The Genius of the Place

By Shulman, Nicola | New Criterion, October 2016 | Go to article overview

The Genius of the Place


Shulman, Nicola, New Criterion


By general consensus, the English are good at two things: writing and gardening. This year, and thanks to the double-your-money principle that allows us to celebrate birth- and deathdays equally and in succession, England's most famous writer, William Shakespeare (1564?-1616), and her most famous gardener, Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1716-1783), are enjoying centennial festivities.

You wouldn't always think to compare them. Forced, though, into juxtaposition by this accident of dates, some common characteristics emerge. Both were men from modest backgrounds, professionals in a medium where aristocratic practice had set the standard. Each arrived upon an artistic milieu which still looked to Italy and the classical world for validation and ideas and built on its foundations a model of vernacular self-sufficiency. Both are biographically elusive: documentation for Brown is of course more abundant than for the almost-invisible Shakespeare, yet curiously sparse for a celebrity in the age of letters. Unlike Humphry Repton, his chief successor in the landscape movement, Brown left no treatises or even letters to explain his aesthetic principles; his biographers have had to manage on a few reported scraps. Furthermore, because the effect of Brown's achievement has been to retrain our collective native eye to read his art as simple "nature," and see nature in terms of his art, his work has melted into England's landscape as Shakespeare into its language.

The hundred years from 1616 were convulsive ones for England and essential background to an understanding of the English Landscape Movement--that is, the horticultural phenomenon that caused literally thousands of naturalistic, wooded parklands to appear across the country. There was a civil war, a regicide, and a Commonwealth, followed by a restoration of the Stuart kings in the person of the faintly Catholic-scented Charles II, returned from exile in France. In 1688 the Stuart monarchy ended suddenly with the deposition of Charles's heir and brother, the defiantly Catholic James II, in favor of James's Dutch son-in-law, William. This nearly bloodless coup, styled the "Glorious Revolution," was the work of a group of powerful liberal-minded politicians known as Whigs. It brought about a severe contraction of the powers of the throne, the confirmation of the role of parliament, and the emergence of an unchallenged political clique, the Whig Ascendancy. The great Whig magnates were now the princes of the earth. For the next two generations, they viewed themselves--with some justification--as the architects of the Protestant constitutional monarchy, the safeguards of private property, the drivers of Britain's success in trade and arms, and the champions of personal liberties.

Of all the art forms to arise from these developments, none cast a more faithful reflection than gardening--or so it was made to seem by the Vasari of the garden, Horace Walpole, shaping its first history, "The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening," from the Whiggish eminences of the later eighteenth century. According to this attractive narrative, the seventeenth-century formal garden--a geometric confection of terraces, clipped trees, avenues, mazes, and fountains based on the French models of Le Notre--was an expression of imported French despotism that deformed and enslaved nature, just as an absolute monarchy enslaved men. This abomination was then "swept away," as the British had swept their autocratic monarchy away in the Glorious Revolution, and replaced with a new, natural, and essentially national garden style of soft slopes, sinuous water, and meandering paths, obedient only to Pope's famous law: "consult the genius of the place in all." The new style of gardening became an emblem of British political liberties.

The reality was not as tidy as Walpole's busy clippers have made it. Taste in gardening, like other domestic arts, follows the waxing of status. In his own country William III had been one of the great makers of formal gardens; hence his reign ushered in no natural garden style. …

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