In search of Arcadia: visiting the 18th-century garden

Recent government restrictions paired with a bout of sunny weather have seen more of us head into the garden to make the most of the fresh air. In today’s blog Dr Robin Eagles, editor of our House of Lords 1715-90 section, is digging into a similar fascination with gardens in the 18th century.

It is easy to think of visiting a local National Trust or English Heritage property as a rather modern phenomenon, but as Mark Girouard has emphasized, visiting other people’s houses and gardens was an important activity for the leisured classes in the 18th century:

Walking round a garden or driving round a park, whether one’s own or somebody else’s, loomed large in the ample leisure time of people in polite society [210]

Sometimes it was the gardens that were the real draw, as suggested by Lizzy Bennet’s ill-judged decision to look around Pemberley in Pride & Prejudice prompted by her aunt’s eagerness to see the place again:

If it were merely a fine house richly furnished… I should not care about it myself; but the grounds are delightful.

For those unable to make a visit in person, they were able to rely on descriptions supplied to them by their acquaintance, or (increasingly) by descriptive publications charting the changing tastes in garden design from the more formal layouts of the beginning of the century, through to the carefully crafted naturalism associated with designers like Capability Brown. Landowners took pride in displaying antiques acquired while on grand tour (or inspired by their experiences abroad) as well as in employing the latest techniques in land improvement. In the summer of 1731, for example, Lord Hervey corresponded with his then friend the Prince of Wales, offering a detailed description of Sir Robert Walpole‘s estate at Houghton. Walpole had improved the place ‘by the force of manuring and planting’ and thereby transformed the area into ‘a fertile island of his creation in the middle of a naked sea of land’.

Robert Walpole’s Norfolk Home, Houghton Hall

Hervey was not the only one to entertain his friends with descriptions of the houses and gardens he visited. In 1736 Horace Walpole visited a number of stately homes during a progress that took in Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. One of those visited was Wrest Park, seat of the duke of Kent. He noted monuments in the garden in memory of Kent’s unhappy brood (none of whom survived him) as well as a monument to Kent himself. During the same trip, Walpole took in Easton Neston, seat of the earl of Pomfret, where he spotted

in an old green house… a wonderful fine statue of Tully [Cicero], haranguing a numerous assembly of decayed Emperors, vestal virgins with new noses, Colossus’s [sic], Venus’s [sic], headless carcases, and carcaseless heads…

The park at Althorp he thought ‘enchanting’. At Blenheim, on the other hand, he saw ‘nothing but a cross housekeeper and an impertinent porter’.

A dozen years later, Walpole took another trip, this time into Essex, where he visited Robert Nugent‘s seat at Gosfield. He thought it ‘extremely in fashion, but did not answer to me’ even though he admitted the lake was ‘very beautiful… directly in line with the house, at the bottom of a fine lawn, and broke with pretty groves’. The following season he was at Petworth. He declared the park ‘Percy to the back-bone, but the house and garden did not please our antiquarian spirit.’

Another prominent parliamentarian for whom horticulture was a genuine pleasure was the radical MP John Wilkes, Away from the brouhaha of Middlesex and city politics Wilkes immersed himself in his garden on the Isle of Wight. His dedication to his hobby is apparent from his accounts, which set out in detail his purchases of seeds and seedlings. Among those he patronized were Maddock & Son, florists at Walworth, near London, from whom he bought strawberry plants (at £1-1-0 a dozen) and 300 varieties of gooseberries for prices varying from four shillings to £1-1-0 a dozen. William North, a nurseryman at Lambeth supplied him with magnolias and rhododendrons, while a well-wisher Mr Saxby, gave him gifts of Dutch kale and Brussels sprouts.

Wilkes’s development of the garden at Sandham in some ways mimicked (in microcosm) the much grander vision of Stowe, where he had once been a visitor as one of Lord Temple‘s grouping in Parliament. Rather than stone monuments and temples, Wilkes satisfied himself with erecting pavilions made out of a revolutionary canvas material. There was also a walk through the gardens down to a stone bench with a view over the sea. This, with the miniature promenade down to it, which he calculated at 445 feet, he dedicated to his daughter Polly, writing to her in May 1791

I have no small pleasure in adorning your seat; and the myrtles, lilies of the valley, pinks, &c &c look very pretty among the concretions of the oyster and other shells, and perfume the ambient air.

The ‘Temple of British Worthies’ Monument,
The gardens of Stowe House
Bust of Sir Isaac Newton,
from Stowe House’s ‘Temple of British Worthies’

In many ways, Wilkes’s creation reflected the same ‘patriot’ vision as had the rather grander gardens at Stowe, first developed by Viscount Cobham and later inherited by Temple. But while Wilkes’s garden was very much a private bolt-hole, where he sought seclusion from all but his closest friends and family, Stowe was intended to be seen and its messages understood. To that end it was immortalized in a series of guides. One of the best known, The Beauties of Stow, was produced by George Bickham in 1750, and set out in detail the major sites and the meaning of their inscriptions. Monuments to George II and his Queen (the divine Caroline) bore testimony to Viscount Cobham’s early support for the Hanoverians, but his later embracing of opposition was most famously reflected in the eclectic ‘Temple of British Worthies’, decorated with the busts of 15 exemplars of British political, artistic or philosophical heroism: Sir Thomas Gresham, Inigo Jones, John Milton, William Shakespeare, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton, Sir Francis Bacon (Baron St Alban), Alfred the Great, Edward Prince of Wales (the Black Prince), Queen Elizabeth I, King William III, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, John Hampden and Sir John Barnard.

Bust of William Shakespeare,
from Stowe House’s ‘Temple of British Worthies’

If the visitor was in any doubt of Cobham’s wry sense of humour, though, they needed only to peer around the back to find an inscription to his greyhound ‘Signior Fido, an Italian of good extraction’ praised no less than the worthies on the other side as ‘a perfect philosopher’.

Concluding his survey, Bickham launched into a diatribe against (as he saw it) the monstrous formal gardens of previous decades and insisted ‘I would have our Country ‘Squires flock hither two or three times a Year, by way of Improvement’. Of course, if they were unable to do so, they had his guide to fall back on. Bickham was in no doubt of the importance of Stowe both as an example of fine taste, but also a demonstration of British spirit:

If our Nation had nothing of this kind to boast of, all our Neighbours would look upon us as a stupid tasteless set of People, and not worth visiting.


Further reading:

Mark Girouard, Life in the English Country House

George Bickham, The Beauties of Stow (1750)

Click here for more blogs from our House of Lords 1715-1790 Section and follow their research via the Georgian Lords on twitter.

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