More abstractly, the rise of informality in garden design coincides with a growing interest in empiricism. A devotion to rational geometry gave way to careful observation of the apparent irregularities of the natural world. The serpentine ‘line of beauty’ identified in William Hogarth’s “The Analysis of Beauty” much resembles the serpentine curves of a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown lake. In the middle of the century, Brown (1716-83) was ascendant and he remains the best-remembered of his peers, in part because he was so prolific, but also because of his memorable moniker which derives from his habit of telling his patrons, having toured their estates, that he thought he saw ‘capabilities’ in them, his own word for ‘possibilities’ or ‘potential’. Brown’s design formula included the elimination of terraces, balustrades, and all traces of formality; a belt of trees thrown around the park; a river dammed to create a winding lake; and handsome trees dotted through the parkland, either individually or in clumps. Interestingly, Brown did not call himself a landscape gardener. He preferred the terms ‘placemaker’ and ‘improver’, which in many ways are conceptually closer to the role of the modern-day landscape architect than ‘landscape gardener’. (…)

Criticism of Brown began in his own day and intensified after his death. He was criticized in his own time, not for destroying many formal gardens (which he certainly did), but for not going far enough towards nature. Among his detractors were two Hereford squires’ Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight, both advocates of the new picturesque style. To count as Picturesque, a view or a design had to be a suitable subject for a painting, but enthusiasts for the new fashion were of the opinion that Brown’s landscapes were too boring to qualify. Knigts’s didactic poem “The Landscape” was directed against Brown, whose interventions, he said, could only create a ‘dull, vapid, smooth, and tranquil scene’. What was required was some roughness, shagginess, and variety. This is an argument mirrored in today’s opposition between manicured lawns and wildflower meadows. In the United States, where smooth trimmed lawns have been the orthodox treatment for the front yard, often regulated by city ordinances, growing anything other than a well-tended monoculture of grass in front of the house can be controversial.

Ian Thompson, Landscape Architecture. A Very Short Introduction. (2014)


Lancelot “Capability” Brown, Blenheim Estate (1764)


Beautiful, Sublime and Picturesque

Initial capitals have been used in the account of Knight, Price and Repton for the words Beautiful, Sublime and Picturesque, to mark their use as part of a specialised aesthetic vocabulary. As explained by Edmund Burke, ‘Beautiful’ meant smooth, flowing, like the body of a beautiful woman. ‘Sublime’ meant wild and frightening, like a rough sea or the views that might be obtained while crossing the Alps on a rocky track in a horsedrawn coach. ‘Picturesque’ was an intermediate term, introduced after Burke, to describe a scene with elements of the Beautiful and the Sublime. Without its initial capital, ‘Picturesque’ means ‘like a picture’. In what is called the landscape style in this book, Picturesque gardens have a sequential transition from a Beautiful foreground, through a Picturesque middle ground to a Sublime background. Composing gardens like paintings integrated the design ideas of the eighteenth century to create a landscape design concept of significant grandeur and exceptionally wide application.

The landscape style is the chief support for the claim that British designers made a unique contribution to western culture during the eighteenth century. In his 1955 Reith Lectures Nikolaus Pevsner used the term ‘English picturesque theory’ for what he described as an ‘English national planning theory’. Pevsner stated that it ‘lies hidden in the writings of the improvers from Pope to Uvedale Price, and Payne Knight’ and that it gave English town planners ‘something of great value to offer to other nations’. He then asked whether the same can be said ‘of painting, of sculpture, and of architecture proper’. His answer was that Henry Moore and other sculptors had ‘given England a position in European sculpture such as she has never before held’, but that English painting and architecture of the period were of markedly lower quality.

Tom Turner, Garden History (2005)

Humphry Repton, Woburn Abbey Gardens (1805)