Furnace Park garden project

“In a very special post Mark Bennett, whose PhD research deals explicitly with the representation of landscape in literature, responds to the Furnace Park Garden Project Blog. Mark tells us about how writers went about ‘re-creating’ real sites (such as country house gardens) within the pages of eighteenth-century popular print.” 

– Adam J Smith

In a previous post for the Furnace Park Garden Project, Adam J Smith challenged us to think about the extent to which print culture ‘creates’ the eighteenth-century garden. This is an important question that speaks to my own research interests in eighteenth-century travel-writing and its relationship to popular fiction. In what follows, I’m going to attempt to pick up Adam’s query and reframe it slightly: what happens when the treatment of the garden in eighteenth-century print culture involves an imaginative critique, or recreation, of real sites and spaces such as the landscaped estates of wealthy property owners?

I’d like to begin by recounting a visit by a schoolmaster to the remains of Roche Abbey in Maltby, a few miles northeast of Sheffield, in the summer of 1776.

The tourist in question was William Gilpin and, during the following decade, he would become one of the most popular travel-writers in Britain. He would do so by putting forward the notion of ‘The Picturesque’: a new aesthetic category that invited a growing audience to participate (whether as tourists or readers) in viewing, discussing and re-presenting the British landscape. This included responding to the nation’s great estates and gardens, many of which had been recently remodelled according to the practices and principles of the great landscape architect, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. When Gilpin arrived at Roche, Brown himself was in the process of re-designing the abbey site as an aesthetic feature of the Earl of Scarborough’s estate. Gilpin was clearly pleased to witness the famous improver at work, but that didn’t stop him expressing reservations about the project:

“Many a modern palace he [Brown] has adorned, and beautified: but a ruin presented a new idea; which I doubt whether he has sufficiently considered.”

In particular, Gilpin was unconvinced by the addition of an artificial lake adjacent to the ruin and by the removal of smaller pieces of masonry from the vicinity. The former addition is judged to be so expressive of ‘the marks of the spade, and the pick-axe’ that ‘at present, the lake and the ruin are totally at variance’. The displaced rubble, meanwhile, was originally ‘very ornamental; and very useful also’ in ‘uniting’ and composing the larger pieces of the structure.

Roche Abbey as painted in the 1770s by the artist Paul Sandby. As a result of Brown’s improvements the grazing livestock pictured here would have been hidden beyond a ‘ha ha’ or sunken fence.

Gilpin’s opinions were eventually printed in his 1789 Observations Relative Chiefly to Picturesque Beauty (the third in a series of very popular domestic tour books published during the 1780s and 90s). Much of his critique of Brown is specific to his own aesthetic principles and, obliquely, to a broader debate about the rapidity of “artificial” improvements and their threat to a historical continuity embodied in the sensitively managed landscape. As sites with often volatile political and ideological associations, ruins can become focal points for these discussions; it is no accident that, when they make their way into popular fiction such as the Gothic Novel, they frequently appear as landscape features approached through the vocabulary of contemporary scenic tourism. This complicated literary relationship between the aesthetics and politics of landscape management is a personal research interest, but here I’d like to make a simpler observation about what Gilpin is doing when he criticises the Earl of Scarborough’s improved landscape garden. . . and invites his readers to do so along with him.

Brown’s alterations were designed to repurpose Roche Abbey as a decorative feature of the landscaped estate. The lake would provide a pleasing contrast (and reflective surface) whilst the removal of intervening rubble would ensure the site remained unimpeded in a prospect view designed for the enjoyment of the Earl of Scarborough and his guests. This reminds us that the move to a more ‘expressive’ style of garden (described for us in Adam’s introductory post) was still designed to draw attention to the taste of the landowner and the scope of his holdings. Visitors were free to indulge their imaginative and affective capacities, but they did so under the implicit license of wealthy property owners with the means to hire professional improvers like Brown. It was for these men to define the physical and aesthetic properties of the landscape garden and for those of lesser means to express their appreciation for such estates along with the taste that had created them.

Title page of the first edition of Gilpin’s 1776 Observations, in which the account of Roche Abbey appeared.

The problem that might be posed to this arrangement by the theory and practice of Gilpin’s scenic tourism was twofold. Firstly, the popularity of his illustrated Picturesque travel books was such that readers no longer needed to visit great estates in order to engage in their appreciation and discussion: instead they could do so from their own armchairs as the literature of scenic tourism moved the landscape garden well and truly into the sphere of popular print culture. Secondly, this treatment might not restrict itself to simply recording and approving the designs of landowners. It might be critical of these (as at Roche) or, perhaps worse, it might indulge and encourage new imaginative improvements and alterations.

