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R W Emerson
Nature and culture
Areas and issues
Isle of Wight
Sense of place toolkit
Thinking about landscapes
Data for meditation
...Meditation on landscapes
Symmetry, variety, contrast, uniformity, diversity were terms widely employed from the Renaissance until the end of the eighteenth century in philosophical and artistic treatises whose authors sought to define the nature of beauty and taste. This knowledge was fundamental to expert judgements about the beautiful which marked out the person of taste in polite society. It extended from the consideration of landscapes to the collection of natural history specimens.
All of these ideas about natural beauty were the necessary background reading to the Grand Tour. British attitudes to the aesthetics of nature emerged during the mid 18th century. This was when the idea of purely scenic touring at home purely for pleasure began to take hold among the English leisured class. The Rev William Gilpin was a key promoter of the aesthetic pleasures of British landscape and posed a direct threat to Continental attitudes towards the environment. Medieval ruins and even the ragged poor, became sought after themes. Picturesque-hunters began crowding the newly found British beauty spots to make sketches using a 'Claude Glass', a system of tinted portable mirrors to frame and darken the scenes they visited. This viewing aid was named after 17th century landscape painter Claude Lorraine whose works were required background knowledge to the Grand Tour, but this was the age of British watercolourists whose works were avidly collected. The landed gentry were also encouraged to reshape the landscapes as settings for English country houses. Following Gilpin's advice, many landowners began designing gardens with irregular sight lines and prefabricated ruins of 'classical' structures.
Appreciation of the beauties of the minutiae of the natural world was encouraged. This was particularly evident in the craze for collecting shells and insects whose hard parts prevailed in the process of killing and mounting for their display in fancy cabinets. In particular, it was the eighteenth-century conchologists who sought to explain the philosophical value of their enthusiasm in terms of beauty. It was written about as a study that generated a superficial visual beauty, but that in itself could lead the mind to the more philosophical understanding of the rational principles of beauty implanted in the mind by God, as Gersaint’s words illustrate:
I have sometimes had the pleasure of observing the ecstasy into which such resistant people almost always fall, at the opening of a drawer of choice pieces. Indeed, nothing is more seductive than the sight of a drawer of well enamelled Shells; the most flowery Border is not more enjoyable, and the eye is struck so marvellously that one is hardly able to fix [one’s gaze]: the difficulty is in knowing what one should admire most, the perfect work of that one or the bright colours of this; the marvellous symmetry of another, or the harmonious irregularity of the last. Everything is astonishing, from the smallest [shell], whose perfection you may sometimes discover only with the help of a Microscope, which reveals its unsuspected beauties, and makes you cry that Nature is never greater than in her smallest objects.... What variety in their shapes! In no other production has Nature played with more diversity; there are flat, concave, round, half-round ones; some are notched, others serrated; some are prickly, others rough! ... What precision in their fabrication!
In William Gilpin's 1794 poem
On Landscape Painting
, for example, Nature's inexhaustible variety is described in terms of a female body which vacillates between flesh and marble. Gilpin advises the landscape painter to view nature's "varied range"-
…as the sculptur'd charms
Of the fam'd Venus grew, so must thou cull
From various scenes such parts as best create
One perfect whole. If Nature ne'er array'd
Her most accomplish'd work with grace compleat,
Think, will she waste on desert rocks and dells,
What she denies to Woman's charming form?
The British scene
The British taste for a particular style of landscape beauty can be said to have begun in In 1730 when John Aislabie constructed the first wholly English scenic garden at Sudely Royal near Ripon in Yorkshire. Through a considerable feat of engineering, based on previous canal work on the Skell Brook which fed Fountains Abbey, a formal but simple pattern of water, grass, and trees accented by a white marble temple was created in a natural amphitheater in a valley. Three years later William Kent laid out the little valley called Elysian Fields at Stowe for Lord Cobham. The stiffness of the design of Kent's predecessor, Bridgeman, was softened by cutting down the long straight avenue of trees, thinning of groves, and redesigning the lakes and pools along natural irregular lines. Garden buildings and temples were removed or relocated in order to harmonize with the new open compositions of the idealized natural settings of the over four hundred-acre garden. These two gardens still retained Italianate motives but in an semi-ecological lakeside woodland setting.
The lure of the Renaissance gardens of Italy finally ended with the work of Henry Hoare II of Stourhed. His valley garden was started when he returned from Italy fresh from his Grand Tour in 1741 to take possession of the Stourhead estate. It was completed in 1765 . The garden was created in collaboration with Henry Flitcroft . It was luxuriantly planted around an artificial lake, and laid out a carefully planned walk around the valley that provided a sequence of Picturesque inward looking views and encounters with temples, statuary, springs and a grotto. The walk was conceived as an allegory of Aeneas' voyage after the fall of Troy. The grotto marks a stage in his journey, and the Temple of Flora is inscribed with the caution uttered by the Cumaean Sybil, in Virgil's Aeneid, before she led Aeneas into the underworld to hear the prophecy of Rome's founding: 'Begone! you who are uninitiated, begone!' One of the principal Picturesque views at Stourhead is known to reflect Claude Lorrain's
Coast View of Delos
with Aeneas and the passage from Vergil on which it was based, relating Aeneas's account of his experience in the Temple of Apollo at Delos...The architectural set-pieces each in a Picturesque location include a Temple of Apollo, A Temple of Flora, a Pantheon (from the Claude painting), and a Palladian bridge. Hoare based his design for the bridge on Palladio's five-arched bridge at Vicenza and expressed the hope that the whole composition would resemble a painting by Poussin.
The momentum towards an 'English landscape aesthetic' was carried forward by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, who began his career as an employee of Lord Cobham at Stowe in 1741. This gave him the opportunity of working with William Kent. He later practiced as a landscape architect in his own right and in 1764 Brown was appointed Master Gardener at Hampton Court. The seven hundred acre Petworth Park in West Sussex is the greatest example of a Brownian landscape garden left in England. The park was one of Lancelot Brown's first projects as an independent designer. He began to landscape the Earl of Egremont's deer park in 1751. Basically he was working on a rectilinear garden, probably designed by George London (c1688), situated between the house and the lake. Brown swept this away, transported an estimated 64,000 tons of soil, dammed a stream and made a serpentine lake which became the park's centerpiece. The view of the lake from Petworth House illustrates Brown's typical work with the simple elements of grass, trees, a lake, and hills. The lawn runs right up to the lakeshores, which follow a serpentine pattern. The size of the lake is indiscernible, as Brown curved the far edges out of sight, and planted those shores with dense trees, thereby making the lake seem to stretch out into infinity, much as the rolling contours of his lawns mask the true size of the park. Brown planted the tops of hills with clusters of trees, thus accenting the contours of the land. It is the Brownian landscape, particularly as further developed by Humphrey Repton, that simulates the arrangement of trees, grass and water favoured by painter's, walkers and picnic parties in AONBs.
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