The Landscape Guide

English Garden Theory and Theorists

True, the revolt against the old style did at first get helped by the news from China; but the revolt actually started entirely from within, and that is why it is so very important. It is also a proud boast for England, much as people are nowadays disposed to look down on the whole movement. For in its true beginnings it was an intellectual movement; around its cradle stood poets, painters, philosophers, and critics. It was the first child of that new love for Nature which was setting itself in conscious opposition to barriers and forms.

The strange fact (overwhelming at a superficial glance) is that this movement occurred in the very heart of English classicism—that its leaders were the very same men who upheld and carried out the classical ideals in literature. To understand it properly one must grasp the essential character of English classicism, and realise how, for this nation, one influence never quite supplanted the other.

The rationalistic spirit of English society in that day had certainly come in contact with those rigid laws of form that ruled supreme in France; but Addison’s admiration for Boileau by no means prevented him from being the first man to gaze with enthusiasm upon the wild lawless beauty of the folk-song. And Shaftesbury was able to pass on from his optimistic theism to the deification of untouched Nature, which, he said, is in itself good, so long as no outside hand checks or destroys it. This "extravagant love" of nature he graced with the fundamental axiom, that all healthy love and admiration is Enthusiasm; and this thought leads by a logical process to his admiration of open landscape as opposed to the formal gardens of his day. No more will he resist the love of Nature, "where neither Art, nor the Conceit or Caprice of man has spoiled their genuine order, by breaking in upon that primitive state. Even the rude Rocks, the mossy Caverns, the irregular unwrought Grottoes, and broken Falls of Waters, with all the horrid Graces of the Wilderness itself, as representing Nature more, will be the mare engaging, and appear with a Magnificence beyond the formal Mockery of princely Gardens."

Here for the first time we find untouched Nature set in opposition to the formal garden. It is true that people in the seventeenth century were very well acquainted with the so-called open landscape; but it was the scenery of pastoral poetry, bound by conventions, and by tradition attached to the theatre of love-romances handed down from antiquity and the Middle Ages. This romantic landscape was best pictured as a garden, and could often take its place there without any change in sentiment; for what the hand of man did in a garden was the same as that which “ Nature with her wondrous “ had accomplished in open country. Aye, and we shall learn to prize still more the striking merit of Shaftesbury and his like-minded English friends when we see how, decades later, everywhere outside England the feeling for Nature was inspired in the main by the artistic beauties of the garden. As we have said before, one pet idea is the identification of Nature or even God with the gardener. In the same year that Shaftesbury confesses his faith, a German poetaster sings:

Willst du die Gartenlust des grossen Schöpfers schauen,
So sieh den grünen Strich, der schönsten Bäume Pracht.
Betrachte die Alleen, die bunt bemalten Auen,
Die Grotten, die Er selbst mit eigener Hand gemacht.

[Wouldst thou behold the great Creator’s joy in His garden, then look upon the stretch of green, and pride of fairest trees; gaze on the avenues, the many-coloured meadows; and look upon the grottoes that His own hand has made.]

Even travellers in foreign lands are not without their garden thoughts and fancies. In Guinea a traveller comes upon woods which, he says, “ are just as flat at the top as if they had been levelled down and ‘cut with shears.” Another traveller standing on the Brocken says, “At the top of the hill are set trees in a circle, just as if they had been carefully planted, not one of them out of the proper order.” And yet another in the Black Forest in 1760 sees everywhere in Nature a pattern for the ideal garden of that day. “ The wood,” he says, “ is incomparable; in it one can see how a forest looks if left to itself for hundreds of years. There are no imaginable beautifications, fancy clumps, avenues, arbours, that one cannot find here in their untouched beauty. I was immensely delighted with the groups of firs that grew here and there in endless variety, each tree a magnificent pyramid from its base to its lofty top.”

