EESE 5/2002

Patriotic Islands:
The Politics of the English Landscape Garden

Marie-Luise Egbert (Chemnitz)


When Sir Jack Pitman, the owner of Pitco Enterprises in Julian Barnes's England, England (1998), conceives of a Quality Leisure Project which will offer visitors a miniature replica of England on the Isle of Wight, he commissions a survey to find out the top fifty characteristics which people from all over the world associate with the word 'England' (England, England: 58). The resulting list is headed by the entry 'Royal family,' followed by 'Big Ben/Houses of Parliament' and 'Manchester United Football Club.' Further down on this intriguing list, but still in a respectable 32nd position, one also notes the item 'gardening' (84).

This assumption of a link between the English and their taste for gardening is of long standing. It was already clearly voiced in the eighteenth century. This essay examines how the link between Englishness and gardens was first established, tracing the process in which the eighteenth-century landscape garden became vested with a political agenda. In a second step, the connection will be pursued in three eighteenth-century novels: Tobias Smollet's The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker (1771), Richard Graves's The Spiritual Quixote (1773) and his Columella (1779).

Evoking eighteenth-century gardens infallibly calls to mind what is known as the landscape movement, i.e. the gradual abandoning of previously dominant formal models of gardening, which had been brought to England from France and the Netherlands. Their geometrical style with its insistence on a centralized perspective and its symmetrical partitions of larger spaces into smaller ones were considered as no longer acceptable by many garden professionals and amateurs.

The French and Dutch habit of clipping evergreens into yet more symmetrical shapes was also much debated. Joseph Addison and the Earl of Shaftesbury have frequently been quoted for their poignant statements on the matter. Shaftesbury, for one, is usually taken to express his disgust for formal gardens in his philosophical dialogue The Moralists (1709) when he states:

I shall no longer resist the Passion growing in me for Things of a natural kind; where neither Art nor the Conceit or Caprice of man has spoil'd their genuine Order, by breaking in upon that primitive State. Even the rude Rocks, the mossy Caverns, the irregular unwrought Grotto's [sic] and broken Falls of Waters, with all the horrid Graces of the Wilderness it-self, as representing NATURE more, will be the more engaging, and appear with a Magnificence far beyond the formal Mockery of Princely Gardens. (The Moralists 1988 [1709]: 124)

As John Dixon Hunt has shown, this well-known statement tells only half the truth about Shaftesbury's position: he in fact believed that the natural and the artificial both had their place in garden design (Hunt 1996 [1986]: 182). Nonetheless, Shaftesbury's remark aptly gives the gist of the new attitude concerning gardens. The growing preference for gardens considered closer to nature was partly grounded in the socio-economic developments of the period. Due to the beginnings of the industrial revolution, the English landscape was in the process of perceptible change. The influx of people into the towns and cities enlarged their surface so that they started to encroach upon the surrounding countryside.

On the other hand, the face of the countryside itself had started to change as a consequence of enclosure.1 What had once been common land collectively used by the rural community for grazing during a certain period of the year was now distributed among landowners. While dependent farmers thus lost an important source of income, landowners were able to increase their profits by cultivating their fields on an almost industrial scale. This process was known as 'improvement,' a term which derives from the fact that land enclosed can be cultivated more easily and promises greater yield (cf. OED, s.v. 'improvement'). The visible result of the process was the division of formerly open land into small rectangles, the borderlines of which were marked by hedgerows. Thus, the more 'natural' design of gardens had its counterpart in the increasingly symmetrical and regulated aspect of the land (Bermingham 1996 [1987]: 13f, Jarrett 1978: 12). In this respect, the landscape garden can be understood as counterbalancing the loss of 'natural' landscapes. It is interesting to note that the laying out of one's grounds in a new design also usually came under the term of improvement.

Aesthetically, the new trend in garden design was in part inspired by Italian architecture which had been introduced to Britain under the guise of Neo-Palladianism (Burlington, Kent). Art also had a formative influence on the new garden: landscape paintings in the Italian style by Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain were to prove a model for the landscape school.

