“With large sweeping expanses of lush green fields, groupings of trees, winding paths, and serpentine-shaped rivers and lakes, the English landscape appears as an ideal form of nature; it is, however, an expertly crafted construct.” —from the exhibit, "Moving Earth"
Andrea/Cara here, Spring is bursting into bloom where I am, the colors and textures transforming the stark planes of winter into a whole new landscape. It got me to thinking about how trees and shrubs and flowers shape our perception of our surroundings. Modern life, with all its crowded cities and endless strip malls, has tended to dull that bond to the natural world. It got me to thinking about the English countryside, which has always seemed to me to be the quintessential example of a wonderful balance between the wildness of Nature and the careful cultivation of Man.
Ah, but looks can be deceiving, as I recently discovered at a wonderful little exhibit entitled Moving Earth—Capability Brown, Humphry Repton and the Creation of the English Landscape. Much of that “naturalness” was in fact carefully conceived, and achieved on some of the great aristocratic estates by artful positioning of trees, moving mountains of earth to make sweeping vistas of rolling fields, and redirecting streams to form serpentine bodies of water. It’s become the iconic look of England, and owes much of its heritage to master landscape architects “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton.
According the exhibit, up until the eighteenth century English garden design reflected the influence of the Continent—most especially Le Notre’s designs for Versailles. Straight rows, of well-trimmed plantings, ornate fountains and geometric layouts with formal pathways were the order of the day. Formality ruled. Gardens were not only for relaxation but also a “symbol of wealth, power and culture.”
But as more and more English aristocrats made “The Grand Tour,” their experience with the picturesque scenery of Italy gave birth a new concept of landscape. Art and poetry began extolling the virtues of a return to Nature. Romantic elements, like grottoes and classical ruins, were seen as adding to that allure.
The grand estate at Stowe, where Capability Brown began his career, was one of the first places to begin experimenting with a free form of layout. Winding paths and classical temples highlight the groves of trees and long vistas. Blenheim, the family seat of the Duke of Marlborough, also chose to showcase the “new” look, with Brown creating a plan.
By 1751, Brown—who earned his nickname for often saying a place had “capabilities of improvement”—had earned a reputation as a master visionary and some who could imitate Nature so well, that his creations were said to be better than the real thing. He arranged drive and pathways to reveal one extraordinary vista after another. His hand truly shaped what we think of today as the classic English look. (He’s said to have designed over 170 gardens and landscapes over the course of his career.
Humphry Repton followed Brown. A student of architectural history, he was very focused on how the house fit into the landscape. He pioneered the look of more flowers and parterres around a residence, while also keeping the sweeping vistas and winding pathways favored by Brown.
The country estates of our Regency heroes and heroines live in the world of Brown and Repton. And fortunately its beauty has stood the test of time!
So, what’s your taste in gardens? Do you like a more formal, orderly layout with trimmed plantings? Or are you partial to a more natural look, where wildness rules? Have you a favorite famous garden? (I find Giverny, Claude Monet’s garden, quite amazing.)