The man-made landscapes of the Midlands
Like the defendant who claimed he was no longer the man who’d committed the crime because all his cells had been renewed since the offence, our landscape is forever renewing itself. Though you stand on a particular spot, its very substance is being ever transformed over eons by agents of change: wind, water and heat – but even within its geological milliseconds, it’s been changed by the restlessly creative hand of man.
The shovels of vast labour forces and the power of oxen have shaped our landscape, often to communicate allegiances and beliefs through metaphor and allusion. Sometimes this is mystical and obscure, as at Elizabethan Lyveden with its number riddles and haunting, unfinished lodge.
But aesthetic revelry and pleasure were fundamental, too, and much aided by advances in hydraulic-engineering. But the new fountains and pools of the geometric and continentally inspired gardens - which Belton and Charlecote once had – proved ephemeral even by the standards of the ever-changing landscape.
They were soon swept away in favour of a more natural look. Not in the sense of rewilding, but a pseudo-natural look . And so convincing was the work of the often famous creators of these un-natural landscapes, it’s frequently nowadays mistakenly accepted as the real thing!
In 1731 the poet and arbiter of taste, Alexander Pope, published his famous lines suggesting gardeners and landscape designers should quite literally “go with the flow”:
" In all, let nature never be forgot. Consult the genius of place in all, that tells the water rise or fall."
Garden theorists began talking about “humouring” nature. The form of woodlands, and even shapes of trees, were not to show obvious intervention. So no more of the great “goose foot” shaped rides seen radiating through the woods as at Dunham Massey, but meandering paths and Capability Brown’s carefully sited copses at Croome Park.
Croome was Brown’s fifty-year project to wrest from a morass a piece of arcadia with temples and ruins, and framed by the Malvern Hills. An indication of how Herculean was his task – and indeed that at other properties – is that his aesthetic aims necessitated the building of a new church and the relocation of the entire estate village.
Clumber’s raw material was similarly unpromising, being described as a giant rabbit warren when Stephen Wright fashioned the Park in the 1770s. He created the fabulously lengthy lake from the little River Poulter.
Wright was also the House’s architect. He’d been a pupil of William Kent, who’d pioneered the thinking and practice of how a house should relate to its setting. Horace Walpole, in fact, called Kent the father of modern gardening.
Often landscape designers, or improvers as they came to be described, didn’t start with a blank canvas. This was the lot of Humphry Repton (really Brown’s successor) at Attingham, where he set out his vision for further improvements in one of his customary Red Books. These, too, included damning the river to produce a lake-like effect, but also planting shelter-belts around the Park.
Many young aristocrats – plus some sponsored tradesmen – had gone on a Grand Tour to learn about classical design. When back home, they used on their estates ideas from what they’d seen. William Holbech, for instance, re-created a piece of the Roman campagna at Farnborough, along a with a ferme ornée. All was to be productive and beautiful, and walked about in, too.
But there was a keenness to create truly authentic classical designs – Neo-classicism - and for this it was to make careful scale drawings and sketches of ancient ruins. This is what Neo-classicism’s great exponent, Robert Adam, did in Dalmatia in the decade before he completed Kedleston Hall and built its beautiful fishing house and bridge in the Park.
However, to really get to the pure origins of the classical, one needed to go to Greece – an altogether edgier gap year destination! The Parthenon and its Marbles (when still in situ) and the temple at Bassae became favoured destinations.
Early visitors to Greece were James “Athenian” Stuart and Nicholas Revett, who, like Adam, published their archaeological surveys. Stuart designed several important structures around the Park at Shugborough, including a copy of Athens’s Arch of Hadrian and Choragic Monument of Lysicrates.
Their presence gives Shugborough a certain sense of a mythical Arcadia, which in reality was actually a mountainous region of southern Greece. Even so, the Park’s really a hybrid with its wonderful Chinese Pagoda and bridge.
When this assiduous copying from the ancient world seemed dryly academic, the Picturesque movement was a romantic antidote. And given that the Continent was increasingly unvisitable during the Napoleonic Wars, the Picturesque was, fortunately, a staycation option.
Despite this, its origins were in the 17th century French paintings of Claude and Poussin. The aim was to make your view as picture-like as possible. But wrapped up in this was the philosopher, Edmund Burke’s, notion of sublime beauty, meaning the viewer should be awed by the roughness and power of the natural landscape about him.
The origins of the Picturesque have traditionally been ascribed to two Herefordshire estates and recent research commissioned by the National Trust has suggested also the importance of Ilam Park in the Peak District. Ilam, with its gorge and volcano-shaped hill, so naturally fulfils Picturesque ideals, that it’s actually an almost “natural” wonder.