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13.2 Decay of Landscape Theory

13.2 Decay of Landscape Theory

While not disagreeing with Hunt, I believe his analysis to be over-sophisticated and unbalanced in its emphasis on the role of landscape design as a fine art. Pure works of art do not have functions. Landscape designs, generally, do have functions, while they may also be works of art and significant interventions in the environment. It is easy to confuse these roles. Having spent much time working in design studios, I am very conscious of the dilemma in which designers without a workable theory are likely to find themselves. The journeyman designer is often, as Christopher Hussey wrote of Lancelot Brown, a practical man in the grip of a theory (Hussey, 1967). Good theories may lead to good designs. Bad theories are a regular cause of bad designs. "What to do' and "how to do it' are the chief problems for landscape theory.

Stylistically, the landscape designer's nineteenth century dilemma may be likened to that of a young artist commissioned by a great nobleman to undertake a painting of his ancestral home in a far-away country. After an arduous journey and many perils, he arrives on site to find his patron's mansion decayed and overgrown. The artist has several choices: a painting of scrubby vegetation enlivened by fragments of fallen masonry; a swindling copy of another property; a reconstruction of the original property made without understanding the details or principles of its composition. After the crisis of circa 1800, each of these alternatives was attempted in those Western countries that came under the influence of the English landscape movement, which means all Western countries

English landscape design developed within the Ideal Theory of Art. This derived from Aristotle's interpretation of Plato's Theory of Ideas. Everyday objects were seen as imperfect copies of universal Ideas, and the artist's job was to get as close as possible to the ideal. When an artist, Croton, was commissioned to produce a painting of Helen, he held an inspection of naked maidens, chose five of them and selected the most admirable points from each, to compose an ideal. Bellori, in 1664, conceived the true artist as a seer who gazes upon eternal verities and reveals them to mortals. Poussin and Claude applied this principle to landscape painting, seeking to represent ideal places. Reynolds, in his Discourses, argued that the artist's goal is to imitate nature. By nature, he meant universal nature: "to paint particulars is not to paint nature, it is only to paint circumstances'. Painting ideal nature would, be believed, would bring about moral improvements in the viewer.