Magazine article History Today

Georgian Town Gardens

Magazine article History Today

Georgian Town Gardens

Article excerpt

Greening urban landscapes is nothing new, says Joyce Ellis, the Georgians were Greens too.

THE PROCESS OF URBAN DEVELOPMENT in Georgian England produced a landscape dominated by bricks and mortar as the built-up area of towns across the country first became more densely settled and then began to encroach upon the surrounding countryside. However, the attention paid to the great landscape gardens of the aristocracy has obscured the extent to which towns shared in what has been called the `garden revolution' of the period. The heroic approach adopted at Blenheim or Stowe was obviously inappropriate in the much more restricted open spaces available in the towns, but even here nature could be manipulated to give pleasure to urban residents. Over two centuries before Ebenezer Howard popularised the idea of the `garden city', John Evelyn was urging the transformation of Restoration London by extensive tree planting: contemporaries were well aware that `... most People love a Country Prospect, and are even pleased with the most narrow View of it'.

This growing appreciation of the way in which greenery could soften the hard edges of the urban landscape stimulated interest in the layout of fashionable squares. These semi-public spaces were originally envisaged as open piazzas on the classical model, paved meeting places with a single statue or fountain providing a visual reference point for the surrounding planned development. St James's Square in London, was laid out in 1726 with a plain gravel surface surrounding a great central basin, and Queen Square in Bristol appears as a similarly `correct' piazza in a print of 1731. It was much more common, however, for such squares to be laid out as gardens: indeed contemporary descriptions make it clear that Queen Square had already been planted with trees in the 1720s. These early gardens seem to have followed the stiff, formal styles prescribed by fashion for country house gardens of the period. Old Square in Birmingham, Soho Square in London and Queen Square in Bath all featured gravel paths, small symmetrical plots of grass or flowering shrubs and severely clipped trees, surrounded by stone balustrades or iron railings. The layout of the gardens thus mirrored the strict grid pattern of the architecture around them, nature being constrained by the demand for order and symmetry. As the century progressed, however, designers increasingly favoured a more informal arrangement: nature was to be allowed to flourish to provide an aesthetic contrast to the works of man. And urban squares had to adapt to their residents' changing tastes. Already in the 1720s one critic, Thomas Fairchild, urged that:

   The plain way of laying out Squares in Grass Plats and Gravel Walks, does
   not sufficiently give our Thoughts an Opportunity of Country Amusements. I
   think some sort of Wilderness Work will do much better, and divert the
   Gentry better than looking out of their Windows upon an open Figure.

While the basic pattern of gravel paths and grass plots remained unchanged, squares were increasingly dominated by `natural' shrubberies and mature deciduous trees, especially elms, whose upkeep was paid for by subscription or by rates levied on local residents. In this way the classic English landscape garden was transported in microcosm into the heart of the Georgian town, a factor which does much to explain the enduring popularity of the urban square as a fashionable residence.

Although the squares were by their very nature exceptional, housing a small social elite in a relatively small number of towns, gardens of all shapes and sizes flourished in Georgian England as never before. The great town mansions, like the Duke of Norfolk's residence in Norwich, had always had carefully tended gardens, often taken over from the monastic foundations which they replaced. Their formal avenues and manicured parterres mirrored those surrounding country houses and were often on a similar scale: some, like the Duke of Newcastle's house in Nottingham, even had a deer park attached. …

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