The Landscape Guide

The Picturesque Garden

The dispute between Chambers and Mason was acute when, in 1794, an essay by Sir Uvedale Price appeared, On the Picturesque as compared with the Sublime and Beautiful, followed by a Dialogue on the distinct Characters of the Picturesque and the Beautiful. The former was specially directed against Burke to whom in chief is ascribed the folly which is known as “improvement”; for it was he who so seductively put forward smoothness and perpetual change as the attributes of beauty. Brown was no better with his monotonous cry of clumps, belts, and artificial lakes. So Price now turns seriously to the idea of copying painters like Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa. Every feature of Claude’s work he would have repeated in the garden, especially his vague and partial concealment of the chief objects, buildings, and the varied arrangement of water, saying that for the sake of contrast not only may wild things but even ugly things be brought into the picture. His friend Richard Payne Knight, to whom he confided his plans, resolved to help him with a poem.

Practical men like Humphry Repton, then a busy garden architect, answered these attacks. Without extolling or defending the poverty of many of the new pleasure-grounds, he was the first man to free himself from the exaggerated idea of a similarity between painting and landscape gardening. He laid his finger on the difference between them, caused by the constant alteration in the spectator’s point of view, and by the changes of light in a garden. To his mind what is much more to the point is concord between the architect and the gardener, for a house is presupposed for every garden.

There is no doubt that in the last years of the eighteenth century Repton exercised a most important influence in England. He was unwearied in his study of the essential nature of a given landscape, so that he might suit his improvements to the particular place. In his numerous books he appealed to the eye, schoolmaster fashion, for he first gave a picture of nature unadorned or of an old garden, and then another picture of his improvements drawn on the same scale. He used what he called his “red books” for all his creations, and later on published a collection of them.

While these quarrels were agitating people in England, the whole movement had overflowed its banks. In France the “Anglo-Chinese Garden” was only one of the causes why the new style won the. day. Far mightier, because its workings lay deeper, was the influence of Rousseau, who by his gospel of the sacredness of Nature in her purest, most abstract form, had expressed the feeling of England. The famous garden, to which Julie in the Nouvelle Hélolse takes her future lover Saint-Preux, is a wilderness, wherein, by means of the highest art, all human work and every trace of it is concealed. The flowers grow as though in their natural home in the meadow, or beside the edge of a brook that meanders along or falls foaming over the stones. The winding unconfined paths are shaded with climbing plants; the birds are not prisoners, but are tempted thither by food and by bird-houses; and there they build their nests, singing their songs to the delight of every Visitor.

Addison had already asked for these things in his “ wilderness,” and Rousseau’s picture is no doubt partly indebted to him, Rousseau was forced, out of consistency, to turn away from the Chinese garden; for if one were endeavouring with every art to conceal art—a condition which he thinks essential to good taste—there would be far too many costly objects in a Chinese garden to produce a natural effect, Rousseau will tolerate no building at all in his nature garden, nothing shall betray the hand of man, But though his attitude aroused deep interest, his demand could not be complied with in practice.

Far more widespread was the feeling mentioned by William Shenstone, that no country scene can be thought of without some building. Moreover, the park which Rousseau's friend and last patron, the Marquis de Girardin, laid out at Ermenonville, though it was to have been made exactly after Rousseau’s ideas—one of the scenes in the park shows Julie’s famous Elysium at Clarens—was not without buildings. There was even a temple sacred to the philosophers, and in the wilderness which professes to be a copy of Saint-Preux’s place at Meillerie, there is a little hut perched on the top of a high rock with a lovely lake at its foot, Inscribed on the rocks every here and there one finds the names of the lovers. 

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Farther on is the tower of the fair Gabrielle (Fig. 586), the beloved of Henry IV., in the depths of the wood, “quite in the old taste, a little winding stairway leading to different rooms. . . The walks in this garden are not only charming to the eye but also to the ear. For the marquis entertained a number of clever musicians, who might be heard sometimes on the banks of the lake, sometimes actually on the water, either performing alone or in concert.” But the crowning glory of the place was the tomb of Rousseau, a sarcophagus enclosed with poplars, rising on an island of the lake. And the thought, “ Here lies Rousseau,” is all we need to complete the touching loveliness of the scene (Fig. 587).

