International Responses to the English Landscape Garden

Today’s guest is Claire Cock-Starkey. Claire started out in media, working at the BBC Radio Four and Five Live before going to LBC. She then began working as researcher, and after “producing a small team of children,” she began working as freelance writer and editor. She has written several books, with her most recent book, The Gold Age of the Garden.” Her post today is about the golden age of the garden and the people who loved them.

Claire Cock-Starkey

The Georgian era is now recognised as the golden age of the garden, when formal gardens in the French style were replaced with the new, English style of naturalistic landscape garden. As Lancelot ‘Capability Brown’, William Kent, Humphry Repton et al worked their magic on the English landscape, creating gardens based on an English rural idyll, the world looked on.

Many great minds, both at home and overseas, were influenced by the landscape gardening movement. Empress of Russia, Catherine the Great was one such fan. Catherine was a highly intelligent woman, keen to spread Enlightenment ideals to Russia, yet wary of her country’s conservative aspect. She corresponded with the great French Enlightenment thinkers Denis Diderot and Voltaire, sharing ideas. So great was the impression the new style of landscape gardening had on Catherine, that in June 1772, she wrote to Voltaire:

“I am madly in love with English gardens, with curved lines, soft slopes, ponds resembling lakes, firm land archipelagos and I profoundly despise straight lines and paired paths. I hate fountains, which torture water in order to turn its course against nature; statues are put away onto galleries, entrance halls, and so on; in a word, Anglomania rules over my plantomania.”

Catherine II of Russia by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder. Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Catherine’s great admiration for the English garden later led her to have two gardens in the English style planted at Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlosk, both near St Petersburg, providing a lasting sprinkle of Englishness in Russia.

Another great Enlightenment thinker preoccupied with the natural landscape was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He focused his writings on an idealised image of the perfect garden, a garden which reflected nature, most notably in Julie, or the New Heloise (1761):

“This place [Elysium] is enchanting, it is true, but rustic and wild; I see no human labour here. You closed the gate; water came along I know not how; nature alone did the rest and you yourself could never have managed to do as well. … although I did not find exotic plants and products of the Indies, I found the local ones arranged and combined in a manner that yielded a cheerier and pleasanter effect.”

Such was his love of nature and beauty Rousseau spent the last year of his life living in a cottage in the grounds of an English-style garden planted at Ermenonville by René de Girardin in 1762. When Rousseau died in 1778 he chose to be buried on an island in a lake at Girardin’s garden, which was later re-named Parc de Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his honour.

Mérigot fils. Promenade ou itinéraire des jardins d’Ermenonville, Paris, 1783 (reedition 1788).

The influence of the English landscape gardeners did not reach just Europe, but spread beyond to America. Future US Presidents John Adams and Thomas Jefferson (Adams was 2nd US President from 1797, Jefferson was 3rd from 1801–1809) were so intrigued by the new style of garden taking England by storm that in April 1786 they arrived in England to take a tour, with Thomas Whately’s Observations on Modern Gardening (1770) as their guide. John Adams wrote of his impressions in his diary, noting:

“Ld. Littletons Seat interested me, from a recollection of his Works, as well as the Grandeur and Beauty of the Scaenes. Popes Pavillion and Thompsons Seat, made the Excursion poetical. Shenstones Leasowes is the simplest and plainest, but the most rural of all. I saw no Spot so small, that exhibited such a Variety of Beauties.”

Thomas Jefferson also recorded his thoughts, keen to absorb ideas. Jefferson noted his admiration for Whately’s tome:

“Memorandums made on a tour to some of the gardens in England described by Whatley in his book on gardening. While his descriptions in point of style are models of perfect elegance and classical correctness, they are as remarkeable for their exactness. I always walked over the gardens with his book in my hand, examined with attention the particular spots he described, found them so justly characterised by him as to be easily recognised, and saw with wonder, that his fine imagination had never been able to seduce him from the truth. My enquiries were directed chiefly to such practical things as might enable me to estimate the expence [sic] of making and maintaining a garden in that style.”

Jefferson was an extremely keen gardener and botanist, readily soaking up influences to apply to his own garden, Monticello in Virginia. Jefferson wrote after his trip to England that: “The gardening in that country is the article in which it surpasses all the earth. I mean their pleasure gardening.” He was especially taken with the ferme ornee (ornamented farm) by William Shenstone at The Leasowes, and the influence of the English style of landscape garden on his own garden can still be seen in the ornamental forest and serpentine paths he employed at Monticello.

View of the West Front of Monticello and Garden, depicting Thomas Jefferson’s grandchildren at Monticello, watercolour on paper by Jane Braddick Peticolas, 1825.

The impact of the English landscape garden was felt not just across Britain but in continental Europe and beyond. The core idea of a more naturalistic way of gardening, embracing organic shapes and adding romantic architecture to lend variety and interest to the landscape, has remained highly influential. English landscape gardens can still be enjoyed in the great gardens at Blenheim, Stowe and Chatsworth – and in testament to their impact – further afield at Tsarskoe Selo, St Petersburg; Ermenonville, France and at Monticello, Virginia, USA.

To learn more about her latest book, “The Golden Age of the Garden,” here is a brief summary.

The relationship between England and its gardens might be described as a love affair; gardening is one of our national passions, rooted in history. The eighteenth century is often called the Golden Age of English gardening; as the fashion for formal pleasure grounds for the wealthy faded, a new era began, filled with picturesque vistas inspired by nature.

Charting the transformation in our landscapes through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, “The Golden Age of the Garden” brings the voices of the past alive in newspaper reports, letters, diaries, books, essays and travelogues, offering contemporary gardening advice, principles of design, reflections on nature, landscape and plants, and a unique perspective on the origins of our fascination with gardens.

Exploring the different styles, techniques and innovations, and the creation of many of the stunning spaces that visitors still flock to see today, this is an evocative and rewarding collection for all gardeners and garden-lovers seeking insight, ideas and surprises.

“The Golden Age of the Garden” by Claire Cock-Starkey is published by Elliott & Thompson and is available to order here.

To visit Claire’s website, click here.

Claire is also on twitter and you can connect with her by clicking here.

If you are interested in learning more about Georgian landscape and Georgian gardens, Claire did several other guests posts that you can read: “The Essentials of Georgian Landscape” or “A Tour Through some Georgian Gardens of Note.”

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