For the three most influential designers and innovators of in the18th century English Landscape Movement - Charles Bridgeman, William Kent & ‘Capability’ Brown - write a brief paragraph to describe the style - form, layout, content, purpose - of their landscapes.
The formalized, geometrical, baroque gardens of the 17th century were swept away with the introduction of landscape design in the 18th century. Landscape design first took root in England. It quickly gained popularity by virtue of it’s historical context. Firstly, there was a staunch anti-French sentiment in England and thus a rejection of the baroque; secondly, England during the 18th century was progressing into the early stages of the enlightenment and industrial revolution. These significant socio-political/socio-economic movements ushered in an era of new (some may say radical) philosophy, improvements in technology, political reforms and democracy; and finally, the new neoclassical artistic movement. Each of the above contributed to a new sense of individualism, nature, art and philosophy, which subsequently moves us away from formalized gardens and brings us to the introduction of landscape design. This blog post will mostly focus on Stowe, a large country estate in Bukinghamshire, England. The gardens of Stowe are interesting to examine precisely because of the fact that they were worked on by the three most influential landscape designers of the 18th century. The evolution of landscape design runs parallel to the renovations of Stowe, worked on by all three of the designers.
When, in 1715, Sir Richard Codham began to think about expanding his country estate of Stowe he first hired Charles Bridgeman as the landscape designer. Bridgeman acts as a transitionary designer for both Stowe and the greater landscape movement as a whole. He was one of the first landscape designers of the time and he was the first to renovate Stowe with Codham in the landscape style. His style very much reflects the transitionary role he played at Stowe. Remnants of the formal baroque style of the past do exist in Bridgeman’s designs. He included parterres, straight and geometrically arranged paths and avenues, and even geometric water features. However these formal features were offset by the landscape they were a part of. Bridgeman liked to include garden buildings, amphitheaters made of grass, informal ponds and lakes and key vantage points throughout the garden that helped frame intentionally designed views (unfortunately the gardens of Stowe were redesigned several times, so very few pictures are available to help visualize Bridgemon’s original landscape). One particular innovation stands out among Bridgemon’s contributions to landscape design, that is, the ha-ha. The ha-ha or borrowed landscape replaces the wall or shrubbery that forms the perimeter of the garden with a ditch or small moat that slopes downward into a wall that separates the property from surrounding landscape. This creates a sense of extension, hence the phrase borrowed landscape. Without impediments to sight, the garden looks much more grand when it blends in with the natural environment.
William Kent was hired after the death of Bridgeman to continue designing the garden. Kent refurbished the grounds at Stowe after Bridgemon’s original design. He further removed the formalized aspects of the gardens: straight paths, symmetrical axis, and fountains were replaced with sinuous paths, snaking rivers and larger, less formal lakes. Although Kent was notoriously unreliable and drunk, but he had key themes which show up explicitly in his garden designs. First of all Kent strove to create an idealized, sculpted nature that would portray a certain mood, a sense experience of sorts. Further, he used classical statues, buildings and ancient myths to create an allegorical story that parallels the assent or decent through the garden. For instance, Kent, in his communication with Cobham designed two distinct sections to the garden of Stowe. One section represents the difficult path to virtue and it is filled with features that allude to greatness, worthiness etc. The Temple of Ancient Virtue and the Temple of British Worthiness are just two examples of the kinds of allegory Kent was fond of. The other half of the garden was dedicated to the opposite path: the pleasurable path of vice. In this section Kent uses imagery like the temple of venus and the spurting obelisk to portray the hardships of love and more importantly the misery of lust.
The last of these three influential landscape designers is Lancelot “Capability” Brown. Brown worked as the head gardener for Stowe partly during the Kent’s tenure at Stowe. Brown dismissed most of Kent’s allegorical features and focused more on the natural landscape. For him, England was the inspiration, much less so Ancient Rome or Greece. Instead, Brown played with the topography of the land, sculpting and reshaping areas to accomplish a desired aesthetic look. He had an extremely subtle touch, using shadows from groves of trees or even a small manmade overlook to evoke a sense of naturalism. Nature was improved upon by use of nature as opposed to embellished by statues and allegory. See for instance the picture below of Blendheim. This landscape, although it does feature a bridge and a castle, looks very natural and uses subtle techniques like the framing of the castle in a field surrounded by trees to create the desired effect.
These three designers used their revolutionary new ideas to shape the landscape garden at Stowe and further shaped the progress and evolution of landscape design.