The evolution of an English Baroque garden to a pioneering landscape park in Buckinghamshire
Landscape was beginning to be established in England in 1640s as a separate branch of painting; it is a distancing concept that tames wilderness through perspective and privileges art over nature. (Wilderness was rarely appreciated until the Romantics, despite the poet James Thomson’s claims.) The notion of nature itself was a mix of ideas and experiences of landscape, gardening, painting, poetry and travel. Idealised versions of arcadia were translated into England through landscape gardening, transferred from the paintings of Claude, Poussin and Rosa, and encouraged by nationalism and the patronage of landed gentry. By the 1700s, Lorrain, Rosa and Poussin were widely known in Britain through their prints.
Italian Renaissance gardens employed a variety of landscape features, mixing formal with the informal and the boschetti (wild woods). The dominant force in European landscape design was Andre Le Notre, chief garden designer for Louis XIV at Versaille who used geometrical order and bi-lateral symmetry. The most popular garden designs of the seventeenth and early eighteenth century were the French, Italian, and Dutch formal gardens executed to exhibit bilateral symmetry. However, Joseph Addison returned from a visit to Italy (1701-3) declaring that Italian gardens were old hat and that the natural landscape of the Campagna as ‘worked upon’ by painters like Claude, should be echoed in English Gardens. This is the genealogy of Stourhead via Stowe.
William Kent was an artist, a landscape painter travelled for ten years in Italy, returned as interior designer then turned to architecture. He found Claude a revelation. We think of Claude as ethereal landscape grandeur, yet his attention to nature is so very different in his vivid sketch books of the Compagna, and a contemporary commented on the naturalism of his early frescoes at the Cavalier Mutio in Rome: “Each tree can very well be recognised according to its special characteristics in trunk, foliage, and colouring, all as they rustled and moved in the wind.” (quoted by Virgilio Vecelloni).
Kent and Charles Bridgeman worked on Lord Cobham’s park at Stowe until about 1720. Bridgman was the most fashionable garden designer in England at a time when French formal gardens were being dug up. In 1739, the year Bridgeman died Sarah his daughter described his work in ‘A General Plan of the Woods, Park and Gardens of Stowe’ – it showed the development of a garden of complexities, the destruction of formal style, though the 17thC weaving of walks were kept. And it interlaced cultural history with nature. Capability Brown was Kent’s pupil and head gardener at Stowe for ten years, improving notably by an immense sweep of turf, trees and antique columns called the Grecian Valley (24,000 cubic yards of earth dug out by spade and transported by barrow and horse-drawn cart).
William Gilpin’s conception of the Picturesque method of looking at landscape, as a sequence of changing vistas, originated from a visit to the famous English landscape garden of Stowe (1740s). James Heffernan comments, “In its genesis, then, the picturesque was doubly artificial: a way of looking at scenery as if it were a landscape garden designed to resemble a picture.” Arthur Young describes a visit to Stowe in the 1760s entirely in terms of a serial set of views. The precise route through garden was important. William Shenstone showed visitors around Leasowes in 1745 and got angry if they went the wrong way.
The valley of Elysian Fields lies between a ridge with the Temple of Ancient Virtue, designed by Kent in 1734 with life-size Statues of Homer, Socrates and others and a lower ridge with Kent’s Shrine of British Worthies, exhibiting busts of national heroes from Shakespeare, Locke, Newton, and Pope to King Alfred.
Stowe is emparked that is to says created through the destruction of a village. George Monbiot went to school there and notes, ‘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. These parks became emblems of English landscape where pastoral visions lingered; spreading to urban gardens, though the promise of Eden is thwarted.