Friday, 25 February 2011

Politics and philosophy in eighteenth century gardens

The gardens and landscapes that surrounded beautiful country houses during the eighteenth century changed in popular style as the century wore on, growing steadily less formal in appearance. Clearly landowners who followed the trends were simply keeping up with fashion. But how large a role did politics and philosophy play in their designs?

Versailles, France
Many landowners claimed they were expressing their patriotism and love of democracy and liberty, in response to orderly, geometric French designs, such as that by Le Notre in Versailles. Contemporary, Horace Walpole sneered "When a Frenchman reads of the garden of Eden, I do not doubt but he concludes it was something approaching that of Versailles, with clipt hedges, berceaus, and trellis-work". This emphasises how then, as now, we take national pride in our rolling landscapes, replete with belts of native trees and serpentine rivers. The trend for avenues of trees, topiary and manicured flower beds was literally wiped out in fashionable country estates in the eighteenth century.

Many contemporaries claimed that to walk in their gardens was an intellectual exercise for the educated elite, emphasising their classical knowledge through emblematic statutory and allegorical features, which would be wasted on the uneducated masses who would simply see what was attractive and miss the intellectual story. The philosopher David Hume wrote in 1757 that "few are qualified to give judgement on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty…When the critic has no delicacy he judges without distinction, and is only affected by the grosser and more palpable qualities of the object; the finer touches pass unnoticed and disregarded".

At Stowe in Buckinghamshire Viscount Cobham created a garden full of political statements after his falling out with Robert Walpole and resignation from politics. He created a Temple of British Worthies, which held busts of Cobham's supporters alongside historical figures. Furthermore he built a Temple of Ancient Virtue, starkly contrasted with a decaying Temple of Modern Virtue, which rather pointedly held a headless statue of Robert Walpole.

Temple of British Worthies, Stowe

Similarly, at that other great English garden, Stourhead in Wiltshire, Henry Hoare dammed the river Stour to create a great lake around which he laid out a beautiful landscape garden, replete with classical buildings and follies. Carved above the door of his first building, the Doric Temple of Flora, is a quote from Virgil "Procul, O procul este, profani" meaning "Begone, you who are uninitiated". Clearly this garden was designed for those who had a classical education and who could appreciate its subtleties and philosophical meaning.

Temple of Flora, Stourhead

Rather than being simply for pleasure, many eighteenth century gardens were created to convey the message that their owner was well educated, democratic and patriotic. William Gilpin wrote of Stowe in 1748 "I must own there appears a very visible connection between an improved taste for pleasure and a taste for virtue: when I...enjoy myself in these happy walks, I can feel my mind expand itself, my notions enlarge, and my heart better disposed either for a religious thought or a benevolent action: In a word, I cannot help imagining a Taste for these exalted pleasures contributes towards making me a better man”. Noble sentiments indeed.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Eighteenth century country houses

In response to decadent, heavy and ornamental C17th designs, country houses of the C18th are often recognisable by their classical simplicity. And as fashions changed, so did the houses. The importance of ensuring your country house kept up with the latest designs was fundamental. Many gentlemen either knocked down the houses and gardens of their forefathers to build new classical houses, others simply re-cased older mansions.

Initially, square red-brick Dutch-style houses with stone ornamental decoration were popular, such as Clandon Park in Surrey, Uppark in Sussex or Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire.

Hanbury Hall, Worcs (built 1701)

Early in the C18th the influences of the C16th Italian architect Andrea Palladio gained popularity in the UK. His publication The Four Books of Architecture (pub. 1570 in Venice) was translated to English and it called for strict proportions, grace and understated elegance in designs. By building your country house in the style of Palladio a gentleman was highlighting his association with the greatness of Rome, its philosophy of liberty and democracy, and even the birth of civilisation itself.

By the middle of the C18th designs continued to draw on the Palladian influence but relaxed in their adherence to strict proportions and gained more freedom in their classical designs.

From the middle of the century going into the C19th new influences intrude, such as gothic and the Greek Revival. Strawberry Hill in Twickenham is the greatest example of this and was built by Horace Walpole from 1749. Other gentlemen added in a touch of the gothic by building gothic rooms or extensions such as gothic libraries (e.g. at the Leigh Park estate near Portsmouth, now the Staunton Country Park), or by building faux ruins in their gardens or even purchasing real ruins and moving them into their gardens like Thomas Dummer of Cranbury Park in Hampshire who bought part of Netley Abbey and transformed it into a gamekeeper’s cottage.

A beautiful example of the Greek Revival is Northington Grange near Winchester (featured in the film Onegin, a beautiful portrayal of the fabulous poem written by Puskin in the 1820s). Wealthy banker Henry Drummond wanted to “show the world a real portico” and between 1804 and 1809 employed the architect William Wilkins to entirely re-case his C17th mansion in the Greek Revival style, the highlight being the imposing Doric portico based on the Parthenon. A visitor in 1823 said “Nothing can be finer, or like the finest Poussin. It realises the most fanciful representations of the painter’s pencil or the poet’s description...There is nothing like it on this side of Arcadia”.

Northington Grange (source: Prosser's Views)

Why were so many houses built or changed in this ‘golden age’ of country houses? Reasons include the rise in land rents and raw materials from the estates, the availability of enclosures of common and waste land, political stability, monies from business investments, e.g. the slave trade, the rise in tourism and house-visiting and improvements in roads and transport, the availability of architectural guidebooks and finally the influence of the Grand Tour. Contemporaries however argued that instead they were showing their patriotism (a reaction against decadent French designs) and expressing their principles of education, morality and taste, as the Earl of Shaftesbury stated in 1731 “Taste founded on truth...and is acquired by toil and study, which is the reason so few are possessed of it”.

As Lancelot (‘Capability’) Brown said “Placemaking, and a good English garden depend entirely on principle and have very little to do with fashion”. But do we believe him? Either way, a constellation of beautiful country houses continues to brighten the British countryside as they have done for over 200 years.