The Landscape Guide

Horace Walpole's essay On Modern Gardening: Sir William Temple

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

Sir William Temple

Now let us turn to an admired writer, posterior to Milton, and see how cold, how insipid, how tasteless is his account of what he pronounced a perfect garden. I speak not of his style, which it was not necessary for him to animate with the colouring and glow of poetry. It is his want of ideas, of imagination, of taste, that I censure when he dictated on a subject that is capable of all the graces that a knowledge of beautiful nature can bestow. Sir William Temple was an excellent man; Milton, a genius of the first order.

We cannot wonder that Sir William declares in favour of parterres, fountains and statues, as necessary to break the sameness of large grass-plats, which he thinks have an ill effect upon the eye, when he acknowledges that he discovers fancy in the gardens of Alcinous. Milton studied the ancients with equal enthusiasm, but no bigotry, and had judgment to distinguish between the want of invention and the beauties of poetry. Compare his Paradise with Homer's garden, both ascribed to a celestial design. For Sir William, it is just to observe that his ideas centred in a fruit-garden. He had the honour of giving to his country many delicate fruits, and he thought of little else than disposing them to the best advantage. Here is the passage I proposed to quote; it is long, but I need not make an apology to the reader for entertaining him with any other words instead of my own.

Temple's Essay

The best figure of a garden is either a square or an oblong, and either upon a flat or a descent: they have all their beauties, but the best I esteem an oblong upon a descent. The beauty, the air, the view makes amends for the expense, which is very great in finishing and supporting the terrace walks, in levelling the parterres, and in the stone stairs that are necessary from one to the other.

The perfectest figure of a garden I ever saw, either at home or abroad, was that of Moor Park in Hertfordshire, when I knew it about thirty years ago. It was made by the Countess of Bedford, esteemed among the greatest wits of her time, and celebrated by doctor Donne; and with very great care, excellent contrivance, and much cost; but greater sums may be thrown away without effect or honour, if there want sense in proportion to money, or if nature be not followed, which I take to be the great rule in this, and perhaps in everything else, as far as the conduct not only of our lives, but our governments*. [*We shall see how natural that admired garden was.]

Because I take the garden I have named to have been in all kinds the most beautiful and perfect, at least in the figure and disposition, that I have ever seen, I will describe it for a model to those that meet with such a situation, and are above the regards of common expense.* [* This garden seems to have been made after the plan laid down by Lord Bacon in his 46th essay, to which, that I may not multiply quotations, I will refer the reader.] It lies on the side of a hill, upon which the house stands, but not very steep. The length of the house, where the best rooms and of most use or pleasure are, lies upon the breadth of the garden; the great parlour opens into the middle of a terrace gravel-walk that lies even with it, and which may lie, as I remember, about three hundred paces long, and broad in proportion; the border set with standard laurels and at large distances, which have the beauty of orange-trees out of flower and fruit. From this walk are three descents by many stone steps, in the middle and at each end, into a very large parterre. This is divided into quarters by gravel-walks, and adorned with two fountains and eight statues in the several quarters. At the end of the terrace-walk are two summer-houses, and the sides of the parterre are ranged with two large cloisters open to the garden, upon arches of stone, and ending with two other summer-houses even with the cloisters, which are paved with stone, and designed for walks of shade, there being none other in the whole parterre. Over these two cloisters are two terraces covered with lead and fenced with balusters; and the passage into these airy walks is out of the two summer-houses at the end of the first terrace-walk. The cloister facing the south is covered with vines, and would have been proper for an orange-house, and the other for myrtles or other more common greens, and had, I doubt not, been cast for that purpose, if this piece of gardening had been then in as much vogue as it is now.

From the middle of this parterre is a descent by many steps flying on each side of a grotto that lies between them, covered with lead and flat, into the lower garden which is all fruit-trees ranged about the several quarters of a wilderness which is very shady; the walks here are all green, the grotto embellished with figures of shell rock-work, fountains, and water-works. If the hill had not ended with the lower garden, and the wall were not bounded by a common way that goes through the park, they might have added a third quarter of all greens; but this want is supplied by a garden on the other side of the house, which is all of that sort,. very wild, shady, and adorned with rough rock-work and fountains.

This was Moor Park, when I was acquainted with it, and the sweetest place, I think, that I have seen in my life, either before or since, at home or abroad-

I will make no farther remarks on this description. Any man might design and build as sweet a garden, who had been born in and never stirred out of Holbourn. It was not peculiar to Sir William Temple to think in that manner. How many Frenchmen are there who have seen our gardens, and still prefer natural flights of steps and shady cloisters covered with lead! Le Nôtre, the architect of the groves and grottos at Versailles, came hither on a mission to improve our taste. He planted St. James's and Greenwich parks - no great monuments to his invention.

To do further justice to Sir William Temple, I must not omit what he adds:

What I have said of the best forms of gardens, is meant only of such as are in some sort regular; for there may be other forms wholly irregular, that may, for aught I know, have more beauty than any of the others; but they must owe it to some extraordinary dispositions of nature in the seat, or some great race of fancy or judgment in the contrivance, which may reduce many disagreeing parts into some figure, which shall yet, upon the whole, be very agreeable. Something of this I have seen in some places, but heard more of it from others, who have lived much among the Chinese, a people whose way of thinking seems to lie as wide of ours in Europe, as their country does-Their greatest reach of imagination is employed in contriving figures, where the beauty shall be great and strike the eye, but without any order of disposition of parts that shall be commonly or easily observed. And though we have hardly any notion of this sort of beauty, yet they have a particular word to express it; and where they find it hit their eye at first sight, they say the Sharawadgi is fine or is admirable, or any such expression of esteem-but I should hardly advise any of these attempts in the figure of gardens among us, they are adventures of too hard achievement for any common hands; and though there may be more honour if they succeed well, yet there is more dishonour if they fail, and it is twenty to one they will; whereas in regular figures it is hard to make any great and remarkable faults.