Unearthing Paradise; Painting a Perfect Scene: Detail from an Arcadian Revel by Artist Joshua Cristall

Article excerpt

Byline: Frances Spalding

A SPOT of misery can be a useful thingit is discontent, not happiness, that stirs desire for a better world. Manygreat thinkers have yearned for Arcadia, a rural existence in which socialharmony, beauty and peace flourish.

This dream of perfection has arisen most often in the minds of those unhappilyconstricted by city life or trapped by protocol in a royal or papal court.

The ideal goes back to classical times, to the Greeks' notion of the GoldenAge, and was envisaged in two ways. One was soft, pleasure-loving and often setin Sicily; the other was associated with virtue, with the honest shepherdsliving in the harsh mountainous region of Arcadia, a province in thePeloponnese.

Adam Nicolson picks up the story in Renaissance England, when urbanisation wasbeginning to undermine medieval Unearthing customs, in particular theclustering of was beginning to undermine medieval Scratching beneath customs,in particular the clustering of communities around lords of the manor. In thischanging and newly competitive world, the dream of rural bliss revived.

At the nub of this book is Nicolson's belief that the afterglow of feudalismmerged with Arcadianism to create a unique moment in English culture. He pointsto a house, its park and the surrounding landscape, and shows how, for a time,these became identified with Arcadia.

The landscape is Wiltshire, with its downs and long vistas of open grassland.

The house is Wilton, a few miles west of Salisbury, and one of the greataristocratic estates in Renaissance England.

It was the home of the Herbert family that later produced the Earls ofPembroke. Wilton became, in Nicolson's words, their 'power-base, cash cow andpleasure grounds'.

THE first of these earls was William Herbert. In the 1530s he and his wife AnneParr were minor figures in Henry VIII's court, neither owning land nor with anyprospect of an inheritance.

But, using their wits, they made a steady approach to the centre of power.

In 1539, when 800 abbeys in England and Wales were being dissolved, WilliamHerbert received a lease on the abbey at Wilton and was appointed steward ofits extensive lands, its fisheries, farms, orchards, pastures and salt pits. …