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Gardening and Governing
Nature and culture among the roses.
Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 3, 2009

Just in the center of Richard II, Shakespeare's most geometrically designed play, and the only one written wholly in verse, we are presented with a scene in a garden. Richard's Queen and her ladies stroll in it, but are heavy of heart—the King's grip on the throne is quickly loosening—and when the gardener and his servant arrive to do some work, they hide themselves and listen. The gardener offers these instructions:

Go thou, and like an executioner,
Cut off the heads of too fast growing sprays,
That look too lofty in our commonwealth:
All must be even in our government.

And if this political allegory were not explicit enough, the servant dispenses with it and makes his commentary direct:

Why should we in the compass of a pale
Keep law and form and due proportion,
Showing, as in a model, our firm estate,
When our sea-walled garden, the whole land,
Is full of weeds, her fairest flowers choked up,
Her fruit-trees all upturned, her hedges ruin'd,
Her knots disorder'd and her wholesome herbs
Swarming with caterpillars?

At this point the gardener reveals that "the wasteful king" has been "seized" by Henry Bolingbroke. He exclaims, "O, what pity is it / That he had not so trimm'd and dress'd his land / As we this garden!"

The link between gardening and ruling was not first forged here, but rarely had it been made so strong; and Shakespeare offers the added lovely complication of placing this scene centrally, like a sculpture or tableau at the heart of a formal garden, thereby exhibiting his own skills at design, his own mastery of the available resources.

Gardening marks, as clearly as any activity, the joining of nature and culture. The gardener makes nothing, but rather gathers what God has made and shapes it into new and pleasing forms. The well-designed garden shows nature more clearly and beautifully than nature can show itself. And this can be a model of politics: people left to their own devices can run riot, make themselves and their environment "ruin'd" and "disorder'd"; properly governed, though, they can flourish, they can become their best selves and make the most of their environment.

But the governor's hand, like the gardener's, can fall too heavy. If we grant that Richard has been careless and thoughtless, has failed to govern, has allowed weeds to overwhelm "our sea-walled garden," we may also suspect this gardener, who is quick to appoint an "executioner" and is perhaps overly enamored with "evenness" in his realm. We need governors as we need gardeners; but not all forms of government are equally wise or equally beautiful.

These are among the themes of Tim Richardson's delightfully expansive book The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden. Richardson explores in apt detail the most eventful and meaning-rich period of English landscape gardening, from the Glorious Revolution of 1688—during which the English and the Dutch collaborated in governing and gardening alike—to the middle of the next century, when Lancelot "Capability" Brown strode onto the scene and made an impression that still dominates our sense of the English made landscape.

Brown's nickname came from his habit of scanning a rich man's estate and proclaiming that the place had "capabilities." This was Brown's way of announcing that his task was to work with the existing character of a place, to take advantage of the capabilities it already and natively possessed rather than imposing a purely human vision upon it. Brown's landscapes are cunningly and carefully designed, above all in their apparent lack of design. The visitor to, say, Blenheim Palace who is unaware of these matters is likely to look from the house over the vast rolling grounds and think, "Yes, I can see why someone decided to build a great house here." But the house was built fifty years before Brown showed up; and when he did show up, he planted trees, created hills and valleys, and even dammed a stream to create a little lake, which had the effect of lowering a stone bridge that Brown (rightly) thought was too prominent, distracting from the "natural" beauty of the place. One rival commented that Brown's designs "differ very little from common fields, so closely is nature copied in most of them," which was not meant as a compliment, but Brown surely would have taken it as one.

Brown's designs take us a long, long way from the gardens of the Italian and French Renaissance, which by contrast seem overwhelmingly geometrical and symmetrical—like Richard II—and which emphasize the power of art to transform nature. Thus their great reliance on topiary (than which nothing could be more repulsive to Capability Brown). Richardson's purpose is to explain how, in a period of about sixty years, English landscaping got from the old French-Italian model to its opposite. And that explanation begins in the years following the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660.

When Parliament invited Charles II to assume the throne that he had always thought was rightfully his anyway, they meant for him to understand that the role of king was, from then on, a circumscribed one. Charles got the message—as long as he had his money and his mistresses he was happy enough, and willing to keep his Catholicism under wraps—but his brother and successor James II was somewhat pricklier and more ambitious, and more devoted to his religion. This led leaders of Parliament to begin the negotiations with William of Orange that would lead to James evacuating the throne in 1688 and his being replaced by William and his wife Mary. Among the consequences of this event was a cross-pollination of English and Dutch landscaping styles. Members of the emerging pro-Parliament party, the Whigs, were especially eager to show their support for the alliance with Holland by mimicking the less formal, less elaborate landscapes preferred by the leading lights of that nation.

Moreover, it did not take people long to discern obvious links between styles of governance and styles of gardening. The French and Italian style of shaping nature to art's needs struck many English observers as perfectly consonant with authoritarian monarchial government and the rigid hierarchies of Catholicism. They saw, by contrast, the humbler and more naturalistic style of the Dutch as an echo of deliberative republicanism and the relative egalitarianism of the Protestant faith. So for many aristocrats, gentlemen, and rising merchants, the design of one's garden became a primary way to indicate one's political allegiances.

The Whigs, Richardson demonstrates, were the first to get on board with this program; it took the Tories a while to start playing the game, and even longer to figure out styles of landscaping that would distinguish them from the Whigs without making them seem unpatriotically attached to the ways of England's old enemy France. (They decided to copy the newfangled preference for "wiggling walks" and groves rather than the straight lines and formal parterres of old.) But gradually the rival styles began to emerge. Richardson is quick to say that few of the differences would be apparent to modern eyes, since none of the estates and gardens of that time went nearly as far in the naturalistic direction as Capability Brown would later go; but they were quite evident to people of the time.

