The Landscape Guide

English Landscape Garden Designers

William Kent  Lancelot Capability Brown  William Shenstone

In consequence of all these theories and tendencies of the age, the Landscape Garden came into being. The first man who in practice attempted to “ pluck the ripe fruit " was William Kent; and little as he was able to accomplish in this form of art, he saw how to imitate those models which were required by the new style, if it was to be freed from its fetters by landscape gardening. England, to be sure, was by no means opposed to the imitation in pictures of the kind of landscape that the poets had revealed; but the Continent was well ahead with its great landscape painters: Claude Lorraine, Salvator Rosa and Poussin for the South; Everdingen, Ruysdael, and other Netherlanders for the North, though the English were beginning to study the work of these men with enthusiasm. If at first Claude and Poussin were preferred to the Northerners, it was because their fine, well-kept, formal landscapes were more suited to the sentiment of an age which approved Addison’s dictum, that Nature was at her happiest when she came nearest to Art.

Kent himself, who was only a coach-painter before his patron, the Earl of Burlington, noticed him and sent him to Italy, learned in the South, if not actually to paint pictures, at any rate to see things, and compare them. It occurred to him, as it had done before to Addison, that the style of Italian gardens was not nearly so out of character with the landscape as was that of the North. He saw how the painters of the South had often taken an actual garden as subject for a picture because they admired it; and the merit of Kent is that he did not, full of this idea, rush on to a further imitation of the same things; but when, after his return, he had acquired an authoritative position in matters of taste, he was the first man to lay out a garden in an unfettered artistic manner, taking his ideas from the surrounding landscape. His motto was, “Nature abhors straight lines.” It is easy to see how hereby he was making war on the old style, not only in regard to the ground-plan but in every detail. Straight paths were to be carefully avoided, all water-works, even fountains, were tabooed; only a lake with irregular banks, or a river that flowed like a snake through the grounds, might remain. The artist’s scheme of light and shade was expressed in trees and bushes: they were allowed to grow freely, but were planted according to Pope’s rule of contrast, and gardens were like pictures in this respect also, that perspective had to be taken into account, so that one way led on to a second view, or even to a third. The lawn, which always played an important part in the English garden, often spreading out close in front of the windows of the house in a square of dark green with no path through it, is required by Bacon and even by the theorists of the early eighteenth century to serve as a carpet contrasting in colour with groups of bushes and trees.

Contemporary with Kent and living after him was another garden artist, Lancelot Brown—a great name in the middle years of the century. Brown was inspired with a veritable passion for rooting out the “ unnatural bad taste “ of the old style, which in the previous forty years had captivated a people so very conservative and sedate. The old pretty gardens, whose features are preserved in the collections of Kip, Atkyns, and others, were in the next thirty or forty years completely transformed; and to-day it is all but impossible to find any trace of them, especially in the Midlands and the South. Brown was the original advocate of Hogarth’s wavy “ line of beauty,” which he must have in every part of the garden. Even the ground must have its gently-waving contours; terraces are abolished as unnatural. The paths leading to special views are real examples of the line of beauty. In particular, the path which went right round the whole park and was spoken of as “ The Belt,” was meant to give to the estate an effect of greater size because of its countless windings.

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The laying-out of the later gardens at Stowe (Fig. 581), chiefly the work of Brown, is a masterpiece of this kind. But his chief strength was in the water plans: he was the first to give movement to a lake (later this was greatly exaggerated) by cutting up its banks into creeks and curves; rivers he treated in the same way. Once Brown was so enchanted with his river banks, which he thought surpassed the Thames in beauty, that he is said to have exclaimed, “ Oh Thames, Thames, never will you forgive me.” Certain scoffers nicknamed him “Capability Brown,” because he was for ever talking about the “capabilities” of his garden grounds; but his vanity seems to have taken kindly to the epithet.

Flowers found no place to speak of in this type of pleasure-ground, especially in the earlier days. They took their place in the background, as they had done before in England, i.e. in the kitchen-gardens, which, in spite of the mania for destruction, had been allowed to keep to their own enclosures, with high brick walls round the regular beds. And so we still find them.

In such a state of things the boundary-lines between the pleasure-grounds and the open park-lands tended to disappear. The garden writers and critics have, it is true, spoken of an ornamental plot close beside the house; but as there were no barriers, and a change was bound to come, though gradually, gardens of this type were felt to be less permanent and therefore less attractive.

On the other hand, in this style of garden the individual tree found for the first time its proper place and full development. It is well worth noticing how, simultaneously with the advance of the artistic school, there was a sudden and steady influx of different sorts of American wood. Botanical science did not as yet exercise a directing influence, and it was not till the nineteenth century that it became a real guide. But the acclimatisation of these foreign shrubs and trees, with their beautiful foliage, their noble growth, their elaborate ramification, was an immediate consequence of the change in fashion, as is shown by their universal popularity. This acclimatisation was confined to England until the middle of the century, and then, when the picturesque style reached the Continent, acclimatisation suddenly made its appearance there also.