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Hirschfeld, who repeats Girardin’s own description of this park, gives in “this perfect example of improved Nature” the picture of a real masterpiece of the sentimental park of the period.

Another French park, which won an even greater reputation, was that laid out by Louis Philippe’s father, Philippe of Orleans, at that time Duke of Chartres, about the year 1780. The “Parc Monceau” (Fig. 588) gets its name from a little village south of Paris. Carmontelle, who was an artist, designed the plan. 

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The chief pavilion, where the duke held gay festivities and also open-air assemblies, is surrounded by a tract of land with parterre and plantation. The ground itself was cleverly made undulating, and the picturesque park exemplified all the variety that the age demanded: close beside country-like meadows, vineyards and brooks, stood kiosks and spiral hills, and side by side with Gothic ruins was the marvellous affair in the north-west corner, the “ Naumachia.” This was a large oval marble tank with Greek ruins round it in artistic confusion (Fig. 589), and it was dominated by a lofty column.

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The most noteworthy feature is the colour-garden, a round space enclosed by small regularly laid-out flower-gardens-blue, red, and yellow patches right in the middle of the park.

It need not be repeated here that it was not the sentimental park which created the love of separate little erections, nor did it particularly encourage this love, since an outspoken hostile opinion was constantly reasserting itself; but the meaning of this particular adornment, which had been adopted from the old style, became a completely different thing under the new regime. In the old style the erections were no more nor less than rendezvous, or shelters against sun or bad weather, but now it was not the visitor, it was the spectator, whose interests had to be considered. The building had become an accessory to the landscape, a principal factor for bringing about a desired Mood, which the picture had to express. The Mood, or frame of mind, gave to life at that time its interest and charm; it was the leading feature of sentimentalism, a peculiar mixture of reason and feeling.

From the union of Rationalism and Emotionalism there had naturally sprung Sentimentality. Every impression was to be clothed in feeling, but man must always have an explanation and a sort of justification of the feeling, and this was most easily to be found in the so-called “animated nature” form. It was understood by people of the late eighteenth century that they must feel melancholy at the sight of a ruin, that a hermit’s retreat incite. But true Sentimentality will have nothing to do with effects such as this, and it is interesting to see the two parallel streams that never meet and blend.

Lord Home is perhaps the first writer to accentuate Feeling strongly. The garden as a work of art excites in him sentiments of greatness, charm, mirth, melancholy, wildness, even surprise and wonder. In order to keep each of these feelings clear and strong, he desires that scenes which are next to one another shall be different in kind; and it is a good plan to mix rough uncultivated places with wide open views : these are not attractive in themselves, but in the long run they increase the sentimental charm. And so he excuses Kent for introducing here and there into a landscape withered trees or broken trunks— a plan that the other side repudiated with scorn.

But Home also requires Simplicity as the leading principle of garden art, saying that only an artist who had no genius at all could be inclined to put up triumphal arches in his garden, or Chinese houses, temples, obelisks, cascades, and endless fountains.

One cannot urge against those who were endeavouring to guide with their pens the art of gardening, that they encouraged the fast-growing inclination to overload the park with buildings. They almost all fought against it; and so did Horace Walpole, who, when approaching his seventieth year, in his elegant Essay on Modern Gardening, treated the subject historically, and opposed the excessive decoration of Chinese gardens, which to him seemed quite as unnatural as the decorated formality of the old style. Walpole had long postponed the publication of his essay, and it appeared first in 1785 both in French and in English, dated from his house, Strawberry Hill. Walpole was very proud of the first Gothic erection which he built at Strawberry Hill—in the “ pure style,” as he hoped; we must say, however, that it was only in connection with pseudo-Gothic, and not pure Gothic, that he exercised his real influence on the development of the new style in England. In the matter of taste there is no doubt that Walpole was one of the most influential men of his age. His essay, which had remained for more than ten years in manuscript, had a great effect, and especially in France, for it showed much enthusiasm and learning.