out grounds, is the only taste we can call our own; the only proof of original talent in matters of pleasure. This is no small honour to us; since neither France nor Italy have ever had the least notion of it.' Dr. Joseph Warton and Horace Walpole, the former in his Essay on Pope, and the latter in his History of Modern Gardening, agree in referring the first ideas to Milton; and Warton adds, that the Seasons of Thomson may have had a very considerable influence. The author of a Biographical Sketch of Horace Walpole (Pinkerton), prefixed to Walpoliana, states, that he 'suggested to Mr. Walpole a singular passage in Tacitus (already quoted, ᄎ 49.), which loudly indicates Nero as the founder of modern gardening.' He says that 'Mr. Walpole seemed much struck with it, and said he would insert it in the next edition of his Essay on Modern Gardening; but he changed his mind, probably not liking such a founder.' ( Walpoliana, preface, p. xxx.) George Mason, the author of an Essay on Design in Gardening, which appeared in 1768, and is one of the earliest prose works on the modern style, states, that 'were only classical authorities consulted, it would hardly be supposed that even from the earliest ages any considerable variation in taste had ever prevailed.' (Essay on Design, &c., p. 27.) Speaking of the Chinese style, he says, 'little did Sir William Temple imagine, that in not much more than half a century, the Chinese would become the nominal taste of his country; or that so many adventurers in it would do great justice to his observation, and prove by their works, how difficult it is to succeed in the undertaking. Yet to this whimsical exercise of caprice, the modern improvements in gardening may chiefly be attributed.' (Essay on Design, &c., p. 50.) No man could be a more enthusiastic admirer of the classics, a wanner patriot, or a more rigid critic, than this author; and it appears from another part of his work (Discussion on Kent, p. 105.) that he was well aware, when he wrote the above passage, that the origin of the modern style was generally traced to Kent. That he should derive it from our attempt at the Chinese manner, we consider as a proof of candour and impartiality. Mason the poet states, in a note to the English Garden, that 'Bacon was the prophet, Milton the herald, of modern gardening; and Addison, Pope, and Kent, the champions of true taste.' The efficacy of Bacon's ideas, G. Mason considers to have been 'the introduction of classical landscapes,' though this does not very clearly appear from his essay, the object of which seems to be, to banish certain littlenesses and puerilities, and to create more variety, by introducing enclosures of wild scenery, as well as of cultivation. The title of champion, applied to Addison, alludes to his excellent paper in the Spectator, No. 414. 'On the causes of the pleasures of the imagination arising from the works of nature, and their superiority over those of art,' published in 1712; and when applied to Pope, it refers to his celebrated Guardian, No. 173., published the following year. B£ttinger, however, affirms that the bishop of Avranches had thrown out similar ideas previously to the appearance of the Spectator. (See Huetiana, Pensee 51. 'Beautes naturelles preferables aux beautes de l'art;' and p. 72., 'Des jardins a la mode') The Rev. Dr. Alison, author of the Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste, seems to consider the modern style as derived from our taste for the classic descriptions of the poets of antiquity. 'In this view,' (alluding to the progress of art from the expression of design to the expression of variety and natural beauty,) he observes, 'I cannot help thinking that the modern taste in gardening (or what Walpole very justly, and very emphatically, calls the art of creating landscape,) owes its origin to two circumstances, which may, at first, appear paradoxical; viz. to the accidental circumstances of our taste in natural beauty being founded upon foreign models; and to the difference or inferiority of the scenery of our own country to that which we were accustomed peculiarly to admire.' Eustace, the Italian tourist, considers Tasso's garden of Armida as more likely to have given rise to the English style than any classical work, or even the Paradise of Milton.