Parks & gardens

Significance of parks, gardens and the pastoral landscape Click here
The classical era Click here
Middle ages to 18th century Click here
18th century landscape gardens Click here
Summary and conclusions Click here
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Parks, gardens and the pastoral landscape speak to the subconscious mind of pleasant idleness, of an absence of necessity of work, and of bounteous provision. Insulating the individual from the external world, they cosset he/she in an environment in which time and space and the demands of life are less important for a while. The art historian, Lord Kenneth Clark considered the enchanted garden one of humanity’s most constant, widespread and consoling myths (Clark, 1976). Gardens and parks reinforce the attractiveness of pastoral scenes, scenes of bounteous provision and harmony, which provide for human needs without apparent effort.

This theme examines the contribution that parks, gardens and the pastoral scene have made in influencing Western attitudes towards landscapes. The assumption is that parks and gardens, being artificial creations, reflect the idealized form of micro-landscape; their design and characteristics epitomize the ideals which society seeks from such landscapes.

The word ‘paradise’ derived from the ancient Persian word pairidaeza meaning an enclosed area such as a park. In Hebrew, it became pardes, meaning a garden or park enclosure, and in Greek, paradeisos means a kingly or sumptuous and extravagant park (Thacker, 1979). From the earliest times, parks and gardens have held an indelible fascination for humans; in contrast to the pastoral landscape, paradoxically they demand considerable effort to create an apparently restful and undemanding environment.

The pastoral landscape in which animals grazed bushes and lower limbs of trees and cropped the grass, created more open areas of standing trees and grass, the progenitors of parks. The pastoral ideal was a Golden Age of youth and of antique man (Shepard, 1967). It formed the basis of dramas of Arcadia, and generations of poets and writers referred to the pastoral landscape in philosophy, theology and allegory. It was a place in which to discuss, to think, to make music and dance and to make love.


In ancient times, gardens were often sacred groves, places consecrated to a spirit or god. The Old Testament has many references to such groves dedicated to Baal; Homer’s Odyssey refers to such areas and in Greek mythology there were garden spirits including Flora, the goddess of flowers; Demeter, the goddess of corn; and Dionysus, the god of vines (Thacker, 1979).

In about 500 – 600 BC, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon were regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. The Hanging Gardens were constructed on a ziggurat, an artificial hill that enabled the Sumerians to worship their mountain gods. In one of the only two extant descriptions of the gardens, Diodorus of Sicily called them a paradise.

The Persians who conquered Babylon in 538 BC were similarly enamored with parks and the Xenophon (427 – 355 BC), a pupil of Socrates, described their importance to the Persians:

“In all the districts the Great King resides in and visits he takes care that there are paradises (Xenophon was the first to use this term), as they call them, full of all the good and beautiful things that the soil will produce, and in this he spends most of his time, except when the season precludes it” (Hunter, 1985).

Many of the Persian parks were extensive, located on the flood plains of rivers, and were walled to confine animals for hunting. Although distant from Europe, Persia continued to exert a powerful influence on Western culture, particularly in regard to attitudes to landscapes. A country of diverse landscapes, ranging from the tropical through the mountainous to the arid desert, Persia’s location astride the trade routes to China and India facilitated the movement of its ideas and goods westward into Europe.

Persian rugs, commonly incorporated stylized scenes of trees, rivers and gardens, and were patterned after the ground plan of pleasure gardens. These rugs brought the garden into the house. The rugs spread the Persian’s delight in parks and gardens to the west – as early as the fifth century BC, Plato had a magnificent set of Persian rugs.

Rugs were shown in Western paintings through to the sixteenth century often depicting a central water source flowing out through four rivers, the Pishon, Gihon, Tigris and Euphrates (cf Genesis account of Eden) and with plane trees around the source. French tapestries with similar depictions of parks, gardens and water carried the imagery into the castles and palaces of Europe.

Isfahan_Garden_carpet        Isfahan chahar-bagh “Paradise Garden” carpet, 17th  c.

On conquering Persia, Alexander the Great discovered the extensive parks and was so enthralled with them that he reserved one-quarter of Alexandria as park (Shepard, 1967). The Persian parks included shrines and avenues of trees, and the influence of these changed the more natural form of Greek parks with their sacred groves. Public parks were common in Greece, the Lyceum being a public park set aside for meditation, a quiet stroll, or discussion.

