Stephen Switzer, landscape designer, horticulturalist and author was one of the most prominent figures in the rise of the 18th-century landscape garden. Having played key roles in the creation of Blenheim in Oxfordshire, Castle Howard in North Yorkshire and Stowe in Buckinghamshire during his early career, Switzer went on to promote the improvement of various aspects of landscape-making.
His combined philosophy of landscape, agriculture and politics led to his seminal work, an influential three-volume treatise on landscape and gardening, Iconographia Rustica, published in 1718. This set out his ideas and viewpoints and became an essential addition to the libraries of the aristocratic elite.
Stephen Switzer was baptised on 25 February 1682 at Micheldever and Stratton parish church in Hampshire. He was the second of two sons belonging to Thomas Switzer (died 1697), a local farmer, and his wife, Mary (died 1682). According to Brogden (2004), the family were part of a long pedigree of farmers from Hampshire who spelled their surname in various ways, the pronunciation of which resembled ‘Sweetsur'.
There are no known details about Switzer's formal education, although his father's early death prompted his brother to take over the management of the family farm (Brogden 2004).
In 1699 Switzer joined the Brompton Nurseries, where he was apprenticed to George London, an influential gardener of the period who worked with Henry Wise. London and Wise went on to become one of the most respected gardening firms in the country.
Over the course of around 15 years, Switzer worked on some of the finest landscapes of the early 18th century, acting as Lieutenant for the firm. It was also during this period that he formed an important connection with the architects Sir John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor, as well as the landscape gardener Charles Bridgeman.
Among Switzer's early projects was the landscaping of Blenheim Palace, which began in 1709. Wise, Vanbrugh, Bridgeman and Switzer all worked on the site, creating a vast landscape boasting two parterres, each one surrounded by bastions and brick walls built in the martial style. There is little doubt that these designs neatly connected the gardens with the 1st Duke of Marlborough's (1650-1722) military successes during the Wars of Spanish Succession (Green 1987, 73).
Another project, arguably far more influential in the development of British designed landscapes, was Switzer's involvement at Castle Howard. From 1699, Sir John Vanbrugh had been employed to create the new family seat for Charles Howard, 3rd Earl of Carlisle (1669-1738), during which time the designs for the landscape were drawn and debated. Early plans submitted by George London were rejected despite their fashionable details, which included radiating paths and vast allées that swept across the landscape.
Central to the designs was the treatment of Ray Wood, one of the surviving features of the earlier medieval landscape. While London suggested removing the woodland, Switzer went on to introduce a series of meandering paths through the wood that connected a number of clearings or ‘cabinets' with summerhouses, statues and fountains (Finch 2008).
The treatment of Ray Wood with its layout of serpentine walks was the first of its kind in the country and marked a departure from the formal geometric designs that had dominated the late 17th century. It was the ‘Labrynth diverting model', as described by Switzer, which soon inspired the proverb ‘York against London' (Switzer 1718, II). This referred to the Earl of Carlisle's preference for Switzer over George London and the friendly rivalry between York and the City of London.
A short while after these early projects, Switzer published The Nobleman Gentleman and Gardener's Recreation (1715) a treatise that brought together his early experiences in garden design and his accumulated knowledge of horticulture. This would later become the first volume of Iconographia Rustica.
In these volumes Switzer pioneered what he called ‘Rural and Extensive Gardening', which integrated the economics of kitchen gardening and animal husbandry with the aesthetics of landscape design (Dixon Hunt & Willis 1975, 150).
One element that was integral to this philosophy was the idea of the ferme ornée or ‘ornamental farm'. This symbolised the marriage of beauty and utility, where gardens combined the useful, profitable and pleasurable. In essence this translated as long, uninterrupted views from the main house, populated by farm, field and boundary. The functional use of agricultural land was viewed both as an economic tool and an aesthetic device.
‘Where-ever Liberty will allow, would throw my Garden open to all view to the unbounded Felicities of distant Prospect, and the expansive Volumes of Nature herself'
Coupled with Switzer's functional concerns were his political views, moulded by the turbulent period in British politics during the late 17th century. Switzer viewed gardening as a reflection of the social structure and as a material base for high culture (Turner 1978, 491).
His political views and standpoint as a constitutional monarchist permeate his writing. In the Recreation he tells us, when referring to the decline of gardening during the reign of James II: ‘this unhappy Prince pursuing Measures of another nature and having quite other Designs in his Head, no less that that of Arbitrary and Despotick Power' (1718, I, 55 quoted in Turner 1978).
The reign of William III, however, saw the rise of gardening at home while the ‘Defense of Liberties of Europe' were fought for through a succession of wars on foreign soil - most importantly for Switzer, against the absolutism of the French (Turner 1978, 494). Throughout the volumes of Ichnographia Rustica Switzer criticises the formal geometric layout of French and Dutch gardens and contrasts their form with his own idea of landscape:
‘Where-ever Liberty will allow, would throw my Garden open to all view to the unbounded Felicities of distant Prospect, and the expansive Volumes of Nature herself' (1718, I, 35).
In 1729 Switzer published the Introduction to a General System of Hydraulicks and Hydrostaticks, in two illustrated volumes. This proved to be the most scientific work of his career and was of great importance. It was a milestone in the development of the use of hydraulics and - most importantly - in the creation of canals from the mid-18th century on (Brogden 2004).
From the 1720s Switzer worked from a small-scale practice based in Westminster. Having married Elizabeth (further details of whom are unknown) he became a seedsman, running a lucrative trade from premises at Westminster Hall. He soon became a public figure by writing widely on the subject of improvement, dealing more specifically with fertilisers, hydraulics and beneficial legumes (Brogden 2004).
Switzer died on 8 June 1745 at his home in Millbank and was buried five days later at St Margaret's Westminster. He died a rich man having had a significant influence on the creation and form of designed landscapes in the early part of the 18th century.
W. A. Brogden, ‘Switzer, Stephen (bap. 1682, d. 1745)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/26855, accessed 26 Jan 2009].
J. Dixon Hunt & P. Willis (eds), The Genius of the Place (Paul Elek, 1975).
J. Finch ‘Pallas, Flora, and Ceres: Landscape Priorities and Improvement on the Castle Howard Estate, 1699-1880' In Estate Landscapes: Design, Improvement, and Power in the Post-Medieval Landscape, ed. J. Finch and K. Giles (The Boydell Press, 2007) pp. 19-37.
D. Green, Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (Blenheim estate office, 1976).
Switzer, S., The Nobleman Gentleman and Gardener's Recreation (London, 1715).
Switzer, S., Iconographica Rustica vol. II. (D. Brown. 1718).
Switzer, S., Introduction to a General System of Hydraulicks and Hydrostatick (London, 1727).
Turner, J., ‘Stephen Switzer and the Political Fallacy in Landscape Gardening History' in Eighteenth-Century Studies, 11.4 (1978) pp. 489-496.