Stowe

Through the archway and up the long driveway over the picturesque bridge past  adverts for Virgin F1, we are stopped at the guardhouse, the sound of the cars roaring round Silverstone, the garden is empty, its columns and obelisks at ninety degrees to Concordia, the house closed for old boy Richard Branson.

The British idea of nature, once the upper classes had lost touch with the land  became informed by art and English landscape gardening, particularly Stowe. Charles Bridgeman designed the famous garden (1713) at a time formal continental styles were gong out of fashion. William Kent later embellished the “poetic” garden with the Temple of British Worthies filled with busts of heroes from Francis Bacon to Shakespeare. Capability Brown’s artful naturalism followed Kent, though his gently sloping Grecian Valley took two years of shifting earth.

Untamed English gardens became associated with political freedom and in the case of Stowe overt Whig political meaning. George Monbiot was a pupil there and reminds us a village was removed: “Kent and Brown constructed a paradise, in fact part of the grounds are called ‘The Elysian Fields’, but their classical wilderness was an artefact of social cleansing.” (‘Gardens of Eden’, ABC RN, 14.09.2003)

William Gilpin conceived Picturesque while visiting Stowe in the 1740s. This fashion enticed people out into the countryside to see landscape as a sequence of changing vistas as if viewing paintings by Claude Lorrain. Emphasis on the eye and the mind alienates unique ecologies.

In medieval England much arable land consisted of open fields, landowners and tenants lay mingled in tiny strips, regulated by village communities. Large areas of heaths, moors and greens were grazed in common by animals of the community. The eighteenth-century English picturesque view and development of the English landscape style was a product of agricultural rationalisation and capital investment.

So the fields I grew up with, the intimate landscape are in fact a lot less intimate than they were.  When the poet John Clare was 16, Parliament passed the Enclosures Act. His village of Helpston and neighbouring parishes were enclosed by landowners, larhe areas fenced off, woods and hedgerows removed. E.P. Thompson comments that Clare: “conveys with extraordinary sensitivity the ways in which the psychic landscape of the villager was savagely transformed by the enclosure of the commons and open fields.”[i]



[i] E.P. Thompson, ‘Bicentenary Thoughts’, John Clare Society Journal, 12, 1993, p31.