English country houses and gardens

DSC00700The online course I’m currently doing is called ‘Literature of the English Country House’ run by the University of Sheffield. I decided to read a few other books loosely on the theme, some of which have been on my shelves for some time.  Most of these relate more to English country house owners, houses or gardens rather than literature set in country houses; but I thought they would provide some useful background – and make me read some of my unread books!

The first, chronologically, is Earls of Paradise: England and the Dream of Perfection, by Adam Nicholson (2008). It was also published as Arcadia: the Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England, which was the title I read some years ago. Having sold my copy, I had to borrow the library’s copy, under the ‘Earls…’ title.

This book covers the period from about 1520 to the 1640s and is about the Earls of Pembroke and their house and garden at Wilton. Another book that starts just a little later is The Cecils of Hatfield House, by David Cecil (published in America in 1973). A book by Tim Richardson called The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden (2007) covers the period from the late 1600s until about 1750. Both this book and Nicolson’s have the word ‘arcadia’ in common. This is partly because of Sir Philip Sidney’s poem called Arcadia, written around 1580 and dedicated to the Countess of Pembroke (Mary Sidney, Philip’s sister).[1]  An essay by Sir William Temple called Upon the Gardens of Epicurus or Of Gardening in the Year 1685 is discussed by Richardson. I have a modern reprint of this.


Another book with ‘arcadia’ in the title is The King’s Arcadia: Inigo Jones and the Stuart Court, a 1973 catalogue by John Harris, Stephen Orgel and Roy Strong. I also have a guidebook to Follies: A National Trust Guide, by Gwyn Headley and Wim Meulenkamp (1986), many of which were built in gardens in the eighteenth century – but I haven’t read it. Another I haven’t read yet is Garden Nature Language by Simon Pugh (1988) – mainly about the garden at Rousham and it pivots around a letter written in 1750. And two other books, which do relate more closely to country house literature are More’s Utopia and Its Critics, by Ligeia Gallagher (1964) and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park. We had an excerpt from Thomas More’s Utopia in the first week and I’m fairly sure Mansfield Park will come up in the third or fourth week.

I also want to put a link to an earlier post of mine, which was an essay on French picturesque gardens of the later eighteenth century – many of the ideas came from the English landscape gardens being created earlier in that century.

I can’t adequately cover all of these books in this post, so I’ll pick what interests me. Nicholson says the English Renaissance Arcadia ‘was a coming together of high classical  ideals with a sense of the good society that was deeply rooted in England’s medieval experience’ (p. 2) “Arcadia was a dream of nature; there was no suggestion that it was the same as nature itself.” (p. 13) But it was also an act of authority and power. The first man to be made Earl of Pembroke was William Herbert.  He was an authoritarian man willing to use violence if necessary. He rose to power under Henry VIII – reading Nicholson it seems to me Herbert was a nasty and brutal man in a nasty and brutal era. Herbert married Anne Parr, the sister of Henry VIII’s last wife Catherine Parr, one who managed to survive and outlive him. It was this connection that helped give Herbert land and money.  He was given the dissolved abbey (a nunnery) at Wilton in Wiltshire and set about destroying it and building his house instead. He enclosed some land and when some of his tenants rebelled he slaughtered them. He was also behind Lady Jane Grey’s accession to the throne, until he sensed which way ‘the wind was blowing’ and changed sides – his son repudiated his hastily arranged marriage to Jane’s sister and they were left to their fates. He also made vast profits during the reign of Henry’s son Edward VI.

After reading all this about him, I didn’t really care much to read about his house or garden! Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586) was the brother of the second earl’s wife Mary. According to Nicholson, Sidney, as the revered author of ‘Arcadia’, was more powerful in death than life. ‘Arcadia’ was written for his sister, the Countess of Pembroke. The Sidneys’ maternal grandfather the Duke of Northumberland had been executed along with his son and Lady Jane Grey – having been abandoned by the first Earl of Pembroke in their attempt to put Jane on the throne. Interesting times – interesting family connections!

