The English Garden perceived as harmonious, lovely, picturesque or graceful to visitors in our present day, is charged with political resistance, struggle for power, projection of social utopias or flight into resignation. Like many interesting creations, these gardens are microcosms full of contradictions – particularly during the time they were created in the early 18th century: utopia and idyll, a mirror of society and its antithesis, dream and melancholy, imitation of nature and going beyond nature.
Stowe House Park, less than 70 miles northwest of London, is considered to be the first and most definitive site of an ‘English Garden’ – Lancelot Brown (1716 – 1783) who was employed there was the first person whose life-long occupation was that of a landscape gardener. The Stowe gardens embodied the ‘English Garden’ paradigm like no other and Benton Seeley’s guidebook (1742), the first garden guidebook to be published in the world, helped to spread Stowe’s influence throughout the 18th century as the model for the ideal English garden.
As a country estate of the Temple family, it was – many decades before the redesign – first committed to Baroque, i.e. French models: symmetrically laid out, geometrized nature, combined with the pompous splendor of the manor building. The early model was abandoned and the new complex design of 26 hectares followed more innovative principles, for good reason; however, it still remained a status symbol of the wealthy family.
Thus the many buildings that were built in the park are demonstratively not Baroque. After all, Baroque embodied absolutism, which was despised. Instead, they were inspired by Renaissance, Gothic, antiquity, or Chinese architecture, pre-baroque styles or styles found geographically outside the borders of England. Each style tries to evoke its own mood: Gothic stood (and stands) for the morbid, the unearthly, China for the exotic, antiquity for the free citizenry.
In this sense, the names of the garden parts can be understood as allegories: Temple of Concord and Victory, Grecian Valley, Stauen von Saxon Deities (Germanic Deities) or Homer and Socrates, Gothic Temple, Elysian Fields and many others refer to cultural regions that represent a different, supposedly better social order. It is about an alternative concept to the absolutist principles, about freedom. The dedication inscription on the Gothic Temple makes this very clear: “To the liberties of our Ancestors”.
This directly decipherable political iconography is complemented by a differentiated iconology of forms. For example, the grass around the Temple of Ancient Virtue is subtly maintained as a lawn, while the grass around the ruins of ‘contemporary virtue’ grew wild until the ruins disappeared completely. The outdoors devours the contemporary, decadent, (neo-) absolutist tendencies. Thus nature was liberated from geometrizing corsets just as society was liberated from absolutism. As in free nature outside the garden with its unbridled forms, the garden becomes a free landscape in which free people move freely.
This conception of how such a landscape garden should look was influenced by three main sources: from the personal memories of nature that English nobility brought back with them from their Grand Tours through Europe; various descriptions of exotic Asian gardens; and, finally, from the classical landscape paintings by Ruisdael, Lorrain or Poussin.
Areas in the garden were designed for such three-dimensional pictorial stagings, which in Stowe featured over 90 selected scenes (or one might call them intriguing or harmonious compositions) that could be experienced from certain spots or areas in the garden. The visitor had to and has to set out to walk in order to experience all the spaces and perspectives along the way. Winding paths, which repeatedly open up to surprising glimpses of the unexpected, lift the visitor from everyday life and put him in a special mood. Hence, the course of the path is the central means of the landscape designer to develop his own dramaturgy. He steers the visitor and controls what he sees and when. What the visitor doesn’t see are typical walls. Instead the use of ha-has, a recess in the landscape similar to a sunken ditch, creates a vertical barrier while preserving an uninterrupted view of the landscape. The fine line between art and nature disappears.
The ever-changing weather, light and appearance of the plants, and the multifold of views along the way, allow the visitor to immerse himself again and again in an entirely new visual experience. This sensual experience should have a purpose. In the five-volume Theory of Garden Art by Hirschfeld, published 1779-85 in Leipzig, the aims are clearly outlined: On the one hand, the education of the observer through the enjoyment of art (“inner true cheering up of the soul, enrichment of the imagination, refinement of feelings”) and on the other hand, the “beautification of an earth which is our home for a time”. The aim is thus the refinement of nature by man as well as the refinement of man by nature.
The Temple family had initially acquired its immense wealth through sheep farming, and on the basis of its economic success it provided members of the English parliament for generations, including four prime ministers. English politics in the 18th and 19th centuries would be inconceivable without its influence. Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham (1675 – 1749), who was a key figure in the founding of the park at Stowe, was initially a successful army commander in the War of Spanish Succession against France. In the early 18th century, however, as a supporter of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ (1688/89), which had led to the abolition of absolutism in England, he was marginalized by internal adversaries, which made the development of his garden so important for him.
In search of an aesthetic alternative to the ideologically rejected French garden (as the embodiment of absolutism), Chinese or Japanese gardens offered a central source of inspiration. William Temple had already published a book on Asian gardens in 1690. These gardens were above all a counter-model to the symmetrical arrangement of geometrically limited flowerbeds, the prototype of which was the park of Versailles. The irregular, free composition of trees, plants, stones, and water in Asian gardens was the model for a natural appearance that was as natural as possible and, in turn, created with the highest degree of craftsmanship, that is, artificially. In 1738, this enthusiasm for Asian gardens led to the construction of a Chinese house in Stowe – the first in garden history – an innovation that found its successors in many gardens throughout Europe.
Sibylle Hoimann, Garten; in: Fleckner U., Warnke M., Ziegler H. (eds.), Handbuch der politischen Ikonographie, Vol. I, München 2011 (Beck), pp. 388.
published January 2020