In Athens, the Philosopher’s Garden (or Academy) combined veneration of groves of trees with the Eastern paradise. Plato’s house in the Academy, together with its garden and gymnasium became the model throughout the classical world, although by Roman times, the gymnasium was replaced with fountains, sculptures and colonnades. Greek cities generally established public gardens for pleasure and relaxation, and included springs, shady nooks and walks and seats which disappeared after the Grecian era to be re-established only in recent centuries, they were virtually identical to present-day parks.

Both the Greeks and the Romans continued the Persian’s love of trees and planted them in the towns, around their villas and homes, near their public buildings and even around their tombs. To the Romans, nature was animate and powerful; activities such as farming had to be carried out with due reverence and deference to spirits of nature. They combined the functional and the ideal to produce a unified attitude to landscape (Hunter 1985). Wealthy Romans established country villas, combining agriculture and love of nature with the Greek philosopher’s garden. Rome was eventually surrounded by villas and gardens.

Fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet, PompeiiPSC  Fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet, Pompeii

Wall paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum display the completeness of the Roman appreciation of landscape:

“… the functional landscape of farming in the plains and foothills, groves, temples and ‘sacred sites’. Rocky mountains beyond, lakes and sea coast overlooked by portico villas, islands and ships. These were the views from favored country villas; in town houses they were the creations of painters who used the device of dividing up the wall with pilasters, columns and architraves, with landscapes in between, to give the illusion of looking through a pierced wall or portico to the countryside beyond” (Hunter, 1985).

The derivation of present day landscape paintings is obvious. The descriptions Pliny the Younger (60 – 111 AD) made of his villas and gardens provided the basis for Renaissance planners. The landscape setting of his Tuscan villa was of primary importance:

“The countryside is very beautiful. Picture to yourself a vast amphitheater such as could only be a work of nature; the great spreading plain is ringed by mountains, their summits crowned by ancient woods of tall trees … Down the mountain slopes are timber woods interspersed with small hills of soil so rich that there is scarcely a rocky outcrop to be found… Below them the vineyards spreading down every slope weave their uniform pattern far and wide, their lower limit bordered by a belt of shrubs. Then come the meadows and cornfields, where the land can be broken up only by heavy oxen and the strongest ploughs… The meadows are bright with flowers, covered with trefoil and other delicate plants which always seem soft and fresh, for everything is fed by streams which never run dry …” (Pliny, 1963).


Wikipedia               Alhambra
Palacio de GeneralifeC
Wikipedia          Palacio de Generalife

In the East, the Mughal emperors established impressive gardens through Afghanistan into India, including an extensive and luxuriant garden surrounding the Taj Mahal at Agra – a garden which has since been cleared to give full view of this magnificent building. In Turkey, gardens were established with Persian characteristics. The Arabs who invaded Spain in 710 established Moorish gardens, some of which survived in the beautiful buildings and gardens of the Alhambra and the Generalife at Granada.

Further east, in China and Japan, gardens assumed a symbolic importance that was greater there than anywhere else in the world. The symbolism of nature implicit in Chinese gardens, their close links with poetry, the inspiration they gave landscape painters, and the cultivation of many species of flowers and plants established gardens as very significant places in Chinese culture. Similarly, gardens in Japan were also significant places. Images of perfect pleasure were their basis, and strict rules governed the placement of rocks, trees, lakes, islands and other features of the gardens. Because of their symbolism, their placement in the west can be trite and meaningless through being separated from the culture from which they sprang.

In the West, during the Middle Ages, following the decline of the Roman Empire, Christian monasteries became the main center for the establishment of gardens. Monasteries often established a pleasure garden that simulated the Garden of Eden, cultivation of which was regarded as reliving a part of creation (Glacken, 1967). Cloister gardens provided a quiet area for study and relaxation and in which the monks could contemplate God. The monks grew vegetables, herbs, fruits and flowers and in these gardens, which often had a well or fountain in their midst fashioned to symbolize the four rivers which flowed from Eden (Hunter, 1985). Flowers such as the iris, lily and rose were grown as much for their medicinal properties as for beauty (Thacker, 1979).