In a connection to ‘country house literature’ a play was staged at Wilton in 1603 – the new king, James I, was in residence at the time. It was probably performed by Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men. For one play the cost was £30, for ‘coming from Mortlake in the county of Surrey’ to perform. Nicolson doesn’t know what play was performed, but speculates in a very interesting way that it was Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” – which he says makes more sense given the circumstances surrounding the performance.

A whole chapter on the poor and punishments meted out for a whole range of supposed offenses again makes me despise the aristocrats and their ‘arcadias’. Nicolson gives some useful information on the tenure form of copyhold (see my post on Morrells in Yorkshire for a reference to copyhold in the late 19th century).

DSC00706In 1566 there were 21 copyholders in Wilton itself. By 1631/2 there were only five and 22 tenants ‘by indenture’ (similar to leases). By 1831 there were two hugely rich farmers in Wilton, tenants of the earl – neither did any farm work, they employed agricultural labourers for that. William Cobbett making a tour of Wiltshire in 1826 said it had ‘the worst used labouring people upon the face of the earth’. Almost 500 of them, rioting in the 1830s against tithes paid to the church and the introduction of mechanical threshing machines, were transported to Australia and 15 were hanged (p. 277). I’m afraid Nicolson has done too good a job at giving the underpinnings of the ‘arcadia’ that I was no longer particularly interested in the house and garden designed in the 1630s by Inigo Jones’s pupil Isaac de Caus. By 1647, when a fire destroyed the new part of the house, the current earl was half-heartedly on the Parliament side in the civil war against Charles I.

This nicely brings me to The Cecils of Hatfield House, written by a Cecil descendant, David Cecil. The second and third Earls of Salisbury, had to decide whether to support king or parliament. “Nervous and muddle-headed, the Second and Third Earls wobbled between the two, though with a bias towards the Parliament. The Fourth Earl, reversing the process, plumped for the King. But unfortunately the King at that moment happened to be James II, perhaps the most inept monarch to occupy the throne of England. He was, however, no more inept than the Fourth Earl of Salisbury, whose political activities in favour of his royal master were ineffective and even ridiculous.” (163-4).

How had it come to this, after the first two Cecils raised the fortunes of the family so high and between them almost effectively ruled England for 50 years? William Cecil (1520-1598) was appointed by Queen Elizabeth I as her chief advisor and “from 1558 for forty years the biography of Cecil is almost indistinguishable from that of Elizabeth and from the history of England”[2]. He was an able and efficient politician and manager – and no doubt unscrupulous and somewhat ruthless as anyone surviving at the top of politics at that time had to be. He became Lord Burghley and trained up his younger son Robert to take his place. Robert Cecil managed to hold on during the early years of James I’s reign and it was James who made Robert the first Earl of Salisbury. Hugely overworked, he died at the relatively young age of 48 in 1612 – unpopular and with many enemies. His lack of popular appeal I think was partly due to his deformity in an era when physical beauty was greatly admired – he was small and hunchbacked. He had to put up with nicknames from Elizabeth and James of pygmy, elf, small man and beagle!

In 1607 the feckless James indicated that he would like to have Cecil’s house of Theobalds because of its fine hunting grounds. He offered Cecil the royal palace of Hatfield (where Elizabeth I had spent much of her childhood). Cecil accepted and immediately started a rebuilding programme which took five years and cost £38,000 (p. 149). “The spreading acres of garden were, if possible, even more elaborate and lavish than the house. They were at once a gorgeous spectacle – lawns and blossoming orchards and a shining lake and foaming fountains and statues and terraces, from which flights of steps, lined with gilded figures of lions, descended to parterres of many-coloured flowers – and also a horticultural treasury, famed for its unique collection of rare plants.” (pp. 150-1). From this high point, the Cecils entered several generations of decline, which is amusingly covered in David Cecil’s book. The sixth earl, for example, “made the grand tour of Europe – he had his portrait done in Venice by Rosalba Carriera – and came home to start immediately on his downward progress.” (p. 183-4) Later Cecils did, however, manage to be Prime Ministers, but I’ll leave them there.