Interestingly, the trend away from formal design was quickly seized upon by intellectuals and politicians. These claimed the landscape garden to be thoroughly English in character and origin. This position was argued in particular by a group of Whiggish writers and intellectuals who met at the Kit Cat Club, among them Lord Cobham, Joseph Addison and Richard Steele (Lange 1992: 54, Lancaster 1986: 167-9). They described themselves as 'patriots' and formed the chief section of the opposition against Sir Robert Walpole, the corruption of whose government they indicted. The group championed liberalism, a political stance which set greater stock by private property than governmental or monarchic control (Lange 1992: 55). The patriots celebrated the Revolution of 1688 as the point at which absolute monarchy had been abolished and parliamentary control firmly established. Against this backdrop, they would reject French and Dutch garden models with their centralized perspective since these were to them the very mirror image in aesthetics of absolute power in politics (Lange 1992: 55; Jarrett 1978: 13). Such a connection could easily be detected in that epitome of French formal gardening, Louis XIV's Versailles. For the landscape garden to develop, they argued, it had taken a political system marked by liberalism and found only in England. If it was quintessentially English to be liberal, a preference for liberal design was a correlative of that. In this way, liberal ideals in politics were mapped onto the aesthetics of the landscape garden. As Bending (1994, 1998), Lange (1992), and Hunt (1996 [1986]) have shown, many writers on gardens deliberately passed over in silence the obvious foreign inspirations of the new garden model, thereby creating the very myth of the Englishness of the landscape garden.

The intimate link between political freedom and liberalism in matters of design was fostered and defended in the popular journals of the period. In an essay published in the Tatler in 1709, Addison renders a dream vision in which he wanders through an Alpine landscape enclosing plains which by their beauty and variety surpass everything he knows. Addison's visionary landscape strikingly resembles a landscape garden, and he sets it off against formally styled gardens:

The Place was covered with a wonderful Profusion of Flowers, that, without being disposed into regular Borders and Parterres, grew promiscuously, and had a greater Beauty in their natural Luxuriancy and Disorder, than they could have received from the Checks and Restraints of Art. (Essay no. 161. Thursday, April 20, 1709: 157)

Addison says that in this beautiful place the Goddess of Liberty has her abode and thus makes it plain that the liberally styled landscape owns its existence to political freedom (cf. Müllenbrock 1988: 99).

In 1748, when the landscape movement was already well under way, William Gilpin published his Dialogue Upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham at Stow in Buckinghamshire.2 In the dialogue between the fictional visitors Callophilus and Polypthon, many of the emblematic elements of the gardens at Stowe are mentioned and revealed as the expression of Cobham's own patriotic leanings. Thus, the Temple of British Worthies celebrates eminent Britons, among them 'Patriots and Heroes [who] founded Constitutions, stemmed the Torrent of Corruption, battled for the State, ventured their Lives in the Defence of their Country, and gloriously bled in the Cause of Liberty' (Dialogue 1976 [1748]: 28, 30). The aesthetics of Stowe are held up by Callophilus as a model that will serve in a programmatic attempt to educate the taste of the nation, at the same time eradicating false models:

Our Gardens for the most Part were laid out in so formal, aukward [sic], and wretched a Manner, that they were really a Scandal to the very Genius of the Nation [...]. But Stow [sic], it is to be hoped, may work some Reformation: I would have our Country Squires flock hither two or three times in a Year, by way of Improvement, and after they have looked about them a little, return Home with new Notions, and begin to see the Absurdity of their clipped Yews, their Box-wood Borders, their flourished Parterres, and their lofty Brick-walls. (Dialogue: 48)

Apart form its agricultural and horticultural senses, the term improvement here is made to hint at character formation which is to be achieved by means of education.

As Stephen Bending (1998: 243-5) has shown, the eighteenth century is marked by an attempt on the part of the new dynasty of the Hanoverians to make the nation identify with their succession. To this end, they had to distance themselves - and the nation - from the French, whose influence on British taste and culture had been dominant for centuries and who were now their rivals in the War of the Spanish Succession. Indeed, as Bending argues, the very creation of a British identity is usually placed in the eighteenth century and is thought of as springing from this need for the country to redefine its political and cultural allegiances. In this sense, the education in matters of taste which Callophilus suggests is intended to bring the landed gentry in line with official policy.

