Book review: The Arcadian Friends Inventing the English Landscape Garden

The Arcadian Friends Inventing the English Landscape Garden

Tim Richardson

(Bantam Press, £25)

For some years, Tim Richardson was the gardens editor at Country Life, which he describes here as ‘a magazine conceived in the mould of the Whig ideal of a cultivated rural retirement’. He was also the first staffer to ever send an email, and this new book embodies his innovation, wit, mischief and, above all, his fondness for Britain’s historic gardens. In the years between William III and George II, he argues, the friction between Whigs and Tories created a new art form: the landscape garden. This is the most stimulating book on 18th-century gardens that I have ever read.

There is a famous story of how Winston Churchill told Siegfried Sassoon that ‘war is the natural occupation of man’. Sassoon protested, and Churchill compromised: ‘War and gardening.’ We begin with the Whig statesmen and soldiers who put William III on the throne of England, and, at the same time, introduced a new style of garden: a garden with wiggles, variety, and surprise which to them expressed the values of liberty. It was a time at which a man might be beheaded for being a Jacobite, and we see how the Tories invented a style in response. Levens Hall is a Jacobite garden, planted in a formal style of topiary and straight lines that was purposefully old-fashioned. And the mock-Gothic castle at Wentworth Woodhouse the earliest in Britain was a protest against the nouveau riche Whigs by the Earl of Strafford, commander of the Jacobites in the north of England.

The most brilliant duel was between Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope. Addison, a Whig, believed that a country estate should be a source of profit but that profit was beautiful. To Pope, a field of corn was beautiful in itself, and he wrote that the countryside should be an escape from commerce. Whigs demolished villages in the name of ‘improvement’, but the Tories created the ferme ornée, a rural idyll which turns its back on the world. Today, of course, gardens are not political: indeed, they are often an escape from politics. Reading between the lines, we see that this book is also a highly per-sonal commentary on how we think about gardens today. Mr Richardson grew up in Berkshire in the village next door to Pope, and splashed about in the same river. Is the English countryside merely a place of utility or is it a garden, he asks?

A second theme is his dissatisfaction with modern gardening as ‘a kind of outdoor DIY’. In the early 18th century, the garden was both intellectual and political, a place of philosophy and symbolism. Painting and sculpture were for the practical man. Finally, he is particularly cross at an Arts Council rule that gardens are not art. The landscape garden not Tracy Emin is Britain’s contribution to the visual arts of the world. For the first 40 years of the 18th century, gardening in Britain was avant-garde, political and fun.