"The basic and aesthetic premiss of this book is that English landscape gardening is the greatest artform ever to have been devised in the British Isles," says Tim Richardson in the introduction to The Arcadian Friends, his buoyant, copious and, at times, irritatingly personal history of the social and political forces that shaped the 18th-century garden. Eschewing the exportable but "meaningless" idyll of the Capability Brown landscape, in fact a fairly late apparition, Richardson directs his attention to the years between 1680 and the mid-1700s, a time when gardens were "in many ways akin to gigantic, ultra-sophisticated conceptual art installations". The great landscapes of this era, he argues, were meticulously engineered tours through the individual proclivities or political loyalties of those who made them: in many respects, they can be read as "the autobiographies of their owners".
Gardens, Richardson contends, were a uniquely subtle and expressive tool in an age of dangerous political flux. As early as the 1680s, English landowners were using their gardens to indicate their support for William of Orange, who supplanted the Catholic James II in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. A new looseness in planning and the introduction of the serpentine walks known as "wiggles" introduced a Protestant inquisitiveness about the experience of landscape that rebuked the formalised marvels of Catholic European gardening. Later, contrasting ideas about the Englishman's relation to his land became a symptom of the political divide between Whigs and Tories, as the writings of Addison and others introduced the idea that landowners owed as much an aesthetic as an agricultural duty to the nation.
As the century continued, the significance of garden-making became ever more complex. Gardens became instruments of fashion in a way that houses could never be: avenues and woodlands were swiftly cut and planted, buildings could be put up or removed within a season. Richardson devotes a good few chapters to Pope and his circle: to Pope's garden at Twickenham, built from scratch and rich in poetic, scientific and botanical curiosities, and Lady Henrietta Howard's singular "emotional landscape" at Marble Hill, where Pope, Gay and Swift played knowing parts in a convivial rural fantasy. …