According to Callophilus, it is not only the wealthy owners of estates who will profit from a visit to the garden. Stowe will also be a place of recreation for the labourer (50f). While Gilpin here seems to support the idea that gardens are democratic, he has earlier provided a critique of the high costs in creating a garden like Stowe by means of the character of Polypthon, who questions the social usefulness of such ostentatious grounds (45f). Indeed, notwithstanding his opposition to absolutist politics, Cobham himself was among those aristocrats who had entire villages removed in order to enlarge the grounds around their estates (Lange 1992: 55).3

Towards the end of the tour of the garden, Callophilus notes how much variety is provided by the perspectives onto the surrounding countryside which the garden offers. He praises the absence of high walls which might block the view. It is in this context that liberty is elevated to a principle of perception, when Callophilus says: 'There is nothing so distasteful to the Eye as a confined Prospect [...] especially if a dead Wall, or any other such disagreeable Object steps in between. The Eye naturally loves Liberty [...]' (54). In this way, liberty is claimed to be a principle ingrained in human perception for which it is only natural to be mirrored both in the aesthetic and in the political realm.

A perhaps even more patently political discussion of garden design is found in Horace Walpole's The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening (1771). This idiosyncratic history of the garden in England makes light of any putative precursors to the landscape garden and clearly adopts a teleological perspective in which earlier stages in the development - when England still imitated its European neighbours - could not but culminate in the English landscape garden in which gardening came into its own (cf. Hunt 1995: 9, 14). Like Gilpin, Walpole detects an expression of liberty in the very features of the garden. Having praised Kent as the first true landscape gardener (History 1995 [1771]: 40ff), Walpole sets off the latter's use of trees against the former fashion of clipping by saying that 'Freedom was given to the forms of trees; they extended their branches unrestricted' (History: 45).4 Here and elsewhere, Walpole's lexical choices are revelatory of his agenda.

While Walpole's History uses the seemingly objective mode of history-writing, both Addison's dream vision and Gilpin's Dialogue resort to allegory in order to convey their political and aesthetic programmes. In the following, I will examine these issues in the three novels mentioned above. In Smollet's The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771), Squire Matthew Bramble and his family take a tour of England, Scotland, and Wales. In his letters home, Bramble touches upon questions of improvement and husbandry when writing about a meeting with Baynard, a friend of his. Baynard has inherited considerable possessions but soon runs into great debt. He ameliorates his lot 'by means of a prudent marriage' (Humphry Clinker 1966 [1771]: 286) and moves to the country. However, Baynard's wife is much given to ostentation and endeavours to vie with their rural neighbours, so that instead of reducing expenditure, the rural surroundings yet increase their cost of living (286-92). She interferes with Baynard's own plans for re-organizing the estate which under her direction is turned from a farm into a pleasure garden so that it becomes unfit for agricultural use:

To shew [sic] her taste in laying out ground, she seized into her own hand a farm of two hundred acres, about a mile from the house, which she parcelled out into walks and shrubberies, having a great bason [sic] in the middle, into which she poured a whole stream that turned two mills, and afforded the best trout in the country. The bottom of the bason, however, was so ill secured, that it would not hold the water, which strained through the earth, and made a bog of the whole plantation: in a word, the ground which formerly paid him one hundred and fifty pounds a year, now cost him two hundred pounds a year to keep it in tolerable order [...]. (292)

As if Mrs Baynard's disastrous influence on the grounds were not apparent, her behaviour is made further objectionable still by the fact that her grounds follow a formal model of design. Familiar as they were with the public discourse concerning garden design, Smollet's readers would certainly have understood the hint.

This case of ostentation and an apparent lack of responsibility is contrasted in the novel with that of Charles Dennison. When his elder brother dies, the family estate falls to him. He restores to order the house and garden which he has found in a state of utter dereliction as a consequence of his brother's mismanagement (323f). Thanks to his own circumspection and to his successful experiments in agriculture, Dennison is able to tell Bramble: 'I gradually inclosed all my farms, and made such improvements, that my estate now yields me clear twelve hundred pounds a year' (328). Dennison's own respectful treatment of the land he has inherited sets him off from most of the landed gentry and from those upstarts who have made profits as merchants or owners of manufactures. Having come to some wealth on the basis of his private property which he has improved by his own labour, Dennison represents Whig ideals of the economic and personal liberty of the subject. The same ideal of good husbandry is taken up when Bramble restores Baynard to his senses and takes charge of the re-ordering of his affairs. He finds ways to cut the costs of his household for Baynard, devises a plan to help reduce the interest on his debts and returns Baynard's grounds to their former uses (343).