From the eleventh century, the paradise garden was prominent in the highly idealized epics and songs that extolled the chivalry, knights and courts of the time:

“The garden (was) the embodiment of sensual delight, a refuge of love and happiness, sheltered by wall, hedge or pale from the unpredictable, disordered and potentially dangerous world outside. Natural reality is distrusted …” (Hunter, 1985)

A contrary view was that of St Anselm in the early twelfth century who considered that things were harmful in proportion to the number of senses they delighted. He therefore rated gardens as particularly dangerous since one could use sight, smell, touch, taste and even hearing (Clark, 1976). Other more open minds regarded the garden as a forerunner of paradise.

In Old Saxon, the word ‘paradise’ translated as ‘meadow’ (Hunter, 1985). By the twelfth century, the pastoral ideal was rediscovered and informed a new sensitivity towards nature.

“(the) pastoral fancy still tended to bring the loving soul in touch with nature and its beauties…. Out of the simple words of exultation at the joy caused by sunshine and shade, birds and flowers, the loving descriptions of scenery and rural life gradually develops” (Huizinga, quoted by Shepard, 1967).                        Walled monastery garden

Apart from its security, the walled garden had Christian symbolism. This sprang from the Song of Solomon where the virgin bride is described You are a garden locked up, my sister, my bride; you are a spring enclosed, a sealed fountain (4:12). It is a short step from this to equate the virgin bride with the Virgin Mary whom Medieval paintings often showed in an enclosed garden with the means of enclosure – a wall, fence or paling, carefully depicted (Thacker, 1979). In psychoanalytical terms, the symbolism of sexual inaccessibility created by the wall is obvious (see theme: Psychoanalysis and Aesthetics).

Symbolism extended to the flowers and trees that were symbols of the divine and their inclusion in designs such as early mosaics and as carvings on cathedral pillars contained this meaning (Clark, 1976). In England, the landscape garden developed as a lawn or glade encircled by the forest wall, an inverse oasis, an island of open space in the continuum of forest (Shepard, 1967).

By the fifteenth century, hunting parks were being established by every lord who could obtain a license from the Crown to enclose land. The parks appeared relatively natural, even wild, as indicated in paintings of the time. Well-spaced trees were isolated or in stands, providing glades and vistas with the grass grazed by deer or rabbits, which met the needs of the hunt. With the addition of a temple or two and a lake, the landscapes would be almost identical to the planned landscape gardens of the eighteenth century (Hunter, 1985).

Prior to the Renaissance, Italian gardens were characterized by their formality with a central fountain and a modified monastic patio severely dominated by orthodox symbolism and beautifully integrated into an overall religious architecture (Shepard, 1967). During the Renaissance in the sixteenth century, these blossomed into major works of art. Some like the Villa d’ Este at Tivoli were among the most brilliant gardens of history. This particular garden, established from 1550 to 1580, provided extensive views over the Campagna towards Rome and was called a water garden because of its extensive use of water in fountains, cascades, sprays and pools. The terrace of the Hundred Fountains, the Dragon fountain, the joyously fecund statue of Diana of the Ephesians and female sphinxes with water gushing from their breasts, expressed the symbolism inherent in water as life and fertility (Thacker, 1979).

Wikipedia Statues symbolizing the Aniene River (left) and Apennine mountains (right) 
Villa d’ Este, TivoliCPS
Wikipedia Villa d’ Este'este.C
Wikipedia             The Hundred Fountains at Villa d’ Este

Renaissance gardens were enclosed by walls and comprised strong axial hedges and topiary, paved paths, grottos, and ponds connected with fountains. Though they were often surrounded by parkland, these were not garden in the modern sense as they lacked grass and flowers. Their formality was seen as defining nature in the classical, regular mold, thus improving on the irregularity and imperfection of nature.

Alexander Pope (1688 – 1744) provided detailed descriptions of hunting parks and gardens in England – they included the temple, cascades, ruined castle, bridges and lofty trees to frame the view. In 1734, Pope opined that all gardening is landscape-painting, just like a landscape hung up (Barrell, 1972).

