A brief trip through the history of time: the evolution of garden design part 2

At last the follow-up to a blog I originally wrote in October 2010 for those of you who are interested in discovering the changing face of garden design. I mentioned Le Notre’s work in Versailles and Vaux-le-Vicomte. His innovation was to move away from the idea of the house being the iconic status symbol as an indicator wealth and importance, towards the view that the grounds would do the job better, especially if they were heroic rather than domestic.


His death coincided with the change to a more liberal society. Scientific enquiry and social mobility meant prosperity for certain sections of society. As trade grew and countries were discovered and colonised, so did the exchange of products, plants and seeds. Gardens began to evolve away from the medieval standard of enclosed boxes, and as they grew in size and the boundaries receded, the former popular raised terraces were no longer necessary to provide views into the garden.

Wealthy aristocrats had the means to travel abroad and make collections, and built classical style gardens which would reflect their interest and show off their cultural knowledge. In England the Enclosure Acts, which resulted in the familiar pattern of hedgerows and fields of today, benefitted the rich at the expense of the poor. It was the age of power politics. Increased industrialisation soon encouraged the migration from the land, resulting in an urban sprawl which would soon encroach unimpeded upon the countryside. Better roads and vehicles started to make it possible to travel for pleasure rather than just for necessity.

By the mid-eighteenth century the straight line was replaced by irregularity, as man became more aware of his environment, whether urban or rural, natural or man-made, and moved towards a new more natural romantic look. It was an expression of nostalgia coupled with an appreciation of nature for its own sake and a new-found sense of space.

The ha-ha at Stowe

The ha-ha, a device which had been developed the previous century, enabled ‘nature’ to appear as part of the garden while keeping animals away from the house, was used at Stowe by Charles Bridgeman, a man of intellectual pretentions. He directed walks to views of open countryside, sweeping away the existing parterres and replacing them with lakes while moving the walled kitchen gardens out of sight. It became the most talked about garden of the day.

This new natural style was seen as representing a new ideal, symbolic of humanist and liberal principles according to various literary figures, such as Alexander Pope (who famously referred to ‘the Genius of the Place’). He was responsible for ‘grottomania’ which gripped the makers of picturesque gardens.

Serpentine rill at Rousham Park

Gardens developed in two different directions following the philosophy of Bridegman on the one hand,and William Kent on the other. Having been on the Grand Tour, Kent was influenced by the style of the painters of the day, setting the house in a series of pastoral scenes as painted by artists like Claude Lorrain or Poussin. As a painter he knew about the effects of perspective and chiaroscuro, and he applied these techniques to bring light, depth and shade to the garden. At Rousham Park the different shades of green of this idyllic classical landscape can still be seen today.

Orpheus and Euridice by Poussin

Romantic folly at Painshill Park

Painshill was Charles Hamilton’s view of a natural and picturesque landscape with serpentine walks round a lake, classical scenes and a rustic hermitage in a gloomy wood. He had unusual taste for the time, and planted many rhododendrons and azaleas, anticipating the nineteenth century fashion for exotics. His gardens influenced the banker Henry Hoare who planned Stourhead as a romantic circuit of temples based on thoughts of Homer, Virgil and Ovid.

Idyllic view of the gardens at Stourhead

Stowe influenced Capability Brown who worked there as a boy, but he went much further than Kent, working on a grander and  more heroic scale. Whereas Kent was more of an artist, a man of culture lacking horticultural experience, Brown had a gardener’s practical knowledge, enabling him to handle expanses of water and planting trees by the thousand.

Palladian bridge half submerged by Brown's new lake

Although his landscapes seemed simple, they were very expensive. He thought nothing of moving whole villages or levelling hills to reveal a view of the river, as at Chatsworth. A Brownian landscape was extremely tidy with shorn lawns and clean-cut river banks with sheep replacing flowerbeds. Despite his influence, however, many people still took their inspiration from the pictorial and literary principles of an earlier generation.

Humphrey Repton, another artist famous for his sketches showing the view before and how he envisaged it after improvement (famously contained in his ‘red books’), continued in the same vein, often modifying Brown’s work. He re-introduced the idea of terraces and planting near the house. He was extremely practical, introducing gravel paths in place of grass walks making it possible for ladies (with their long skirts) and children to walk in the garden and yet keep clean. He wrote many books and was responsible for the revival of interest in topiary.

Repton's sketch of the original garden 'before'

Repton - sketch showing suggested changes

Supporters of this picturesque movement believed that no artificial elements (temples, columns, statues, rustic cottages) should be allowed to interrupt the natural landscape. Fields, woods, streams and hills were now considered beautiful in their own right, and good for the soul. Primitive innocence was considered important, rather than shared cultural knowledge.

By the end of the century approximately 50% of the English countryside (bog, heath and scrub) had been reclaimed and many parks and gardens laid out. However the land-owning and educated classes continued to set standards of taste in all art forms, including gardening, until the end of the century. Better farming methods meant increased productivity and thus prosperity. Gardens were a way of reflecting this but these new landowners had no intellectual pretensions. Gardening became very popular among ordinary people and many books were written. There was even a monthly magazine, The Practical Husbandman and Planter. The topic also cropped up in contemporary novels by authors like Jane Austen.

I hope this has been interesting, and next time I will cover the Victorian era together with carpet bedding, concrete and tarmac and all things colourful and manmade.

About Borderline Garden Design

I work as a landscape and garden designer in the Oxfordshire/Berkshire area.
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