The Landscape Guide

Horace Walpole's essay On Modern Gardening: Introduction

Introduction Ancient gardens Roman gardens Renaissance gardens John Milton Sir William Temple William Kent Early 18th century gardens Thomas Whately Landscape Gardens Lancelot 'Capability' Brown

The essay was first published in Walpole, H., Anecdotes of painting in England Volume 4 (1780) but was written some years earlier. This hypertext version of Horace Walpole's essay was edited by Tom Turner (© ). It has sub-headings, links and modernized spelling. The sub-headings use current terms (eg 'renaissance') which were not used by Horace Walpole.

By a mile, this is the most brilliant and most influential essay ever written on English garden history. For two centuries it mapped the whole landscape of the subject. But the essay is profoundly misleading, with its last words being the most misleading: 'With pleasure therefore I resign my pen; presuming to recommend nothing to my successor, but to observe as strict impartiality'.

Horace Walpole was partial in the highest degree. As the son of England's first Whig prime minister (Sir Robert Walpole) it would be surprising if he were otherwise. The essay's title gives the first clue: Horace Walpole believed in progress, in modernization and the superiority of everything English to almost everything that had gone before. He had a special dislike of Baroque gardens, as exemplified by Versailles, which for him symbolized absolutism, tyranny and the oppression of 'nature'. As discussed in the accompanying history of Garden Design in the British Isles History and styles since 1650, the gardens which Walpole criticized have an equal but different claim to be based on 'nature'.

John Dixon Hunt [in Hunt, J.D., Greater Perfection: the practice of garden theory (Thames & Hudson 2000)] blames Horace Walpole for disrupting the history and theory of both garden design and the landscape architecture:

  • The subject of landscape architecture has no clear intellectual tradition of its own, either as a history, a theory, or even a practice' (page 6)
  • ‘... though much has been written about the garden, none of it satisfies even the basic requirements of a theoretical position’ (page 7);
  • ‘Landscape architecture is a fundamental mode of human expression and experience.’ (page 8)
  • '... only dance and body painting otherwise come to mind as arts that actively involve a living, organic, and changing component'. (page 9)
  • 'The most sophisticated form of landscape architecture is garden art'. (page 10)
  • 'Gardens focus the art of place-making or landscape architecture in the way that poetry can focus the art of writing' (page 11)
  • ‘... the point is that landscape architecture, locked into a false historiography, is unable to understand the principles of its own practice as an art of place-making’. (page 207)
  • 'Walpole's achievement has to be saluted all the more when it is realized that single-handedly he determined (or distorted) the writing of landscape architecture history to this day' (page 208)
  • 'The crucial moment of modernism occurred not circa 1900 but rather one hundred years earlier... The failure to identify and understand that watershed contributed substantially to the historical and theoretical inadequacies of those who prompted modernist landscape architecture'. [This quote comes from Hunt's 1992 book Gardens and the Picturesque: Studies in the History of Landscape Architecture.]