The Landscape Guide

Horace Walpole's essay On Modern Gardening: William Kent

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

William Kent

Fortunately Kent and a few others were not quite so timid, or we might still be going up and down stairs in the open air.

It is true we have heard much lately, as Sir William Temple did, of irregularity and imitations of nature in the gardens or grounds of the Chinese. The former is certainly true; they are as whimsically irregular as European gardens are formally uniform, and unvaried- but with regard to nature, it seems as much avoided, as in the squares and oblongs and straight lines of our ancestors. An artificial perpendicular rock starting out of a flat plain, and connected with nothing, often pierced through in various places with oval hollows, has no more pretension to be deemed natural than a lineal terrace or a parterre. The late Mr. Joseph Spence, who had both taste and zeal for the present style, was so persuaded of the Chinese emperor's pleasure-ground being laid out on principles resembling ours, that he translated and published, under the name of Sir Harry Beaumont, a particular account of that enclosure from the collection of the letters of the Jesuits. I have looked it over, and except a determined irregularity, can find nothing in it that gives me any idea of attention being paid to nature. It is of vast circumference and contains two hundred palaces, besides as many contiguous for the eunuchs, all gilt, painted and varnished. There are raised hills from twenty to sixty feet high, streams and lakes, and one of the latter five miles round. These waters are passed by bridges-but even their bridges must not be straight-they serpentize as much as the rivulets, and are sometimes so long as to be furnished with resting-places, and begin and end with triumphal arches. Methinks a straight canal is as rational at least as a meandering bridge. The colonnades undulate in the same manner. In short, this pretty gaudy scene is the work of caprice and whim; and when we reflect on their buildings, presents no image but that of unsubstantial tawdriness. Nor is this all. Within this fantastic Paradise is a square town, each side a mile long. Here the eunuchs of the court, to entertain his imperial majesty with the bustle and business of the capital in which he resides, but which it is not of his dignity ever to see, act merchants and all sorts of trades. and even designedly exercise for his royal amusement every art of knavery that is practised under his auspicious government. Methinks this is the childish solace and repose of grandeur, not a retirement from affairs to the delights of rural life. Here too his majesty plays at agriculture; there is a quarter set apart for that purpose; the eunuchs sow, reap, and carry in their harvest in the imperial presence; and his majesty returns to Pekin, persuaded that he has been in the country.

The French have of late years adopted our style in gardens, but choosing to be fundamentally obliged to more remote rivals, they deny us half the merit, or rather the originality of the invention, by ascribing the discovery to the Chinese, and by calling our taste in gardening le gout Anglo-Chinois. I think I have shown that this is a blunder, and that the Chinese have passed to one extremity of absurdity as the French and all antiquity had advanced to the other, both being equally remote from nature; regular formality is the opposite point to fantastic Sharawadgis. The French, indeed, during the fashionable paroxysm of philosophy, have surpassed us, at least in meditation on the art. I have perused a grave treatise of recent date, in which the author, extending his views beyond mere luxury and amusement, has endeavoured to inspire his countrymen, even in the gratification of their expensive pleasures, with benevolent projects. He proposes to them to combine gardening with charity, and to make every step of their walks an act of generosity and a lesson of morality. Instead of adorning favourite points with a heathen temple, a Chinese pagoda. a Gothic tower, or fictitious bridge, he proposes to them at the first resting-place to erect a school; a little farther to found an academy; at a third distance, a manufacture; and at the termination of the park to endow an hospital. Thus, says he, the proprietor would be led to meditate, as he saunters, on the different stages of human life, and both his expense and thoughts would march in a progression of patriotic acts and reflections. When he was laying out so magnificent, charitable, and philosophic an Utopian villa, it would have cost no more to have added a foundling-hospital, a senate-house, and a burying-ground. If I smile at such visions, still one must be glad that in the whirl of fashions, beneficence should have its turn in vogue; and though the French treat the virtues like everything else, but as an object of mode, it is to be hoped that they too will, every now and then, come into fashion again.

The author I have been mentioning reminds me of a French gentleman, who some years ago made me a visit at Strawberry Hill. He was so complaisant as to commend the place, and to approve our taste in gardens-but in the same style of thinking with the above-cited author he said, 'I do not like your imaginary temples and fictitious terminations of views: I would have real points of view with moving objects; for instance, here I would have-(I forget what)-and there a watering-place'. 'That is not so easy,' I replied, 'one cannot oblige others to assemble at such or such a spot for one's amusement-however, I am glad you would like a watering-place, for there happens to be one; in that creek of the Thames the inhabitants of the village do actually water their horses; but I doubt whether, if it were not convenient to them to do so, they would frequent the spot only to enliven my prospect.' Such Gallo-Chinois gardens, I apprehend, will rarely be executed.