I bought Tim Richardson’s book Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden (2007) in December 2012 on holiday in the South Island (at Twin Rivers cafe in Cheviot to be precise). I read a few chapters, then put it aside. I started it again recently and enjoyed it more this time. He begins with a visit to Castle Howard and a description of the garden. This garden was made at a time when ‘two apparently opposing design styles were just meeting. The baroque formality of the late 17th century, and the beginnings of the more naturalistic English landscape style of the 18th century’ (p. 3). John Vanbrugh began working there in 1699 and it ‘represents a key moment of change’. Richardson’s main thesis is that these developing ideas were strongly linked to politics of the time: “it was then that a group of designers and landowners – most of them staunch Whigs – began to experiment with landscaping ideas in a concerted and semi-public way as part of a wider political agenda.” (p. 3)

Political gardening began in a quiet way in the 1680s as a way for courtiers and diplomats to show support for William of Orange and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. It was also a way of distancing yourself from the baroque formal gardens of most of the Catholic courts of Europe. The Whigs, who had engineered the change of regime in 1688 did so again in 1714 with the Hanoverian succession. Joseph Addison in ‘The Spectator’ (1712) linked together the ideas of English liberty and English landscape naturalism. The Tories countered with their own brand of patriotic gardening in the ‘ferme ornee’ or ornamental farm – something more practical and useful. With the rise and long ‘reign’ of (Whig) Robert Walpole as ‘first minister’ (effectively Prime Minister) – a group of disaffected Whigs also used political gardening as a subtle weapon. At Lord Cobham’s Stowe, for example, the various structures incorporated a coherent allegory that tried to embarrass Walpole’s government. However, the political messages started to dim from the late 1730s and ‘simple fashion’ took over.

The key characteristic of these early 18th century gardens was variety through such things as multiple views, surprises, distant prospects suddenly followed by intimate scenes, darkness alternating with light, trees with shrubs and a variety of architectural styles. It was also packed with meaningful symbolism, although the symbolism was often undercut with a joke (p. 8). Friendship and competition between garden makers was key. Why gardens as political protest? Richardson says it was because they were the most personal and powerful means of expression safely open to their owners (p. 13).

Innovations began with a ‘looseness’ in the planting and the ‘wiggle’ or serpentine walk – and Sir William Temple may be considered the ‘father of the wiggle’ (p. 27). However, for most at this time gardens still incorporated formal features. Statues of Neptune or Hercules were used to show loyalty to William III. Richardson believes a design for a belvedere in 1717 might be England’s first ever garden folly. My National Trust Guide to Follies suggests that ‘after some isolated earlier examples, the folly really came into its own in the 18th century, with its heyday between 1730 and 1820 (p. xxii).

With the accession of the Hanovers – an “upstart dynasty” needing to assert its individuality – they adopted Palladian style buildings and Palladianism ‘quickly became the house style of the British Whigs keen to assert their loyalty’ (p. 95). In the garden, this generally expressed itself in the form of classical temples. Richardson doesn’t discuss the work of ‘Capability’ Brown who later in the century remodelled some of these gardens, now seen as old-fashioned, into a pastoral scene. This is what we now think of as the quintessential English landscape garden; but this only applied to the second half of the 18th century. Richardson’s book ends about 1750, which is where Simon Pugh’s Garden Nature Language takes up. However, I haven’t read that book (yet?). I think the only one of these gardens I have visited is Studley Royal in Yorkshire.



1. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Countess_of_Pembroke%27s_Arcadia

2. Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Cecil,_1st_Baron_Burghley


One thought on “English country houses and gardens

  1. Your discomfort with the socioeconomic realities underlying these flawed utopias is encapsulated by Walter Benjamin: “There is no document of culture which is not at the same time a document of barbarism” (Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History) – it is still a problem for us whether to destroy (eg Puritan or Taleban iconoclasm) or to redefine for demotic consumption (ie global tourism). Western capitalism favours the latter, and I’m inclined to agree. Either option, however, would have appalled the original elite creators/consumers … but let’s face it, it was always only ever a fantasy …


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