We have reissued a number of books by and about botanists, plant hunters, gardeners and nurserymen: Banks (of course!), Hooker (père et fils), Douglas, Smith, Henslow, Darwin, Loudon, Veitch, Jekyll, Robinson… But before the immense growth of interest in exotic plants resulting from the exploratory voyages of Cook and others, there was an extraordinarily vigorous debate about the aesthetics of landscape as a whole (rather than the detail of individual plants) which even spilled over into the political arena.
I had a rather dim idea of eighteenth-century garden development: in the beginning was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, and after him was Humphry Repton – the former a practical hands-on gardener turned designer, the latter a dilettante ‘consultant’ – who between them changed the landscape of England for ever. But that it was not that simple is apparent from the fierce controversy provoked by The Landscape, a Didactic Poem, published in 1794 by Richard Payne Knight, whose brother T.A. Knight was a stalwart of the Royal Horticultural Society.
Over the course of the next twelve months, we will be reissuing a number of titles about the art, aesthetics and philosophy of landscape. Knight’s work will be an appendix to An Essay on the Picturesque, as Compared with the Sublime and the Beautiful (now published, Jan 2014), by Sir Uvedale Price, to whom the poem is dedicated. (Another shared interest of the pair was the classical languages: Price wrote on the vexed question of pronunciation and Knight on the Greek alphabet.)
Both works were published in 1794, and have a common viewpoint in that they disapprove of the ‘parkland’ effect created by Brown and Repton – one can almost see the curl of the lip with which Knight writes about ‘improvers’. Price felt strongly that a professional landscaper, dropped in to fulfill a commission, is likely to do harm to the specific ‘genius’ of a particular place, simply because he is not familiar with it. Moreover (and here both would presumably agree with Goldsmith’s ‘The Deserted Village’), the felling of ancient trees (and indeed the destruction of peasant homes) to improve the view is morally wrong as well as being aesthetically dubious; the razing of productive land to create a grassy vista to be viewed from the landowner’s windows, let alone the drowning of farmland in an artificial lake, is equally deplorable.
Meanwhile, from 1782 William Gilpin the uncle, clergyman, teacher and writer on art, had been publishing a series of ‘observations on picturesque beauty’, the outcome of travels around Britain, in which he attempted to ‘adapt the description of natural scenery to the principles of artificial landscape’. His earlier work, Essay upon Prints (1768) was an attempt to define the picturesque in art: with these books he was seeking to find the painterly in nature. The books were illustrated with sketches by himself and his nephew, and were extremely popular: he made enough money from them to endow and build two schools in the New Forest village of Boldre where from 1777 he was the vicar.
All this aesthetic debate was picked up by the writers of the day: Jane Austen has fun with ‘the picturesque’ in Northanger Abbey, while in Mansfield Park it is the idiot Mr Rushworth who wants to rush into improving his estate: ‘There have been two or three fine old trees cut down, that grew too near the house, and it opens the prospect amazingly, which makes me think that Repton, or anybody of that sort, would certainly have the avenue [of ancient trees] at Sotherton down.’
Best of all is Thomas Love Peacock’s Headlong Hall, in which Squire Harry Headlong invites Marmaduke Milestone, Esq. [Repton] and Sir Patrick O’Prism [Price] to advise him on improvements. Milestone has brought with him a portfolio of his famous before-and-after views: in this case, of Lord Littlebrain’s park. Once there was ‘a wood, never yet touched by the finger of taste; thick, intricate, and gloomy. Here is a little stream, dashing from stone to stone, and overshadowed with these untrimmed boughs . . . Now, here is the same place corrected—trimmed—polished—decorated—adorned. Here sweeps a plantation, in that beautiful regular curve: there winds a gravel walk: here are parts of the old wood, left in these majestic circular clumps, disposed at equal distances with wonderful symmetry: there are some single shrubs scattered in elegant profusion: here a Portugal laurel, there a juniper; here a laurustinus, there a spruce fir; here a larch, there a lilac; here a rhododendron, there an arbutus. The stream, you see, is become a canal: the banks are perfectly smooth and green, sloping to the water’s edge: and there is Lord Littlebrain, rowing in an elegant boat.’
Politics came into it because at the time of the French Revolution, Price and Knight were seen as dangerous radicals, and ‘undressed nature’ as anarchy by any other name, whereas Brown and Repton were both concerned to establish the landowner as lord of all he surveyed and thus reinforce the status quo. Price however argued in response that the safest way to defuse any revolutionary tendencies among the rural poor was for the landowner to be his own sensible, judicious improver, and not to aggrandize himself and his own surroundings at the expense of his tenants and neighbours.
William Sawrey Gilpin was a follower and champion of Price, from whom he quotes extensively, though the influence of his uncle is also clear in his definition and discussion of the different types of landscape beauty. The debate might seem a particularly eighteenth-century one, with ‘improvement’ going hand-in-hand with enclosure, and wealth from new, industrial sources enabling large-scale redevelopment, but it still surfaces from time to time. Most recently, Adam Nicolson’s book, Sissinghurst, An Unfinished History, makes a very Price-like plea for the famous gardens to be reintegrated into the surrounding farmland of which the estate was for centuries a part, rather than sitting as an isolated tourist attraction, divorced from its context and the local community. Who will win that one?