With the coming of peace in France in the seventeenth century, new country houses were established with extensive grounds that were transformed into vast gardens. Gardens were equated with status and French aristocrats sought to out-do each other in the immensity and content of their gardens. Covering hundreds of acres, they contained lawns, hedges, and ponds; some royal parks extended to the horizon, ponds became lakes, paths became avenues, garden temples became palaces, and whole forests (rather than mere hedges) were sculptured.

Versailles OrangerieC The Orangerie – a small part of the vast gardens at Versailles

Versailles, the most extensive of the French gardens, had a Great Canal a mile long along its central axis. The garden was established by Louis XIV between 1661 and 1700 as a creation through which, together with the chateau, he could demonstrate his glory to the world. In Louis’ time, Versailles was a water garden with many fountains that today are much fewer and smaller in size. Martin Lister, an English visitor in 1698 wrote:

“In a Word, these Gardens are a Country laid out into Alleys and Walks, Groves of Trees, Canals and Fountains, and everywhere adorned with ancient and modern Statues and Vasa (urns) innumerable.”

Half a century later, Lord Kames, in Elements of Criticism (1763), wrote of Versailles as a monument of depraved taste:

“its groves of jets d’eau, statues of animals conversing in the manner of Aesop, water issuing out of the mouths of wild beasts gave an impression of fairy-land and witchcraft.”

 In 1739, Horace Walpole described Versailles as:

“forced, all is constrained about you; statues and vases sowed everywhere without distinction; sugar loaves and minced-pies of yew; scrawl-work of box, and little squirting jets-d’-eau, besides a sameness in the walks” (A Memoir).

He thought them suited to a “great child”, his estimation of Louis XIV. The geometrical patterns which underlay the design of these gardens were pure classicism; irregular curves were regarded as deformed, straight lines and circles dominated, trees and flowers were represented by standardized and perfect shapes reflecting the perfection of nature – that nature is striving to realise herself in regular forms (Barrell, 1972).

Wikipedia    Lake at Stowe

In seventeenth century England, some gardens were established following the French formal mode – Hampton Court and St James Park are examples. Palaces and gardens were constructed after the manner of Versailles; examples include Boughton, Cassiobury, Blenheim, Castle Howard, Stowe and the outstanding formal garden at St Paul’s Walden Bury in Hertfordshire, built in the first half of the eighteenth century.

When Celiea Fiennes toured the country in the 1690s, she visited a number of gardens, and her descriptions indicate the widespread formality: rows of trees paled in gravel walks, fine cut hedges, flower-pots on walls, terraces, statues, fountains, basins, grass squares and exact, uniform plots (Malins, 1966). Some of the formal gardens survived the ‘natural’ gardens of the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but the English generally disliked formality – for example the Earl of Shaftesbury wrote:

“I shall no longer resist the Passion growing in me for Things of a natural kind; … Even the rude rocks, the mossy caverns, the irregular unwrought grotto’s, and broken falls of waters, with all the horrid graces of the wilderness itself, as representing NATURE more, will be the more engaging, and appear with a Magnificence beyond the formal Mockery of Princely Gardens” (The Moralists: A Philosophical Rhapsody, 1709).

Shaftesbury preferred what he termed “ordered wildness”, which today would seem an oxymoron.

The French gardens were seen to reflect the autocratic monarchy:

“The subjugation of Nature by Art, whether in the detail of clipped trees and hedges, or in the basically concentric plan of French gardens, was fundamentally autocratic.” (Malins, 1966).

The English characteristics of benevolence and moderation were contrary to the French manner, besides, the English lacked the funds to establish such vast gardens! By the end of the seventeenth century, country living was an accepted way of life, and many estates were established (Turner, 1986).


In place of the French formality, the English turned to the Italian landscape as epitomizing the desired natural and classical associations. It was a landscape portrayed in an idealized way by the Italianate paintings of Claude Lorraine, Salvator Rosa, Nicolas Poussin and others (see theme: Landscape Art). At the end of the eighteenth century, Archibald Alison, in Essays on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790), attributed the creation of English landscape gardening to admiration of these artists’ Italianate landscapes (Manwaring, 1925). He wrote:

“Our first impressions of the Beauty of Nature had been gained from the Compositions which delineated such scenery; and we were gradually accustomed to consider them as the standard of Natural Beauty.” 

He argued,

“the English first copied Italian scenes, with much use of temples, ruins and statutes, but later arrived at more correct imitation of natural scenes, in the spirit of the painters.”

In Italian Landscape in Eighteenth Century England (1925), Elizabeth Manwaring entitled her chapter on landscape gardens, “The Creation of Italian Landscape in England.” In this chapter she traced the influence of the Italianate paintings on the development of the English landscape garden. Christopher Hussey, in The Picturesque (1927) similarly argued that the English landscape garden was modeled on the paintings of Claude, Poussin and Rosa. This view has been disputed by Lang arguing that it does not take account of the garden’s slow development (Lang, 1974).

The great country estates were established by reclaiming former small enclosures. Influenced by their Grand Tours to the Continent, English gentry surrounded their country manors with parks and gardens. They established settings without walls so that the eye would not be imprisoned, and the park extended unbroken to the surrounding countryside. Removal of the walls allowed the landscape garden to blend with the surrounding country. This was a feasible proposition in well-watered England but impossible in the drier Mediterranean or Middle Eastern lands, where it would have resulted in the irrigated gardens contrasting with the surrounding arid land.

The removal of the walls was made possible by the development of the ha ha, a sunken fence in the form of a ditch that provided a barrier without interrupting the view. The ditch had to be sufficient width and depth to prevent stock crossing. Its name derived from the expression of surprise on finding the obstacle and came into use about 1712 (Shorter Oxford Dictionary).

Ha-ha wall
The ha-ha The primary view is from the right and the barrier created by the ha-ha becomes invisible from that direction and sometimes from both directions, unless close to the ditch.
The ha ha. Viewed from the right, the wall would not be seen, and the land would appear without a break.

One of the early landscape garden planners, the Yorkshire artist, William Kent (1685 – 1748), spent some years in Italy and on returning to England about 1719 set about designing everything from palaces to petticoats, but especially … furniture and grounds (Manwaring, 1925). In 1743, Walpole wrote approvingly of his gardens: he can make bleak rocks and barren mountains smile and, through Kent’s use of the ha ha, He leaped the fence, and saw all nature was a garden.

Walpole observed the inspiration provided by the Italianate artists: (Kent) realised the compositions of the greatest masters in painting (Manwaring, 1925). His imitations extended as far as inserting dead trees in the Kensington and Carlton gardens, reflecting Salvatore Rosa’s motifs. The Stanstead gardens of the Earl of Halifax, according to Walpole, recall such exact pictures of Claude Lorrain that it is difficult to conceive that he did not paint them from this very spot.

A later landscape gardener, William Shenstone, a gentleman amateur, commenced work in 1745 and specialized in creating pictures in the landscape – siting seats and summer houses in the best places to view the gardens. He used foliage gradations, the size of trees, and buildings to lengthen vistas, and created “garden-scenes” of the sublime, the beautiful and the melancholy (Manwaring, 1925).

A temple in Kew Gardens, London

As befitted Italianate landscapes, English gardens contained ruins, specially designed and constructed for the setting. Often these were Gothic, sometimes Roman or Greek, and ivy and other plants were encouraged to grow over them. While often ridiculed, the artificial ruins reinforced the image of the garden as capturing the landscapes of Claude or Rosa, they were both objects and symbols. Sanderson Miller was a chief designer of ruins (!), mingling classic and medieval, Gothic and Italian. Janowitz argued that ruins serve as the visible guarantor of the antiquity of the nation, but as ivy climbs up and claims the stonework, it also binds culture to nature … (Janowitz, 1990). Books on the design of ruins appeared up to 1800 (See for example, Janowitz, A., 1990. England’s Ruins: Poetic Purpose and the National Landscape. Basil Blackwell, Oxford; Zucker, P., 1968. Fascination of Decay: Relic – Symbol – Ornament. The Gregg Press, Ridgewood, New Jersey).

Over the eighteenth century, landscape gardens became more complex, including grottos, caves, cliffs, hermitages, falls, statuary, exotic objects and even macabre scenes (Shepard, 1967). There gradually developed two schools; those preferring the simple lawns and woody clumps – the classic pastoral, and those who followed painting as the model and included many symbolic objects. Many hundreds of landscape gardens were established in England in the eighteenth century, and over the following century, their trees came to maturity.

Some authorities of taste, such as the artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, held that gardening is not a fit subject for painting because it is a derivation of nature. However, the landscape designers believed that they were implementing Longinus’ dictum, that to achieve perfection, art must be disguised as nature (Heffernan, 1984). Longinus wrote Art is perfect just when it seems to be nature, and nature successful when the art underlies it unnoticed. (Malins, 1966).

The outstanding landscape garden designer in the eighteenth century was Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716 – 1783), who “reigned” from 1750 to 1783 and who designed over 200 parks. He was dubbed “Capability” because he often spoke of the ‘capabilities’ he discerned in the chaos of nature (Cook, 1974). Although in his lifetime, he was considered by some to produce monotony and tameness, and is criticized now for his destruction of existing avenues of trees, his creations brought him great fame. He excelled in the use of water – it was his boast that Thames could never forgive him for the glories of Blenheim. (Manwaring, 1925).

Following the lead of the Italianate painters, Capability Brown followed a formula of sweeps of lawn, sinuous streams, clumps of trees arranged to provide vistas beyond, and an encirclement of woods. The aim was to capture the peace, tranquillity and idyllic feeling associated with the classic pastoral scene. A minimum of 30 – 40 acres of lawn and trees was required. The beauty of these landscaped gardens derived from their sense of detail, smoothness of line, and the gradual rather than sudden changes. The beautiful landscape was characterized by symmetry, graceful curves, grazing animals, and a mixture of lawn, water and trees. (Shepard, 1967). The tourist, looking for picturesque scenes, reveled in his works.

Brown’s reputation was such that shortly before his death a group of Irish noblemen sought him to work in Ireland, but he refused, boasting he had not yet finished England!

In the mid-eighteenth century, Walpole wrote, the country wears a new face; everybody is improving their places (Manwaring, 1925). In the latter half of the century, many books and poems about gardening were produced. Speaking of Capability Brown, one poet wrote of the Italianate influence:

“At Blenheim, Croom and Caversham we trace
Salvatore’s wildness, Claud’s enlivening grace…” (Manwaring, 1925)

Blenheim pan PSC
Blenheim across Capability Brown’s Lake

The example of Blenheim illustrates the contemporaneous changes to the state of gardens and to fashion. Woodstock Park was established in the Middle Ages. In 1705, Queen Anne gave it to the Duke of Marlborough in recognition of his military victories against the French at Blindheim, after which it was called Blenheim. With the architect Vanbrugh, the Duke of Marlborough set about establishing Blenheim Palace and the gardens. These were originally designed by Vanbrugh and Henry Wise, the Queen’s master gardener. Charles Bridgman, an apprentice to Wise designed the Grand Avenue, and Vanbrugh designed the Grand Bridge which crossed the River Glyme. To make the River somewhat larger than its rather paltry size, it was proposed to dam it and create a canal. An engineer, Colonel Armstrong, designed a formal canal scheme that would create an expanse of water 30 meters across. This was constructed in the 1720s.

Following Marlborough’s death in 1722 and his widow Sarah’s death in 1744, the property passed to their heirs. In about 1760, Capability Brown was commissioned by the fourth Duke to improve the grounds. He transformed them into a ‘naturalistic’ landscape which retained many of the essential features of the earlier design but at the same time brought them together into a single, united composition (Bond & Tiller, 1987). Brown reshaped some areas, created a great lake of 150 acres, created the Cascades – a low waterfall, and established clumps of trees around the lake together with extensive shelterbelt around the park.

After Brown, new designers added classical temples, gardens around the Cascades were established by the fifth Duke in the 1820s, parts of the Great Park were used for agriculture, formal gardens were established near the Palace, and further clumps of trees were planted around the lake, some unfortunately, blocking views. Early in the twentieth century, the ninth Duke established a water garden to the west of the palace and replaced the elms of the Grand Avenue, which extended nearly two miles. Unfortunately, these were destroyed in the 1970s by Dutch elm disease and were replaced by the eleventh Duke.

This case history illustrates that gardens, unlike paintings, are living objects that change over time, are subject to the vagaries and stresses of climate and disease, and to changing fashions.

Towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Grand Tour extended from Rome to Greece, then to the Aegean as interest grew in Grecian classical culture. As this occurred, ‘Greek’ ruins were constructed in gardens, instead of Romanesque ruins which dominated in the first half of the century. The Grecian motifs made the Arcadian vision appear even closer (Crook, in Clarke, 1989).

Thomas Whately, who wrote Observations on Modern Gardening (1770), considered gardening as superior to landscape painting as reality to representation. Using five materials, ground, wood, water, rocks and buildings, the landscape gardener stood with a spade in one hand, and Burke On the Sublime and Beautiful, in the other and created great ideas or ideas of beauty or variety (Hussey, 1927). Horace Walpole’s Essay on Modern Gardening (1771) became the standard for the fashionable, Manwaring writes, it was in all polite hands, and provided an historical overview of the subject. Walpole (1780) waxed rhapsodically about the English achievements of landscape gardening, a term which he believed he had created:

“How rich, how gay, how picturesque, the face of the country! The demolition of walls laying open each improvement, every journey is made through a succession of pictures … Enough has been done to establish such a school of landscape as cannot be found on the rest of the globe. If we have the seeds of a Claud or a Gaspar (Poussin) among us, he must come forth. If wood, water, vallies, glades, can inspire a poet or a painter, this is the country, this is the age, to produce them.”

The eighteenth century saw landscape gardening become a significant enterprise, giving rise to much poetry, literature and debates. Manwaring considered that no other century has seen the garden a more constant subject of literary treatment than in the eighteenth. Unfortunately, the French Revolution associated sumptuous gardens with aristocratic decadence, resulting in the destruction of many hundreds of gardens both in England and on the Continent.

The development of the landscape garden and its appearance were not aberrations isolated from the wider cultural ideas of nature; they were a direct manifestation of the ideal landscape as then perceived. Natural landscapes were still regarded as too irregular to contain beauty, so the landscape gardens created islands of perfect “nature.” Interestingly, the gardens then influenced cultural norms about nature, as noted by garden historian Marie Luise Gothein (1928) the feeling for nature was inspired in the main by the artistic beauties of the garden.

By the late eighteenth century, however, a new view about landscape gardens emerged, one that was less enamored with Capability Brown. In 1794, Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight respectively, published An Essay on the Picturesque, and The Landscape, a Didactic Poem in Three Books, Addressed to Uvedale Price. Price considered that gardens should be judged by the universal principles of painting (Hussey, 1927). Knight’s lengthy poem (12,000 lines) was a diatribe against the Capability Brown school of landscape gardening.

LHS: Capability Brown type garden which Knight regarded as too dull, vapid and smooth.
RHS: Gilpinesque type view which Knight favored with broken banks and shaggy mounds.

Capability Brown’s garden landscaping mantle was assumed by Humphrey Repton (1752 – 1818), continuing what Price and Knight considered the “insipidity” of the Brownist stamp of landscape gardening. Central to the dispute was the question of whether landscape painting, particularly that by Claude Lorraine, can serve as an adequate basis for landscape gardening. The argument raged back and forth over the following decade and is solely of academic interest now. When Repton published his Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803), he argued that a gardener does not follow a painter, yet his designs suggested otherwise – closely following Claude in many features.

Repton sought to emulate the perfection he already saw in nature – in contrast to Brown, who sought to bring order out of chaos. His Red Book series illustrated before and after scenes of the gardens that he designed. Repton’s influence was immense. In Regents Park and St James Park in London (both designed by others), and even in the parks of Olmsted such as New York’s Central Park, his touch is evident.