Shaftesbury’s words, however, were not to die away unheard in England. A few years later Addison published in The Spectator of 25 June, 1712, an essay which— following Shaftesbury—purported to explain the differences between open wild nature (the landscape) and art (the garden) in their effect on the mind. In the whole essay Addison is less extreme than Shaftesbury. Though he sees in Nature more grandeur and sublimity than art can ever attain, still he says that “ we find the works of Nature all the more agreeable, the nearer they approximate to the works of art,” and we may feel just as sure that works of art derive their chief merit from a similarity to Nature. Addison in this his first thesis is quite on the side of Nature in combination with art, and he is able so to draw together his art and his nature that he can take the combination of the two as a ground for his campaign against the British garden, which, instead of helping Nature, has done everything it can, he says, to banish her altogether. He complains that the “ trees are made to look like ninepins, like spheres, or like pyramids: we find the trace of the scissors on every bush and on every plant.”

Addison travelled a great deal on the Continent. Italian gardens were often greatly neglected at that time, but this very fact gave the tall southern vegetation such a luxuriance that an eye wearied with the stiff formalities of well-kept northern gardens could only rejoice therein. Moreover, England had never seen much of the working of French art, and the Dutch soberness, prettiness, and actual limitations (partly perhaps because of the alliance between the two nations) were very much in favour. Addison set Italian and French gardens against English; in them he found something more worthy. Travellers’ tales declared that the Chinese laugh at the plantations of our Europeans, which are laid out by the rule and line; because, they say, anyone may place trees in equal rows and uniform figures. They choose rather to discover the genius in trees and in Nature, and therefore always conceal their Art.

In spite of this notion, however, Addison was far from understanding the real nature of Chinese gardening art, for in a second essay, published a couple of months later in The Spectator, he shows what his ideal really is. A foreigner, he says, who had lost his way here, would fancy he was in a natural wilderness, a medley of kitchen-garden and parterre, of fruit-trees and flowers—the flowers growing in all sorts of places. So little does the owner value these flowers on account of their rarity, that he often likes to bring wild flowers home and plant them in his garden; and he feels it is delightful not to know, when he is taking a walk, whether the next tree he comes to will be an apple, an oak, an elm, or a pear; and he has carefully guided the little wandering stream so that it runs exactly as it would in a field between “ banks of violets and primroses, plats of willow or other plant.”

Addison had exclaimed at the end of his first essay:

I do not know whether I am singular in my opinion, but for my own part, I would rather look upon a tree in all its abundance and diffusions of boughs and branches, than when it is cut and trimmed into a mathematical figure; and cannot but fancy that an orchard in flower looks infinitely more delightful than all the little labyrinths of the most finished parterre.

Addison well knew that he would not long be alone in his ideas, though he might be the earliest to Venture to stir public opinion by his writings, and later to dominate it.

The first man who came to his aid was Pope. He too adopted Shaftesbury’s thoughts, and Addison’s also in a modified form: “ I believe it to be a true observation, that men of Genius, the most gifted artists, love Nature the most; for they feel very strongly, that all Art is really nothing else than an imitation of Nature.”

Here again we have a sort of solution of the problem of Romance, Genius, and Nature, attempted by a classicist. Indeed the import of these words must have been something new, as they gave a fresh impulse even to poetry. Pope, however, went in search of Nature chiefly because of his opposition to the tricks of art. He pours out his witty sarcasms upon the “ garden tailor “ who compels tree and bush to take the shapes of beasts and men. He tells of a certain cook, who decorated his country place with a coronation feast spread over the grass; and adds a most amusing catalogue of his stock of wares. Among others he finds recommended the following:

Adam and Eve in yew, Adam a little shattered by the fall of the tree of Knowledge in the great storm; Eve and the serpent very flourishing; St. George in box, his arm scarce long enough, but will be in condition to stick the Dragon by next April; a green Dragon for the same, with a tail of ground ivy for the present. (N.B. These two not to be sold separately.) Divers eminent poets in bays, somewhat blighted, to be disposed of a pennyworth. A quick-set sow, shot up into a porcupine, by its being forgot in rainy weather. 

