To visit a grand English landscape garden such as Stowe in Buckinghamshire is to enter a carefully contrived fantasy, constructed as much by the original aristocratic owner, as by the current custodian, the National Trust. In the early 21st century, it provides delicately modulated, no fuss, little effort, steadily stimulating spectacle. A green and pleasant slice of England, where small drifts of trees appropriately positioned allow glimpses of one of the substantial (invariably stone) ‘eyecatchers’: temples, obelisks, towers, tombs, grotto, statues, a bridge or monuments. You can be confident of moving smoothly along without concern that the paths will be a struggle, disturbingly steep or unpleasantly rough, or that the trees or shrubbery will unduly intervene on the pathway. It is all designed to be a pleasant distraction requiring little real interaction or effort apart from the perambulation. No difficult decisions are needed about which direction to take at any juncture, as you can be confident that all paths will lead back to the beginning and all aspects will be satisfactorily covered.
But this current well-curated space is not what it once was. In the past, it was not simply a place of withdrawal or retreat into some idealised state of nature, but was actively engaged with the wider world and its concerns, and allowed for a broad sense of nature itself.
- The bodies of water, the large central lake and meandering streams, were not merely an obstacles for the visitor to move around or a creators of convenient reflections for souvenir or social media photographs, essential elements in any scenic setting. But in times past, water was recreational space to be used as a pool, a river or even a beach would now be used: frantic boat races with large elaborate water craft, fishing for food and recreation, no doubt swimming in certain seasons. People were in and on the water not simply viewing safely from the sides.
- The great eyecatchers were not merely points of interest to hold the spaces together, but provided sharp political statements that might, in any other country of the time, be considered seditious. An elegant chaste temple to ancient virtue contrasts with a ruined one to modern virtue, a reference to the presumed corrupt conduct of the then Prime Minister Robert Walpole. Like most estates of the time, this was a place to gather the multitudes, including members of the estate and wider supporters, to garner support in constituent elections or simply maintain influence and heighten prestige. So spectacle and display were paramount, with large gatherings at fetes, for fireworks and feasts, likely at regular intervals and the grounds designed to accommodate this. Much greater quantities of fixed timber or temporary structures were likely to have been spread around than simply the now remanent (and more durable) eyecatchers.
- Movement around the green undulating hills need not have simply been a sedate walk. A speedy trip in the latest horse-drawn chaise, across the scenic Palladian bridge (which was made wide enough for a vehicle), was equally possible. The nearest equivalent these days is a golf buggy used by maintenance staff or for disabled access. The famous Gothic Temple (see below), standing high on a hill in open ground, could double as a fort to be assaulted by charging soldiers as the lord and his retinue practiced for some impending war.
- The ground themselves were in a constant state of change. In its heyday in the early 18th century, the garden was at the forefront of the great landscape revolution and must have been in continuously reformed as it transited from the designs of the still partially-formal Charles Bridgeman, to the Elysian William Kent and the flow of Capability Brown. Not only was the land moving around – hills formed, water bodies adjusted or created – but buildings, including the stone ones, were transported around to suit the new scenes required and trees would be popping up or disappearing as needed.
- The almost exclusively pictorial sense of the garden that we now have hides a deeper reality. Visitors at the time would have engaged a wider range of senses. Music was created for the various social events, perhaps by workers on the estate, in the gardens, pavilions and even the grotto, whose designs may have been as much about acoustics, as anything formal and visual. Before modern electrical lighting, when events were planned for the brightest nights, gardens were enjoyed as equally at night under bright moonlight as under full sunlight or the more common grey mistiness. The brightness of gravelled pathways, the sheen of hedge plant leaves and silveriness of water surfaces under moonlight were essential considerations in the garden design.
The contemporary idea of the singular use of gardens as places of refuge from the wider threatening world, where nature is idealised and given an intensity that is lacking elsewhere, perhaps reflects our peculiar concerns about the world and our somewhat more limited vision.