In his first novel, The Spiritual Quixote, Or the Summer's Ramble of Mr. Geoffry Wildgoose (1773), Richard Graves satirizes the emerging doctrine of methodism and its chief proponents, John Wesley and John Whitefield. When Wildgoose 'hears the call,' he tours the country in order to convert his fellow humans to the new faith. On this occasion, he visits the sights of England, among them a number of gardens. While most of these are fictitious, Shenstone's 'The Leasowes' is authentic (Spiritual Quixote 1967 [1773]: 329f). Here as in Smollet's novel, the layout of the garden can be indicative of a character's personality. Thus, Lady Sherwood's expensive recreation of a pastoral idyll complete with mock shepherds is the object of ridicule in the novel (173f). In the case of Mr Graham, by contrast, the garden agrees with its owner's modesty and lack of pretention. His is 'a garden, proportioned to the house and its inhabitants, [...] laid out in simple taste, and stored with those fruits, flowers, herbs, and plants, which were natural to the climate in which they were to grow' (131). This includes a hint that plants imported from far-away places are out of character in a truly English garden.

Graves's later novel Columella, Or the Distressed Anchoret (1779) drives home the point that a person can relish rural retirement5 only if this has been preceded by an active life spent in politics or commerce. Columella, who has never worked in a profession, is bored by his indolent life in the countryside. Modelled partly on the writer and landscape designer William Shenstone, Columella fills his otherwise vacant days by improving his grounds. Improvement therefore forms the central topic of his conversations with his two friends Atticus and Hortensius, who have come to see him in his rural surroundings.

Columella's own ideas about design are pitted against those of Mr Nonsuch, a neighbour of his. By contrast with Columella, Nonsuch is not a member of the landed gentry but has made some money in business and can afford a garden (Columella 1989 [1779]: 40). However, his garden is much smaller than Columella's and most gardens of the period. This notwithstanding, Nonsuch has crammed into it a host of the features considered typical of fashionable landscape design. In his own selection from the useful and the beautiful,6 he gives precedence to the first. Nonsuch's garden concept is brought to the fore when he tours Columella's grounds and offers his opinion on how to improve the gardens further: 'I would have him [i.e. Columella], for instance, build a pigeon-house at the end of this terrace, which seems to require some termination of that kind.' His daughter Leonora answers with some indignation: 'What! and cut down this venerable oak, and this delightful honey-suckle that creeps round it, and intercept the prospect of those Arcadian hills and hanging woods, to build a pigeon-house!' Nonsuch then gives his utilitarian motivation: '[...] in my opinion, a good pigeon-pye, or half a dozen pigeons roasted with parsley and butter [...] is a better prospect than all the hanging woods of Arcadian hills in the universe' (42). Likewise, Nonsuch recommends that a fishpond be built in Columella's gardens which would provide carp and trout.

Nonsuch's comments reveal him as the upstart that he is, whose financial means allow him to aspire to aristocratic pastimes. But his money is not matched by his taste: he adopts the outward tokens of design but lacks the understanding of a connoisseur. Hence, what seems to be a democratic process to start with - i.e. the making available of land to all who can afford it - in reality turns out to be still the preserve of the landed gentry who continue to set the standards of national taste (cf. Bending 1998: 264f).

To sum up, the ideological nexus between gardens and Englishness is the very foundation upon which the novels rely. That this ideology should permeate the texts is indicative of a process in which the political assumptions at the centre of the intellectual debate are brought down to the level of the public at large. Despite the persisting exclusiveness of gardens, the ideology connected with them is gradually disseminated throughout society. With their claim to represent what is quintessentially English, these gardens are patriotic islands comparable to Barnes's 'England, England.' But while that leisure resort of the twenty-first century reserves its icons of English identity for the wealthy few from all over the world, the eighteenth-century landscape garden is - at least in discourse - opened up in the process of identity formation for the nation as a whole.


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1 Enclosure had been going on at least since the seventeenth century but was even intensified from the middle of the eighteenth century onwards.

2 Gilpin had visited the grounds himself a year before and had seen it largely in the state created by Charles Bridgeman (Hunt 1976: i) and Willam Kent.

3 The social implications of improvement for the rural population are poignantly treated in Oliver Goldsmith's epic poem The Deserted Village (1969 [1770]), a well-known critique of the dire consequences which the improvement of aristocratic gardens had for the rural population.

4 In a memorable phrase that has often been quoted, Walpole sums up Kent's merits thus: 'He leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden'. (History: 43)

5 This harks back to the Beatus ille... topos founded by Horace's Epodes.

6 These terms correspond to Horace's utile et dulce from his Ars poetica, respectively. The right proportion between the useful and the beautiful was a matter much debated in picturesque garden design (notably by Knight, Price, and Repton).