Pope was determined, however, to effect more than mere jesting. He wanted to give an example; and when a few years later (1719) he moved into his villa at Twickenham on the Thames, he resolved to copy “ Nature unadorned “ in his own garden. Now although the Muses’ seat is often to the fore in his letters and his poems, the whole place was much too small to exhibit more than a negation of the old style: no more clipping of trees, no more symmetry, that was the first command, and Pope proudly declared that two weeping willows beside the house, with a lawn in front leading down to the river, were the finest in the kingdom. His favourite of all was the grotto so often mentioned, a kind of subterranean tunnel leading from the front garden under the main road to the back garden. With touching childlike enjoyment the poet toils during the summer months at this darling work; his friends send him specimens of rare minerals for the walls and ceiling; he cannot find words enough to praise the many light-effects and river-views. The descriptions he gives his friends sound like the scenery in a fairy-tale, and yet it was only a grotto such as you could see in endless variety in all the earlier gardens.

Pope’s gardener kept a picture of the place, grotto and all, just as it was when the master died. At the garden entrance to the grotto there are stones heaped up to imitate an ancient ruin. Very likely Pope with his sense of humour would have laughed at this some other time, just as he made merry over the minuteness of his garden, saying that “ when Nebuchadnezzar was turned into an ox he could have finished the grass in one day.” Certainly Pope was no practical genius, and Twickenham is only interesting as a first experiment, begun at a time when people, in spite of their appreciation of the ideas of the protagonists of the new style, could not for some decades venture to desert the old, because of the lack of examples to follow.

England also had her transition period; but whereas other countries clung to the ground-plan of the old gardens and only yielded concessions within its borders, in England the new ideas made a curious but more important attack upon the ground-plan, while the details remained much the same for a long period, again because there were no patterns to copy. In a description of the garden at Stowe in 1724, which was much admired by Pope, we are told: “ Nothing is more irregular in the whole, nothing more regular in the parts, which totally differ the one from the other,” and finally: “What adds to the beauty of this garden is, that it is not bounded by walls, but by a Ha-ha, which leaves you the sight of a beautiful woody country, and makes you ignorant how far the high-planted walks extend.”

This new method of enclosure was due to the landscape gardener Bridgeman, who designed Stowe: it was simply a ditch which one could not see till one was quite close to it. The popular but erroneous explanation is that the name Ha-ha was given owing to an exclamation of surprise by a visitor. Sometimes there was a hedge sunk in a trench, which answered the same purpose of concealing the boundary between garden and open country.

Horace Walpole, who half a century later wrote the history of the great revolution in the garden, saw rightly in this invention a leading factor towards the victory of the new movement. The walls of an architectural garden had been its peculiar characteristic support; they shut it out from the surrounding country, so that it was alone and free in a world of its own; in French gardens also this was a leading principle, so highly esteemed was a fine prospect seen from the end of an avenue. But now it came about that there was no border-line before the eye, and the garden was just a foreground for the wide landscape beyond. 

England had discovered by way of poetry, so to speak, the northern lands that were her home. By the second half of the seventeenth century there was already a species of poetry which later on Dr. Johnson called “local.” This was descriptive verse, which aimed at inspiring the reader with love for an individual landscape locally limited: Wailer, Denham, and Cowley had made such attempts before Pope wrote his Windsor Forest in 1712. Although they show very little of the "Romantic" feeling for nature, the writers know how to observe, and to depict, the characteristic features of a given landscape. In Thomson’s Seasons we have a giant’s stride in the same direction.

