How has the English landscape garden developed?

A view across a lake with bright sky reflections of clouds in the water to golden style temples at Stowe

The English landscape garden is characterised by structured informality. Orderly, aesthetically arranged elements draw attention to local flora and landscape features which appear entirely natural, or even ‘wild’.

Origins

The English landscape garden tradition goes back to the later sixteenth and early seventeenth-centuries. The Tradescants (John the elder, 1570-1638; John the younger, 1608 to 1662) collaborated with William and Robert Cecil and Sir Francis Bacon on garden designs that combined botanical discoveries from New World exploration with the discipline of natural history.

Rejection of formalism

With the Glorious Revolution of 1688, William III brought a freer Dutch gardening style to England. Whilst the earlier Stuart monarchs had embraced the formal gardens of the French court, it now became fashionable to create gardens that rejected authoritarian formality in favour of rustic simplicity.

Classical influences

Ancient Greek notions of the Arcadian pastoral landscape influenced early eighteenth-century landscape gardens, but in a more natural style than that of French neoclassicism. Lancelot 'Capability' Brown (1715-1783) designed gardens at Stowe and Chatsworth in this style, creating serpentine water features, elegant vistas, rustic Greek temples, and natural-looking treescapes.

Romantic wilderness

As the picturesque came to be valued in the later eighteenth-century, the pastoral gave way increasingly to the wild and Romantic. Humphry Repton (1752-1818) and his contemporaries in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth-centuries began to add artificial ruins and wildernesses to the gardens at Blaise Castle and Woburn Abbey.

Later developments

The landscape garden continued to evolve over the nineteenth and twentieth-centuries with the Arts and Crafts Movement’s turn toward the cottage garden, which combined function with aesthetic appeal. This culminated in Gertrude Jekyll’s designs at Munstead Wood and in Vita Sackville-West’s gardens at Sissinghurst Castle.

Landscapes of meaning

At every point in the history of English landscape design, the garden was invested with political meaning. To garden in the informal style after the Glorious Revolution was to state one’s opposition to Stuart tyranny, whilst Capability Brown’s eighteenth-century pastoral gardens expressed the polite civility to which England’s landed classes aspired.

Repton’s Romantic landscapes embraced the savage freedom of the natural world, which hinted at social and political disruption. The Arts and Crafts garden style was a rejection of industrial England and an attempt to restore the landscape to a pre-industrial ideal.

A view across the lake at Stourhead in autumn

Our most famous gardens 

We care for hundreds of amazing gardens, but these are the jewels in our crown. Find out why they're so well known.