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.

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