Richardson also gives a vivid picture of just how important landscaping became in the aesthetics of 18th-century Europe. Describing the first decade of that century, he writes, "It probably sounds absurd to twenty-first-century ears, attuned to the concept of gardens and gardening as a simple-minded, outdoor version of diy, but for four decades from this point garden design constituted the cutting edge of international avant-garde art, with Britain leading the way." Thus it makes sense that gardens and landscapes would be the continual objects of attention by the literati of the time. Indeed, the essayist and poet Joseph Addison became something like the Minister of Propaganda, Gardening Division for the Whigs, just as (a little later) Alexander Pope came to perform a similar function for the Tories. They were the great theorists of landscape of their time.

And they were also gardeners themselves, Addison in a belated and offhand way, Pope in a passionate and even obsessive one. Pope's little estate on the Thames in Twickenham—he managed to buy it thanks to subscriptions to his translation of Homer, which made him rich—became the poet's laboratory of design, featuring a tunnel under a road, a little temple, statues with classical verses attached to them, and (wonder of wonders) a mineral-encrusted grotto featuring a camera obscura. Pope dearly loved his grotto, and though only a fragment of his design remains, he would be comforted by the knowledge that the grotto is that fragment. Richardson argues that in his over-exuberance Pope tried to cram too much into too little space, and that the resultant busyness compromised the aesthetic effect of the garden, but he is also ready to forgive Pope for that because the Twickenham garden achieved what Richardson believes to be the two great virtues of a garden: variety and individuality.

What Richardson loves above all about the gardens of this period is the way that their owners strove to create botanical and arboreal mirrors of themselves and their interests. In some cases those interests were strongly political, usually represented in statuary: Richardson offers a detailed description of Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, where Lord Cobham built a Temple of British Worthies to identify his heroes, and to mark his villains by omission. But in other cases—notably the magnificent Stourhead in Wiltshire, owned by the Hoares, a banking family—the impulse was thoroughly non-political, rather aesthetic or narrative: the visitor to Stourhead was (and still is) guided through a sequence of widely varying and constantly surprising sights. Statues are hidden in dark grottoes, overhung by dense evergreens; then the visitor emerges from a close tunnel of greenery onto a sudden vista of a lake and, wonderfully, the Pantheon on the far bank, half-encircled by trees. It's like a painting by Poussin, and indeed was designed to give just that effect.

Classical—or more specifically Palladian—buildings like Stourhead's Pantheon were common features on the larger estates, but there were also many kinds of pseudo-temple, the aforementioned grottoes, and, increasingly as the century wore on, hermitages. Usually the hermitages would contain statues or books, but it was sometimes thought that hermitages should be inhabited. Curiously, this becomes a major theme in Tom Stoppard's magnificent 1995 play Arcadia, during which Lady Croom hires a bumbling landscape designer named Noakes, whom she comes to refer to as "Culpability" Noakes. When Noakes tells her that he is building a hermitage, and she inquires where he plans to get a hermit, he stammers—not having considered this point—that he could perhaps advertise in the newspaper for one. To this Lady Croom replies, "But surely a hermit who takes a newspaper is not a hermit in whom one can have complete confidence."

A wonderful scene, and we learn from Richardson that it's not wholly fictional. The Hon. Charles Hamilton, in the course of creating what would become one of the masterpieces of the age at his estate Painshill, in Surrey, actually did advertise in the newspapers for a hermit to live in his hermitage. He offered said hermit not only (a very small) room and (meager) board but the princely sum of 700 guineas—about $50,000—upon certain strict conditions: for seven years the hermit could not shave, cut his hair, trim his fingernails, or speak to anyone. On the plus side, he would receive a hermit's cloak, a human skull, and a Bible. Hamilton got a taker soon enough, and was quite pleased until—just three weeks into the experiment—the hermit was found carousing in a nearby pub and was fired on the spot. Thus confirming the wisdom of Lady Croom's suspicions.

In the great variety of design and ornamentation in the gardens of this age, one notable absence was religion. This led many pious believers to see the increasing popularity among the wealthy of landscape gardening as a sign of encroaching paganism. But Richardson offers a more plausible explanation: the scars of the previous century's religious wars were still fresh enough that few if any landowners were willing to risk the creation of religious symbols that could be misinterpreted, could become flashpoints for anger or resentment. Better to stay on the safe (secular) side.

Richardson gives vivid portraits of these gardens and of the personalities that made or commissioned them: above all Pope, but also Henrietta Howard, the resourceful and charming mistress of George II; the self-effacing genius William Kent, the greatest designer of his age; the energetic Lord Burlington, to whom Pope wrote a great verse epistle; and many more. Almost all of these figures died in the decade or so around 1750, and for Richardson, this date marked the end of the most vivid and exciting period of English landscape design—in part because it also marks the rise of Capability Brown. Brown, Richardson acknowledges, was a great genius, but he employed the same naturalistic ideas—the same irregularly shaped lakes, the same artlessly scattered clumps of trees, the same ha-ha's, the same pastures that came right up to the houses themselves—pretty much everywhere, and the overwhelming popularity of those ideas tended to dampen, if not eliminate, the variety and individuality that had reigned in the first half of the century. Brown's designs were impeccably and subtly tasteful, but Richardson makes a compelling case that impeccable taste isn't everything. The age of the Arcadian Friends was one in which a landscape garden could look like almost anything and have almost anything in it. Richardson misses that age—especially since so few traces of it remain today—and he causes the reader to miss it too.

Alan Jacobs is professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author most recently of Original Sin: A Cultural History (HarperOne) and Looking Before and After: Testimony and the Christian Life (Eerdmans). He's at work on a book about trees.