Most of England’s apparently natural countryside is in fact contrived, the result of a revolutionary movement in garden design, the discipline first named “landscape architecture” by Humphry Repton (1752–1818). The English eighteenth-century landscape garden, which would be internationally imitated, was possibly Britain’s main contribution to European esthetics. Unlike traditional gardens, it was distinguished by asymmetry and informality. It incorporated artificial hills and free-form lakes; redirected rivers; sinuous pathways and drives; strategically placed stands of trees in grassy fields; and, of course, the great house, from which carefully composed and uninterrupted vistas opened to surrounding parkland. The movement was linked with the notorious Enclosure Acts, which allowed the English gentry to resume what formerly had been common land. Large landholdings brought profit as well as social and political power, displayed in the creation of expansive parks surrounding a country seat.
In a 1713 essay the poet Alexander Pope (1688–1744) suggested that formal English gardens be replaced by the “amiable simplicity of unadorned nature.” He entreated, “In all, let nature never be forgot.1/4 Consult the genius of the place.” The challenge was taken up by three designers: William Kent, Lancelot Brown, and Repton, who within a century had banished geometry from the English countryside.
Kent (1685–1748), called “father of the English landscape garden,” was trained as a sign painter and also worked as a coach builder’s apprentice. Although never a successful artist, for ten years he studied painting in Rome, earning his living as an art dealer. In Italy in 1715 he met Lord Burlington, who became his patron. Back to London in the 1720s, he worked with Burlington on Chiswick House before engaging in landscape design. The critic Horace Walpole declared that Kent “leaped the fence and saw that all of nature was a garden.” Inspired by the works of Lorraine, Poussin, and Rosa, and believing that “all gardening is a landscape painting,” Kent regarded his gardens as classical pictures, replete with antique pavilions and composed to maximize the artistic impact of form, light, and color. In 1737 he was invited to Rousham in Oxfordshire to redesign the seventeenth-century house, as well as a garden laid out by the Royal Gardener, Charles Bridgeman (d. 1738), in the 1720s. Kent added wings and a stable block to the house and made interior alterations, but the garden (completed in 1741) is his best surviving work, thought by many to be “the jewel” of the English landscape movement. It marks a transition between the great English Restoration gardens and Viscount Cobham’s house, Stowe, in Buckinghamshire.
At the end of the 1600s, Stowe had a modest Italian-inspired parterre garden. From about 1713 the surrounding park, designed by Bridgeman, was dotted with Baroque pavilions and monuments by the architect John Vanbrugh. Then, in the 1730s, Cobham appointed Kent and the Palladian architect James Gibbs to work with Bridgeman. Kent, convinced that “nature abhors a straight line,” began to replace the geometrical gardens with winding, shaded paths and created a series of painterly views that unfolded on a walk through the landscape, the beginning of the most important early English landscape gardens. Bridgeman’s Octagonal Pond and the Eleven Acre Lake were given a free form. Other changes followed with the arrival of the greatest champion of the “natural” landscape, Lancelot Brown.
Brown (1715–1783) began his horticultural career as apprentice to Sir William Lorraine. After working for Sir Richard Grenville at Wotton, he moved to Buckinghamshire in 1739, and two years later he was an undergardener at Stowe. He remained for seven years as a disciple (and eventually son-in-law) of Kent and became immersed in the new English style of landscape gardening. Kent was still improving the garden, although he undertook other projects. Brown designed the “Grecian Valley,” a composition of landform and forest. Kent died in 1748 and Lord Cobham a year later. Brown left Stowe and in 1751 established a landscape practice based in London. He later became head gardener to the Duke of Grafton and in 1761 was appointed Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace. During his time at Stowe, his employer had allowed him to accept commissions from a number of his friends, and Brown’s practice, thus established, grew rapidly. Because he would enthusiastically tell prospective clients of the “great capabilities” of their properties, he earned the nickname “Capability” Brown.
His grand visions, realized in the gardens of about 170 of England’s stately rural houses, have been described as idealizations of the English countryside. They accentuated, (read “improved”) the undulating natural landscape; their asymmetrical compositions were enhanced with winding bands or clumps of trees and vast, rolling lawns, usually focused on a lake. At Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, often hailed as his magnum opus, he removed Henry Wise’s extensive parterre and brought the lawns right to the house, planting dark trees to frame the landscape beyond. He was later criticized for such wanton destruction of the works of earlier gardeners. A story underlines his enormous impact upon the English countryside: asked by an English lady to make a plan for her Irish estate, Brown is said to have replied, “No, madam, I can't, I haven't finished England yet.”
Humphry Repton, probably England’s greatest landscape theorist, was a minor landholder who had failed in business and at farming. In 1788 he took up landscape design when a family friend, the Duke of Portland, asked him to alter his garden. A key to his success was his skill as a watercolorist. He could produce attractive renderings of his schemes—an important factor in his profession because clients needed to visualize what might not be realized for years. Repton freely admitted his debt to Brown and continued many of his practices. Because of the Napoleonic Wars, his opportunities were limited. He produced landscapes, seldom as extensive as Brown’s, throughout England, among them many for terraces or smaller gardens close to houses. After about 1790 Repton created a transition between houses and their grounds by means of steps, terraces, and balustrades, through a “natural” park to a distant composed view. His ideals—utility, proportion, and unity—were best expressed at Woburn Abbey, where he augmented an existing landscape garden with a private garden, a flower garden, and what he called an “American garden.” In some senses, he began the transition from the informal landscape garden to the formality of the Victorian era. In 1795 he published Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening.
The esthetic mood in England was changing. From about 1770 Brown came under critical attack for, of all things, his “excessive formalism and lack of ‘naturalness.’” The romantic picturesque movement called for an exciting wild landscape—what was seen as a true return to nature. Nevertheless, those who could afford it had their architects (including Repton) build bogus ruins and enigmatic grottoes in the grounds of their houses; one eccentric even employed a hermit to live in his grotto. Debate about the classical English landscape garden versus the picturesque garden were exhausted by about 1830, and the “grand vision” dulled to be replaced by the Victorian garden with its rose beds, shrubberies, and rockeries. The acceptability of Brown and his followers—there were many—declined until the early twentieth century, and it was not until 1950 that he was finally recognized as the eighteenth century’s “most celebrated English landscape architect.”