In the course of the eighteenth century the English garden took on still more the character which we now call park-like. The so-called “ enclosures,” fenced-in fields and meadow-land, which had been little by little reclaimed from common land and had become private property, were for the most part separated from their neighbours by hedges and ditches: instead of very small enclosed bits of woodland, trees were planted as landmarks, standing separately, but growing well in the moist climate. True, during the whole of the eighteenth century, the English were a farming folk, but the individual farms were mostly small ones, with a few fields. Because of the closer a whole property, an estate, and of subjecting it to the rules of a regular garden scheme, yet without making any sacrifice of its usefulness.

At this stage of English landscape gardening the poet William Shenstone played an important part. In the year 1745 he laid out his paternal estate, The Leasowes—the name means pasture-land—in the new style. Dr. Johnson calls this the life-work of Shenstone, a poet who was a forerunner of the Romantic movement. Shenstone at once began, says Dr. Johnson, “ to point his prospects, to diversify his surface, to entangle his walks, and to wind his waters; which he did with such judgment and such fancy as made his little domain the envy of the great and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers.”

There is hardly any garden tract (for so we have to call the place) of which we have such full descriptions as of The Leasowes. The poet, who invested the greater part of his fortune in this place, discusses the principles of his art in an essay called Random Thoughts on the Art of Gardening, only published after his death in 1764. Shenstone seems to have been the first person to use the term “ landscape-gardener,” and he certainly expressed hereby a close relationship with the artist. “ I have used the term ‘landscape gardener,” he says, “ because in accordance with our present-day taste, every good landscape painter is the proper designer of gardens.” If we put this beside Shenstone’s other dictum, “ Man must never venture to tread in Nature’s domain,” and add to that the words of the German writer Hirschfeld, “ The garden artist works at his best when he discards all that the architect reveres,” we shall see how utterly opposed are the ideals of the picturesque garden and the architectural.

The importance of The Leasowes lies in the fact that here Shenstone has materialised the idea that “ the garden is no longer limited to the place from which it takes its name, but makes subject to its own laws both the laying-out of a place and the embellishment of the park, the farm, and the cart-track.” The descriptions take us by dark woody valleys to open heights with lovely views, over pastures and cornfields to a hidden boat-house and rushing waterfall, or by the winding banks of lake or river. Close beside the dwelling- house are these scenes with contrast and change as their leading motives.

Thomas Whately, one of the chief critics, blames the farm for venturing so close to the house, because the landlords have to be too near to the tenants. But he admires greatly the invention of the so-called “ ornamented farm,” which beautifies even the fields devoted to kitchen produce with the gay attire of the garden. He gives a description of Woburn Farm in Surrey: everywhere there are seats to be found on the walks, and buildings of many kinds; round the cornfields there are rose hedges, with little clumps of all sorts of flowers at the corners. And though the different parts are so gay and garden-like, they are all open for farm use: the cattle are grazing, the sheep are bleating, the fields are tilled and the crops harvested. With some hesitation Whately has to admit that with all this beauty and charm the simple country-like character of the farm is lost.

The English of those days were well aware that for the first time they had done something original in the province of gardening, and had also advanced in the art of painting.

The writer Henry Home, Lord Kames, says that his countrymen “ are still far from perfection in the fine arts, but are on the right way, though making very slow progress except in gardening.” Whately ascribes a wonderful importance to gardening among the pictorial arts, and even sets it above painting in so far as he rates all reality higher than imitation.

The poet Gray writes:

The only proof of our original talent in matter of pleasure is our skill in gardening and the laying-out of grounds. And this is no small honour to us, since neither Italy nor France has ever had the least notion of it, nor yet do the least comprehend it when they see it. It is very certain, we copied nothing from them, nor had anything but nature for our model. [It is not forty years since] the art was born among us; and it is sure that there was nothing in Europe like it, and as sure, we then had no information on this head from China at all.

The history of the movement, as we have already seen, fully justifies these words of Gray. It was the offspring of the sentiment of the earlier half of the eighteenth century, and England was fully alive to its existence before Père Attiret sent his report to France in 1747, with the description of Yuen-ming-yuen, the Chinese emperor’s marvellous pleasure-castle. The fashion for China, with its various effects on the art of the eighteenth century, was perhaps less marked in England than in other countries, but in garden art it is clearly traceable. From Sir William Temple we discover that the news about the unsymmetrical gardens of China had not escaped notice; but when Addison enlists this vague information as an auxiliary force in his campaign against the old style, it is not with the desire to imitate China. So also in the descriptions of the transition style, as seen in the early gardens of Kent and Brown, there is no mention of Chinese pavilions, though there is a great deal said about other kinds of summer-houses. If therefore after the middle of the century the cry is everywhere heard, “the English-Chinese garden,” this must needs be explained by what happened in France.