These poems were received with enthusiasm, which proves that the Scotsman Thomson was not the only man who went for walks, and with open eyes enjoyed the beauties of nature. He is sensitive to the peculiar northern character, and it is no doubt typical that he begins with Winter, a season which only in the North can express its whole strength and beauty. Englishmen had before now been lovers of long walks, and this was why at the end of the seventeenth century the garden paths were laid specially with a view to this fancy for walking about, and it is worth noticing that the garden itself was intended and designed to be a place for walks : now, however, when the boundaries had gone that cut it off from the surrounding country, people felt with increasing impatience the contrast between the artificial “ artistry “ inside and the natural landscape. There they saw meadows enclosed by bushes following the natural curves of river and brook, or the magnificently grown single trees, or again a picturesque group, and on these they gazed with happy eyes and loving hearts. Pope, who was always ready to do battle for the new creed, gave expression to the feeling of oppressiveness associated with the enclosed garden in his epistle to Lord Burlington (1730), in which he lashes at “ Timon’s Villa,” the showy, tasteless, conventionally regular garden, in lines that soon, like winged words, were in the mouths of all men:

On every side you look, behold the wall.
Grove nods on grove, each alley has a brother,
And half the platform just reflects the other.
The suffering eye inverted nature sees,
Trees cut to statues, statues thick as trees. . .
Here Amphitrite strays through myrtle bowers,
There gladiators fight or die in flowers,

And elsewhere he says that all the rules of the art may be reduced to three, viz. Contrast ( including picturesque effects of light and shade), Surprise, and Concealment of Boundary.

Lord Burlington, perhaps moved by the sarcasms of Pope, was one of the first to make all sorts of experiments in his own garden; and these are evidence of the unsettled state of things. The plan (Fig. 580) shows, as Stowe showed, no regularity of outlines, but it fails to avoid in its details the crazy serpentine twists and turns. 
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It was out of the enemy camp that auxiliary troops had to come, to straighten the wavy lines and to furnish a model.

A little later (1732) Joseph Spence began his Polymetis, an attempt to remove the barriers between the arts, especially emphasising the close connection between painting and poetry. Spence was an enthusiastic gardener himself, spending all his spare time in the garden, where he was actually working at the time of his sudden death. To him horticulture seemed a natural branch of painting, and thus the garden artist was a garden poet as well.

The ever-increasing dislike which was felt by men of that time for regular forms, and still more for symmetry, is singularly marked in art criticism, which makes use of the dogmas that were fashionable, and declares war on regularity of every kind. In 1745 Hogarth drew (on the palette he is holding in a portrait of himself) an undulating line, which later in his theoretical work, The Analysis of Beauty, became the famous “ Line of Beauty.” Hogarth tried to prove that beauty is not a je ne sais quoi, but a clear and positive quality in things. The formula for the highest beauty is a waving line, which at no two points is the same; it shows the utmost variety, and has an advantage over the line of the circle, in that it stimulates the imagination by disappearing from sight and again reappearing.

Edmund Burke soon took up this idea of Hogarth’s, and whereas Hogarth had only refused to accept the earlier view that regularity and symmetry were in the essence of beauty, Burke declared war on symmetry altogether, which no more than regularity had any relation to beauty as such. They are not to be found in nature; it is only man who has had the unlucky inclination to confine his view within them. The best example Burke can find is the old style of horticulture.

Having observed that their dwellings were most commodious and firm when they were thrown into regular figures, with parts answerable to each other, they transferred these ideas to their gardens; they turned their trees into pillars, pyramids, and obelisks; they formed their hedges into so many green walls, and fashioned their walks into squares, triangles, and other mathematical figures, with exactness and symmetry; and they thought if they were not imitating, they were at least improving nature, and teaching her to know her business. But nature has at last escaped from their discipline and their fetters; and our gardens, if nothing else, declare, we begin to feel, that mathematical ideas are not the true measures of beauty.

In place of incongruities like these, Burke holds that smoothness is the determining character of beauty—so much so that he knows of nothing beautiful that is not also smooth. Burke did not appeal in vain to horticulture, which from this school of thought was to encounter an influence by which it was stimulated at first, but alas, too soon devitalised.