It was these latter tendencies that irritated the poet, William Mason, at whose home near Rotherham Gilpin had stayed on his 1776 tour. Mason supported and assisted with the publication of his friend’s travel journals before becoming increasingly suspicious of their re-presentation of garden estates for a popular readership. The two men carried on a correspondence during the 1780s that usefully illuminates some of the issues raised by Gilpin’s success. Mason initially found the illustrations to Gilpin’s first book, the Observations on the River Wye (1782), to be ‘outrageously deficient in point of verity’. When Gilpin continued to defend the imaginative and critical license of his aesthetic principles, Mason attempted to persuade against the publication of any material describing the estates of wealthy landowners:

Print only that part of it which relates to scenes, not to places, & particularly not to Houses. [. . .] Your descriptions of Seats & Gardens . . . are often imperfect, frequently flippant, & sometimes false. [ . . .] Be advised therefore from a friend to your Fame, as well as your Peace of mind; and do not print any thing that will either hurt or offend the Owners of Places, when in so doing, you will bring upon you much, & I fear, some well-deserved Criticism from Real Connoisseurs.

As a landscape poet Mason was happy for the estate garden to be the

occasion for literary reflection, but he was much less comfortable with its becoming the subject of a more popular print culture.

Mason’s disagreements with Gilpin persisted during the 1780s as the latter’s readership continued to grow. Faced with this success, Mason resorted to dismissing that audience by appealing to a (possibly imaginary) ‘literary friend’ who had found Gilpin’s style to be debased in its popularity:

As you tell me that you are revising & correcting all your tours, which I construe into making them fit for the perusal of the Ladies, I think I shall do well to keep my Copy of the Western tour as an Estate in fee, not as I now hold it for Life only, in order that Posterity may learnyou could once write like a Man.

Mason’s analogy perfectly reveals what is at stake in his objections. In writing for a popular audience so unacceptably broad as to include women readers, Gilpin is dispossessed of the metaphorical ‘estate’ his writings are no longer an acceptable representation of and denied the taste its possession underwrites. Gilpin’s response is, in my humble opinion, one of the eighteenth-century’s best put-downs:

Get you along – get you along, you & your friend, out of the precincts of taste. Go, cultivate some clod of earth. In the regions of landscape – of lights, & shades, & glowing tints, you have nothing to do. – I write for the ladies! – No, sir, – nor for such critics as you, & your cold,    unanimated friend. I write merely, & solely for people of picturesque genius – whethergentlemen, or ladies, I reck not.

It is Mason, together with his landowning and ‘literary’ associates that are to be evicted from the landscape garden now that it has become the property of a popular print culture to which wealth and gender are no barrier.

Where does that leave the eighteenth-century garden then? Well, I’d suggest that the career of a popular writer like Gilpin helps us understand the importance of such spaces, precisely because it reveals some of the friction involved in their transfer to a broader “public sphere” of discussion and debate. It also helps us to see some of what could be achieved in this process as new social groups were authorised to reimagine and critique locations at the emblematic heart of Britain’s economic and political power. The legacy of this is still with us today as we concern ourselves with the history, affective power and future management of our national landscape whilst defending the right of different social groups to participate in the issues they raise. Gilpin’s more immediate legacy was also significant. He wasn’t much of a Romantic (and despite describing more ruined castles and abbeys than the entire Minerva Press his works are generally about as “Gothic” as Catherine Morland’s laundry list) but he nonetheless contributed to form a readership for the more radical re-definitions of the landscape and its imaginative capacity that were to follow.

On a final note, I’d like to think William Gilpin would have wholeheartedly approved of an endeavour like the Furnace Park Project, which invites diverse groups and disciplines to participate in the discussion and re-imagination of the spaces at the heart of our collective culture.

Further Reading:

Malcolm Andrews, The Search for the Picturesque: Landscape Aesthetics and Tourism in Britain, 1760-1800. Stanford, Stanford UP, 1989

Carl Paul Barbier, William Gilpin: his Drawings, Teaching and Theory of the Picturesque. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963. [Barbier reprints much of the correspondence between Gilpin and Mason].

Stephen Copley and Peter Garside, The Politics of the Picturesque: Literature, Landscape and Aesthetics since 1770. Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 1994.

Amongst other things Mark Bennett is also currently running the University of Sheffield Gothic Reading Group. To get involved, or read more of Mark’s work, check out their blog: http://sheffieldgothicreadinggroup.blogspot.co.uk/


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