Design has been important in the British landscape for centuries. Many people are familiar with the gardens of large country houses, but in fact designed landscapes have a very complex history dating from Roman times and incorporating influences from across the world.
The history of garden design is tied up with the politics of the day, and the fortunes of royalty and aristocrats. It is also linked to other branches of the arts, such as painting and sculpture, and to writers such Jane Austen, who set much of her action in 18th-century country houses and their parkland landscapes.
Influences from abroad
The earliest evidence of gardens in the United Kingdom comes from the remains of palatial villas built by the Romans, such as Fishbourne Palace. They laid out Mediterranean-style courtyards with mosaics, fountains and carefully clipped hedges.
The Normans, arriving in 1066, brought the influence of the Islamic garden, which had arrived in Italy and Spain as Arabian armies conquered land around the Mediterranean. The Normans built castles with gardens and deer parks, and established monasteries that cultivated secluded cloister gardens and medicinal gardens to provide herbs to treat the sick.
During the Reformation in Henry VIII’s reign, most of these gardens fell into ruin, along with the abbeys and monasteries, although some have been recreated, such as those at Haverfordwest Priory and Mount Grace Priory.
Deer parks were where deer were bred and protected ready for the extravagant hunting parties that were a major feature of royal entertainment throughout the Middle Ages. They were also a key link between medieval garden design and more recent times. Featuring wooded areas and grassy lawns for the deer, the parks often later became 18th-century landscape parks, and many very old trees from medieval deer parks can still be seen today in places such as Knole.
Tudor royal palaces such as Hampton Court, Whitehall and Nonsuch had elaborate gardens, but with the Elizabethan and Jacobean era there was an explosion of extravagant garden-making by rich courtiers such as William Cecil, Lord Burghley at Theobalds and Sir Francis Willoughby at Wollaton Hall in Nottinghamshire, who hoped to win royal favour when the king or queen visited. These landscapes featured aromatic knot gardens, and combined the fashionable love of riddles and puzzles in mazes and emblems.
During the 15th-century Renaissance, Europe rediscovered the classical ideas of the Greeks and Romans. Along with this came Roman ideas on garden design, and gardens began to feature terraces, elaborate fountains, canals, and banqueting houses which looked out to the wider, wilder landscape. It was felt that the inherent beauty of nature was revealed through careful management of plants, with topiary and parterres based on the patterns found in nature.
For many, the garden became a refuge from the political schemes and fast-paced modern life of the court and city. Poems of the time celebrated the simplicity and morality of more traditional ways of life, such as Ben Johnson's ‘To Penshurst’ (1616), which compliments Robert Sidney, younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney, on his estate at Penshurst Place.
The cost of maintaining these elaborate gardens was high and the fortunes of courtiers depended on the favour of the monarch, so most of these gardens have long since disappeared completely, or remain only as evocative earthworks as those of Holdenby House in Northamptonshire.
After the turmoil of the English Revolution during the 1640s the gardens of the Restoration period (1660-1688) celebrated the return of political stability. Once again, European influences were imported as aristocrats who had been exiled to France and the Low Countries returned. Scaled-down version’s of Louis XIV’s grand formal garden at Versailles, picked up where examples like Wilton House, designed by Isaac de Caus, had left off in the 1630s.
The more intimate Dutch style became increasingly popular after William and Mary came to the throne in 1689. The gardens at Westbury Court and Bramham shows the typical features of the time, such as long straight avenues of trees (allées) stretching into the landscape,large pools of water (basons) and fountains. These gardens made a political and cultural statement about the country and its place in Europe at the end of what had been a very troubled century. However, just as these formal styles were reaching their peak of popularity with the creation of Castle Howard and Blenheim in the early 18th century, there was the most dramatic shift in style so far - and this too was related to the political state of the nation.
The Landscape ‘revolution’
In the 18th century, Britain began to assert its role as a leading global power, and Parliament also began to become more powerful than the reigning monarch. This new-found confidence was reflected in both the landscaping style and the philosophy and poetry of leading intellectuals and politicians such as Alexander Pope and Lord Burlington.
Burlington had toured Italy between 1714 and 1719 and his ideas took shape around his classical villa at Chiswick. The new emphasis was on the informal beauty of nature and what appeared to be entirely natural landscapes, modelled on the paintings of French artists Nicholas Poussin and Claude Lorrain, which British aristocrats collected whilst on their Grand Tour of Europe.
These landscapes were realised first by William Kent, a painter by profession, who painted views of his planned landscapes rather than plans of maps - an innovation which shows how differently they were being imagined and experienced. One of Kent's best-preserved landscapes is at Rousham.
Elsewhere, politicians such as Lord Cobham used his garden at Stowe to make a unique political statement, satirising the corruption of Walpole's government and offering an alternative national history and future through his use of sculpture in particular.
Others such as Henry Hoare at Stourhead and Charles Hamilton at Painshill sought to create their own pieces of paradise, creating painterly landscape scenes with garden buildings and planting set artistically about a lake.
The truly English contribution to garden design that emerged from this activity became associated with one man - Lancelot ‘Capability' Brown. His highly natural-looking landscapes, with a sea of grass stretching right up to the house, curving lakes, and well-placed clumps of trees, seemed to be everywhere in the last half of the 18th century, and remains influential today. Brown carried out more than 200 commissions in the UK and many remain, such as Blenheim and Croome Court. Brown was also widely imitated and his style of landscape spread right across the UK.
The 18th century was also a time when new plant materials were coming in from all over the world, as Britain's empire expanded. The flower garden at Nuneham Courtenay, designed by William Mason from 1771 to 1772, put plants at the centre stage. Humphry Repton, whose work often involved modernising Brownian landscapes as well as creating new ones, re-introduced terraces and flower gardens around the house. He also used the ideas of the ‘Picturesque' championed by Richard Payne Knight and Sir Uvedale Price, which promoted a more rugged and untamed vision of nature, as can be seen in Repton’s work at Blaise Castle.
Gardens for the people
By the second half of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution and the growth of the empire had radically transformed British society and politics. The effects showed in gardening and garden design. Gardens such as Kew displayed exotic plants collected from across the world in specialised hot houses and arboreta.
Gardening was now of interest at all levels of society, and parks were promoted for their benefits to public health. The journalist and designer John Claudius Loudon laid out public parks such as Derby Arboretum as well as writing gardening manuals.
Birkenhead Park, designed by Joseph Paxton, was the first park to be built at public expense between 1843 and 1847. Its layout was a mixture of informal lakes and trees, together with formal flower areas filled with carpet bedding.
These public spaces, including the new cemeteries, frequently used the popular Italianate style used by architects in the design of new country houses, such as Brodsworth Hall, now being built by industrialists and financiers.
Towards the end of the century, there was a rebellion against such strict formality, led by William Robinson with his ideas on ‘wild gardening' and demonstrated at his home, Gravetye Manor.
However the 20th century saw the rise of the ‘landscape architect' and the Edwardian garden had a formal structure married with informal planting: a style famously characterised by the partnership of Edwin Lutyens and Gertrude Jekyll who worked together on many gardens, including Hestercombe.
After the First World War, many large estates went into decline and gardens became smaller, often designed by their owners. Most notable are Hidcote and Sissinghurst. The designers of these gardens used the idea of dividing up the space to create ‘garden rooms', which gave the gardens more interest and made them seem larger.
In the 20th century, British designers, while bold with architecture, have been relatively conservative on with the landscape. However gardens such as Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Little Sparta, Charles Jencks Garden of Cosmic Speculation and the work of designers such as Piet Oudolf at Scampston are exceptions.