After Queen Anne’s death in 1714, her cousin George I of Hanover became King. Aristocrats travelled to France and Italy on their ‘Grand Tour’, studying European art and architecture and bringing back souvenirs from their travels. With the increasing appeal of Nature, there was a move away from the regularity of design of earlier gardens to a more relaxed style.
Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was one of the main protagonists of this new fashion in gardening. A lover of the Classics, Pope read extensively and enjoyed walking in the woods or along the river near his family home in Windsor Forest. Pope found instant fame after his collection of poetry Pastorals was published in 1709. This was followed two years later by Essay on Criticism in which Pope laid out the rules for a ‘national taste’. He also wrote in The Guardian, September 1713: ‘There is certainly something in the amiable Simplicity of unadorned Nature, that spreads over the Mind a more noble sort of Tranquility, and a loftier Sensation of Pleasure…This was the Taste of the Ancients in their Gardens.’ With his love of nature and his ability to ridicule false taste as well as promote good taste, made him the perfect publicist for this new style.
And with Pope’s endorsement, it became fashionable to include references to Ancient Greece. Arcadia was a region in Peloponnese and according to Greek mythology, was the home of the god, Pan. Pan was celebrated as the god of the wild, of shepherds and flocks, of hunting, rustic music and companion of the nymphs – and nymphs haunted grottoes. The Elysian Fields was the afterlife reserved for mortals who were related to the gods and other heroes although it was later expanded to mean those chosen by the gods. After death, those selected would remain in the Fields for ever, living a contented life.
In 1699, Stephen Switzer (1682-1745) was an apprentice at the Brompton Nursery and worked on several projects including the design of Ray Wood at Castle Howard in 1706. An early exponent of the English landscape garden, Switzer was critical of the Franco-Dutch gardens: ‘[with] those crimping, Diminutive and wretched performances we every where meet with…the Top of these Designs being in Clipt Plants, Flowers, & other trifling Decorations.’
One of Switzer’s contemporaries was Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738) who also began work at the Brompton Nursery. Bridgeman combined formality in his designs with a less structured approach and designed the layout of the garden at Stowe. He worked at Stowe from 1711 until 1730 and designed temples, summerhouses, an Egyptian pyramid and statues. Bridgeman also worked at Clevedon and probably at The Moot in Wiltshire
Horace Walpole (1717-1797), a pivotal figure in eighteenth century society, wrote: ‘though he [Bridgeman] still adhered much to strait walks with high clipt hedges, they were only his great lines; the rest he diversified by wilderness, and with loose groves of oak, though still within surrounding hedges’. Walpole did not approve of owners employing a landscape designer, believing the owner should do the work themselves. Visit Walpole’s house Strawberry Hill although sadly, little of the garden remains.
William Kent (1685-1748) began work as an apprentice coach-painter. He was a multi-talented artist who could design anything from dog kennels to silverware, to garden buildings to interiors but is arguably best known as a landscape gardener. Described by Pope as ‘Kent the Painter’, Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington was Patron to both. After returning to England in 1719 with Lord Burlington, Kent began work at Chiswick House, his first sortie into the world of garden design. Kent adapted the landscape into the pastoral bliss advocated by Pope.
Kent was asked to Stowe by Viscount Cobham in 1730. Here he designed the Temple of Venus, the Temple of British Worthies and the Temple of Ancient Virtue. In 1733, Kent was commissioned by Colonel Robert Dormer-Cottrell to develop Bridgeman’s ideas at Rousham.
'[William Kent was] painter enough to taste the charms of landscape… He leapt the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden. He felt the delicious contrast of hill and valley changing imperceptibly into each other, tasted the beauty of the gentle swell, or concave scoop, and remarked how loose groves crowned an easy eminence with happy ornament.'
Lancelot or ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783) accepted a post as gardener at Stowe in 1742. Brown designed the Temple of Concord and the Temple of Victory at Stowe although it is unclear how much involvement he had on the layout of the garden. After Cobham’s death in 1749, Brown set up his own practice in London. His style became well-known and much imitated: lawns ran up to the house, separated from the park by a sunken fence or haha; trees were planted in clumps and individually often surrounded by a perimeter woodland belt; serpentine lakes were created along with ornamental buildings.
The formal layout of previous generations had gone along with straight avenues, geometric designs and walled enclosures. As Walpole said: ‘so closely did he [Brown] copy nature that his works will be mistaken for it’. It is estimated that Brown designed over 170 gardens in Britain including Croome, Longleat, Blenheim Palace and Bowood but was probably involved with many more.
Humphry Repton (1752-1818) is often regarded as the successor to Brown and is the last of the great eighteenth century landscape designers. Unlike Brown who designed and oversaw the work until its completion, Repton acted as a consultant, leaving the client to carry out the work. Repton criticized Brown for bringing the rolling grass up to the front door, for example at Petworth, as he thought of landscaping more as an art form. He used his skills as an artist, creating a ‘Red Book’ for prospective clients with explanatory text and watercolour overlays showing before and after views of the estate. At the end of his life he said ‘as a landscape designer I have never been superseded by a more successful rival. My own profession, like myself, was becoming extinct.’
Repton’s phrase ‘the thorn is the mother of the oak’ has been used by advocates of rewilding. This is where brambles and other thorny shrubs are used to protect saplings from being eaten by rabbits and deer.
Examples of English Landscape Gardens can be seen at: