SPEAKER: The thread that was the forest style was picked up by the brilliant architect, interior designer, painter, and landscape designer William Kent. Like the forest stylists, Kent reached back to classical Rome to evoke the ideals and the art of that period. In this sense, he was following the 16th century architect Palladio and his primary English disciple, Inigo Jones, sometimes called the father of modern English architecture. Thus, Pope's genius of the place became nature perfected with flowing hills capped with irregular groves, watered by serpentine rivers, and with an overall gentle serenity.
The leading figures in what came to be called the serpentine style were Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, Henry Hoare, and Lancelot Capability Brown. One extraordinary sight, which was worked on progressively by Bridgeman, then Kent, and finally Brown, is Stowe. With its winding paths through woodlands, richness of classical statuary and structures, serpentine lake, and groves of carefully planted trees in rolling lawns, it epitomizes all that was great about this style. A close second is Stourhead, which is the creation of Henry Hoare.
Looking more closely at the Serpentine style, it's possible to break it down into three subtypes. From 1712 to 1750, there was the Augustine, or poetic, phase. The guiding principle in this phase was to recreate the landscape of antiquity, both visually and allegorically. Both Stowe and Stourhead fit within this phase. In fact, Hoare meant his founding of Stourhead to be analogous to Aeneas' founding of ancient Rome.
From 1750 to '80, we had the Brownian or abstract phase. Now, no one would ever accuse Capability Brown of being a great plant lover. Rather, he used trees, shrubs, lakes, and landforms to imitate nature's serpentine lines. Thus, circular clumps of trees, grassy meadows, distant vistas, and of course, serpentine lakes, became the signatures of the Brownian landscape. Bowood, Prior Park, and the Grecian Vale at Stowe are prime examples.
Also from 1740 1780, we had the ferme ornee. Contemporaneous with the Brownian phase, the ferme ornee added the celebration of the ideal rural farm. Typically on a hillside that could be viewed from the terrace of the residence, farm animals would be pastured and ideal farm structures would be strategically placed. All farm aromas would be kept far enough away so as to not offend sensitive noses.
From the earliest Roman gardens in Britain through the 18th century serpentine style, garden design reflected a discomfort or distrust with wild, untamed nature. By the end of the 1700s, however, the wealthy class started to leave England to explore the wild and rugged alpine region. The new appreciation that resulted from these explorations gave rise to the picturesque style of the 1790s. This new style was typified by irregular, rocky outcroppings, an emphasis on winding, precipitous pathways, and, ironically, the planting of exotic rhododendrons, azaleas, and alpines into these newly created, wild sights. Thus, the picturesque style provided a system of compositional principles that could be used to harmonize exotic and native shrubs and other ornamentals.
Based on the writings of Reverend William Gilpin and Sir Uvedale Price, the picturesque style became associated with the romantic spirit of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Gilpin, in particular, became known through his observations on Cumberland and Westmorland, which described both his feelings about his native Cumbria and his principles on designing the human landscape. Examples of landscapes designed by Gilpin are Scotney Castle, Kent, and Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire.
The late 18th century British spirit of exploration gave rise to the exploration of lands around the globe. But the British empire, on which the sun never set, was an effort to not only politically dominate foreign lands, but also to dominate them economically. And a principal component of this economic exploitation was botanical.
As Donald McCracken explains in Gardens of Empire, in the late 18th century, an aristocratic patron of botany, Sir Joseph Banks, had conceived the possibility of establishing a network of colonial botanical gardens for crops, vegetables, and fruits, which might lead to colonial economic development. It was Banks who was the president of the Royal Society for 40 years. And it was Banks who was responsible for creating the home repository of this world wide collection of botanical specimens-- the magnificent Kew Gardens.
Originally a private royal preserve, Kew became the property of the nation in 1841. As Banks' vision reached fruition with colonial botanical gardens eventually being established at 100 sites worldwide, Kew expanded to its full 300 acres in order to accommodate an ever-expanding collection. To quote again from Gardens of Empire, by 1880, the director of the Royal Botanic Garden at Kew described a botanical garden as "a garden in which a vast assemblage of plants from every accessible part of the Earth's surface is systematically cultivated." This definition is extremely reminiscent of the medieval view of a botanical garden as the recreation of Eden. The difference is that the modern, 19th century botanical garden was based more on science, imperial conquest, and economic development than on a divine mission.
Getting back into the evolution of garden designs, by 1812 the picturesque style had itself given way to the landscape style, arguably the greatest in the history of English landscape design. To fully appreciate the landscape style, one must be familiar with the unique meanings associated with three key terms-- beautiful, associated with smoothness, delicacy, and gradual variation. Picturesque-- roughness, wildness, and irregularity. Sublime-- great, vast, and awe inspiring.
In a landscape design, the foreground was meant to be a beautiful terrace with graceful lines often planted with formal parterres. This terrace would then transition onto a picturesque park, which might have very uneven land, rock outcroppings, and grazing sheep. In the distance would be a sublime vista, usually of mountains or hillsides. The concept of the picturesque borrowed heavily from the previous picturesque style. Obviously, requirements for installing this style of landscape included not only great wealth and the ownership of considerable land holdings, but specifically land that included the required topographic features.
Major practitioners of the landscape style were Sir Uvedale Price, who himself had made the transition from the picturesque, Payne Knight, and Humphrey Repton. Repton achieved fame through the creation of his Red Books, which contained detailed sketches of the landscape both as it currently existed and as he proposed to alter it. Particularly well-preserved examples of this style are Knight's Estate at Downton Castle, and Ashridge, designed by Repton.
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Americans have traditionally looked to the British for direction on landscape design and plant selection. Notable British landscape designers such as Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, William Gilpin, and Gertrude Jekyll have left a legacy not only in England but across the ocean also. If these people and subjects intrigue you, I invite you to accompany me on a virtual tour of English garden design that starts back in the days of the Roman occupation and progresses to the eclectic gardens of today. Throughout, you will learn about how people, wars, inventions, and global exploration affected changing tastes and styles over the past millenium.
This video is part 4 of 5 in the A Brief History of English Garden Design series.