William Wordsworth, Landscape Architect

By Thompson, Ian H. | Wordsworth Circle, Autumn 2007 | Go to article overview

William Wordsworth, Landscape Architect


Thompson, Ian H., Wordsworth Circle


In a comment reported by Percival Graves, Wordsworth believed that besides poetry he had two callings: art critic and landscape gardener. Citing this comment, in Wordsworth and the Art of Landscape. (1968), Russell Noyes concluded that "Wordsworth was a rounded and eminent practitioner of the art of landscape on its highest levels"(91). Curiously, although Noyes graduated in landscape architecture before turning to the study of literature, he does not refer to Wordsworth as a "landscape architect" anywhere in his book, although he agrees with the Rev. R.P. Graves that Wordsworth had established his credentials as a landscape gardener on the grounds of his home at Rydal Mount (135). I believe it is appropriate to think of Wordsworth as a landscape architect, or at least as one of the spiritual and intellectual precursors of the profession, a view supported by the range, scale and depth of his interests in landscape beyond the boundaries of a garden. Furthermore I want to propose that the values which Wordsworth revealed, not only in his poetry but also in his gardening and travel writing, would place him among those landscape architects who have incorporated ecological insights into their design philosophies, making him a figure of considerable contemporary relevance.

In the 20th century, Wordsworth was often depicted politically as a radical who became conservative and opposed all social change. However, in Romantic Ecology (1991) Jonathan Bate offered another way of reading Wordsworth, interpreting his politics, or the underlying attitudes that emerge in his poetry, as neither red nor blue (left nor right in present day British politics), but green, and the environmentalism of Wordsworth's later years was a continuation of the radicalism of his youth, not a reaction against it.

As I argued in Ecology, Community and Delight (1999). landscape architects draw their values from three main areas: aesthetics, social responsibility and environmental awareness, all matters of deep concern to the poet. As Bate has observed, "Wordsworth was a vital influence upon the tradition of environmental consciousness" (9) and many of his attitudes are reflected in the discourses of contemporary landscape architects.

Wordsworth was a contemporary of the landscape gardener, Humphry Repton (1752-1818), who self-consciously assumed the mantle of Lancelot "Capability" Brown upon the latter's death in 1783. The first person to use the expression "landscape gardener" seems to have been the poet and gardener William Shenstone who created a much admired garden at the Leasowes in Warwickshire between 1743-1763 and whose Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening was published after his death in 1764. Though "Capability" Brown preferred the terms "place-maker" or "improver," Repton, certainly considered himself a landscape gardener as it was understood in Wordsworth's time.

The term "landscape architect," on the other hand, was first used by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, who designed Central Park in New York. It was not coined until 1858, eight years after Wordsworth's death, which may account for why Noyes avoided it and preferred calling him a "landscape gardener." When writers seek to express the continuity between landscape gardening and landscape architecture, they sometimes use the term "landscape architect" retrospectively, applying it to 18th century designers like William Kent, Lancelot Brown and Humphry Repton and even to the leading gardener of 17th century France, Andre Le Notre. Commentators who wish to indicate similarities in underlying values, working methods, scope of vision etcetera, between these historically important designers and later practitioners use the lerm landscape architecture. I submit that there are good reasons for applying it to Wordsworth.

Wordsworth's main essays in gardening were the orchard garden he created at Dove Cottage, the terraced garden he developed at Rydal Mount and the winter garden that he designed for a disused quarry in the grounds of Coleorton Hall, as Carol Buchanan documented in Wordsworth's Gardens (2001). …

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