COLUMN: Civic Society

The Parterre, Harewood House: designed by Sir Charles Barry in the 1840s (S)
The Parterre, Harewood House: designed by Sir Charles Barry in the 1840s (S)

David Winpenny explores the history of gardens in this second of two articles on the subject:

We left our local gardeners deep in their ‘natural’ gardens that were the reaction against the regimented regularity of estates like Studley Royal and Bramham Park where, as Alexander Pope wrote:

“Grove nods at grove, each alley has a brother,

And half the platform just reflects the other”.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that these “sublime” landscapes, like Hackfall, with their deep gorges and overhanging rocks, their rushing water and gothick temples, should themselves eventually be considered old-fashioned. But what was to replace them? It would be, most landowners thought, ruinously expensive to employ the labour necessary to return to the clipped hedges and carefully-scythed and rolled grass of the formal garden. But what was to be put in its place?

Step forward Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, perhaps the most famous of all names in English landscape gardening. Hearing that a landscape was ‘improved’ by Brown, we can immediately conjure up a picture of sweeping, sheep-cropped grass leading to irregular lakes, with carefully-placed clumps of trees that are intended to appear entirely natural. This is what many people think as the quintessential English landscape.

The reality, of course, is that Brown’s landscapes are as unnatural as any 17th-century garden. What you see in Brown’s work, like Harewood House and Temple Newsam, is the result of the moving of huge amounts of earth to smooth the lawns, the building of dams and cascades to transform humble streams into impressive lakes, and, sometimes, the movement of large trees into the exact spot that Mr Brown was confident would suit the place’s “capabilities’”.

Brown’s changes were not universally admired. Some people found his style clinical and boring. He would have nothing to do with fussy little garden buildings – so he provided few places to shelter or to take tea. Among his severest critics was Ripon-educated Sir William Chambers, who argued that “the scenery of a garden should differ as much from common nature as an heroic poem does from a prose relation”.What Chambers wanted was a garden where buildings and gardening met. He advocated a marriage of the formality of former years with the winding paths and interesting buildings that Brown had spurned. As William Mason, in his Epistle to Sir William Chambers wrote of a Brown landscape:

“For what is nature? Ring her changes round

Her three flat notes are water, plants and ground;

Prolong the peal, yet spite of all your clatter,

The tedious chime is still ground, plants and water.”

Gradually, there was a truce between the Brown and the Chambers schools – a truce that led to the elaboration of Victorian gardens. One of the links between the two was Humphrey Repton, whose Red Books were his own form of publicity. These red-Morocco-bound volumes, for estates like Constable Burton, showed the estate as Repton found it and, by lifting the paper flaps on his watercolours, what it could be like if he were to ‘improve’ it.

Repton was satirised by Thomas Love Peacock in his novel Headlong Hall as the landscaper Mr Marmaduke Milestone, who describes part of the Headlong estate as “never yet touched by the finger of taste”. He displays his ideas: “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 . . . The stream, you see, is become a canal.”

Repton’s ideas were eagerly accepted, and were soon developed into a completely new style, the ‘Gardenesque’, principally championed by the Scottish garden polemicist John Claudius Loudon through his publications, especially the Encyclopaedia of Gardening of 1822.

He gave middle-class garden owners – those with the sort of villas that line Ripon’s Palace Road – the blueprint for a garden that combines Romantic irregularity and, perhaps rock-work, soon to become very fashionable, with urns, summer houses, and specimen plants and shrubs.

And by the time we get to the High Victorian age, we are almost back to the strict formality of an earlier time, certainly for large houses. Parterres, like that by Sir Charles Barry at Harewood or, even more magnificent, at Trentham Park in Staffordshire, were laid out with shaped beds stuffed with garish annuals in what was known as carpet bedding. All this took innumerable gardeners to maintain – and most such gardens hardly survived into the 20th century.

Only in some municipal parks does carpet bedding hang on by its finger tips.

Again, this was bound to change. The Arts and Crafts garden, with its more informal (though carefully designed) herbaceous borders set in a more formal structure to the garden, was the next major innovation. Among the chief proponents were the gardener Gertrude Jekyll and the architect Edwin Lutyens. At gardens like that at Heathcote in Ilkley and at Gledstone Hall near Skipton, Lutyens provided a beautifully-crafted layout which Jekyll or one of her disciples planted up. This style lasted from the 1880s until well into the 1920s – Goddards, the National Trust garden in York, has a similar, though less-inventive, garden layout.

And where are we today? There are great gardens still being made – like the innovative Walled Garden at Scampston Hall – but there is also a great deal of effort going into the preservation of what we have inherited from the past. It is unlikely that survivors like Studley Royal, Bramham Park, Hackfall or Gledstone will now be swept away by new taste. The gardening trendies will always put forward their ideas – patios, decking, bright colours, startling new plants – and some of their innovations will survive and become part of our gardening history. It will be interesting to see just where the history of landscapes in Yorkshire takes us next.