Repton’s Red Book example - Wentworth, South Yorkshire
Before – Hanslope Park and After – Hanslope Park          Repton’s Red Book example

Repton often softened Brown’s principles; whereas Brown had turf extending to the house, Repton provided beds of flowers and reintroduced the fountain which had been banished from the eighteenth century “natural” gardens because of its artificiality. Following his lead, interest grew in the traditional cottage gardens near ordinary houses and with the growth of a more educated and affluent middle class in England, gardening became a popular activity. Gardening manuals and periodicals flooded the market in the first half of the nineteenth century

During the mid-nineteenth century, flower gardens were formalized along with hedges, and formality became the hallmark until, in the 1880s, it was countered by works such as William Robinson’s The Wild Garden (1870) and The English Flower Garden (1883). Robinson denounced the formality of “pastry-work gardening” and the works of “fountain mongers” arguing for a natural approach (Hunter, 1985). Fashion see-sawed between formalism and informality. Thacker terms it a shift from the picturesque of the eighteenth century to the gardenesque of the nineteenth century, gardenesque being qualities that displayed the art of the gardener. Gardens were tidy, imaginative, historically-based, attractive and with a comfortable and human scale (Thacker, 1979). During the Victorian era:

“the opulence of the ornamental grounds of their great houses seems incredible: the armies of gardeners required to maintain the parterres of bedding plants and rake acres of gravel, the collections of every exotic tree and shrub that could be induced to survive, and the stonework of terraces, stairs and ornaments” (Hunter, 1985).

William Robinson helped introduce many exotic species into England for use in “natural” gardens, and his mantle passed on to Gertrude Jekyll (1843 – 1932), an accomplished landscape gardener, and Edwin Lutyens, a formal garden designer. Working together, the themes of wildness and formality were resolved in outstanding ways. World War 1 effectively ended the great age of landscape gardens in England, the economics of husbanding large gardens in straightened times saw to that. The National Trust in Britain owns and maintains some of the houses and grounds that had been landscaped by Kent, Brown or Repton but the home gardens of today tend to be a pale imitation of the vastness of former times:

“While the parkland tradition lingers on forgetful of its origins, the garden tradition has become democratised, the weekend hobby of every family lucky enough to own a few square yards of space around their houses.” (Hunter, 1985).

Although the Brown/Repton approach to landscape gardening ceased in Britain, its natural style had a major influence in North America, where the natural environment is important. The contrasting American and English cultural attitude is illustrated by the comments of an American visitor to the view overlooking countryside near London in 1835. The English regarded the scene as one of the most beautiful, varied and extensive. The whole scene was a garden in cultivation, every field enclosed by hedgerows. As these receded in the distance, less and less could be seen of the fields, but the trees could be seen to the extreme distance.

“And do you call this beautiful?” said (the American), “In America we would consider it one of the most desolate scenes that the mind can conceive. It resembles a country that has never been cleared of wood” (Shepard, 1967).

(For the historical development of landscape values in North America see Jackson, 1965, Lowenthal, 1966, Nash, 1975, Erickson, 1977, Gidley & Lawson-Peebles, 1989, and Conzen, 1991)

Such is the influence of culture upon one’s perceptions. The quote also illustrates the fallacy of assuming that the Western cultural perspective towards landscapes is a homogeneous unity. There are areas of commonality which derive from a partly shared heritage and there are also distinctive national differences.


Table 1 Summary of Significant Findings: Development of Gardens and Parks

Table 1

Parks and gardens provide an opportunity to create in a small space an idealized landscape, one that surrounds the individual and separates them from the external world. With origins extending back into pre-classical times in Persia, then through the Greek and Roman cultures, gardens have held an eminent position in Western culture. Unlike the gardens of the East such as China and Japan that contain significant symbolic import, Western gardens are generally symbol free. However, the free-spirited, natural gardens that were developed in England during the eighteenth century were seen to epitomize the English characteristics of benevolence and moderation, and contrasted with the formality of the French creations which were regarded as symbols of an autocratic monarchy.

The eighteenth century landscape gardens were probably England’s most lasting contribution to gardens, and their influence has been enormous. Their picturesque qualities, deriving inspiration from the paintings of Claude, Salvatore and Poussin, created images of naturalness, understatement, peace and contentment that transcended their physical elements. Such gardens represented the ideal landscape, classical images of the Golden Age with its pastoral imagery, gardens which did not suffer the irregularities and disfigurements of a natural landscape, but rather gardens in which everything was in keeping.

The design of gardens paralleled prevailing English taste about the wider landscape, as reflected in its attitude to mountains and in its art. The fulfillment of the garden design obviously involves a greater span of time between conception and realization than in art and in the attitudes towards mountains, but a consistency is clearly apparent between the three.


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