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Banishing Gardens Altogether
on 11 November 2015
I was inspired to purchase this book after a visit to Croome Court in Worcestershire where Brown earned much praise. It is in the usual Shire Books format and comprises an introduction and epilogue with five chapters inbetween. It is profusely illustrated in colour with photos, paintings, plans and drawings. Indeed, only eight of the fifty-four pages that comprise the main body of text have no illustrations.
In her introduction Laura Mayer sets out her stall. She asserts that Brown was not, as many might think, “a direct reaction against the formal Franco-Dutch layouts of the previous century,” for Nature had already entered the garden in the early years of the eighteenth century. Rather, she argues, Brown’s plans was “a response to the artificiality of the Arcadian layouts of the 1720s-30s.” Before Brown arrived on the scene garden landscapes had first to loosen up and suffer the rococo.
It is, therefore, a more complex story than we might think. Followers of Le Notre, such as George London and Henry Wise, were opposed by the likes of Stephen Switzer and Joseph Addison, whose ideas were put into practice on a domestic scale by Alexander pope. Throw in the Grand Tour and growing respect for Lorrain and Poussin, and you start to see how Brown’s eventual triumph started to come together, especially after William Kent contrives to recreate the classical landscape in both form and content.
All this prehistory means that Brown does not himself appear in person until halfway through the book, after a chapter discussing the rococo garden, which unfortunately focusses more on its follies and their idealised, ethnic, and/or classical links than on the garden landscape itself. Nor is any attempt made to compare and contrast developments with the stronger attachment to the style on the content, with, say, the rococo gardens of Frederick the Great.
We are in this country, I guess, lazy about seeing our great houses and their grounds as experiencing a jump direct from the baroque to the Palladian, and then with another jump direct to the Romantic, forgetting the rococo and its even earlier forms. This is, in some ways, due to the very success of Brown’s style, with so few rococo gardens remaining in this country.
But if the change from the baroque to the rococo was evolutionary, the jump made by Brown was revolutionary, seeking to sweep away sight of man’s input in the landscape. Mayer only occasionally hints at this, diverting her focus away from Brown himself and on to his patrons. Only in her final paragraph of this, her longest chapter, are comments of contemporaries pulled together and quoted to assert that Brown had in fact banished gardens altogether.
Mayer’s final chapter deals with the backlash of the picturesque and Romantic movements, looking at the work of Repton, who “reintroduced the house to the garden.” Yet Brown’s legacy remains. As Mayer notes, “Repton’s flower gardens might have pre-empted the contemporary suburban garden but it is the graceful landscape park that remains the accepted backdrop to a country estate.”
In conclusion, then, this is a book to be recommended to anyone new to the subject or who wants to find out a little bit more about why Brown is so important to British landscape studies. Its size can only make it little more than an introduction to this fascinating subject. I certainly applaud the author’s insistence in providing more than just a slight overview of what came before Brown. Nevertheless I hope you will see how I feel that this book is slightly mistitled, and I will file it in my own library not under ‘Brown’ but under ‘Gardens.’