What is a ha-ha?
A ha-ha is a type of sunken fence that was commonly used in landscaped gardens and parks in the eighteenth century. It involved digging a deep, dry ditch, the inner side of which would be built up to the level of the surrounding turf with either a dry-stone or brick wall. Meanwhile, the outer side was designed to slope steeply upwards, before leveling out again into turf. The point of the ha-ha was to give the viewer of the garden the illusion of an unbroken, continuous rolling lawn, whilst providing boundaries for grazing livestock.
A French surprise
Originally a feature of formal French gardens of the early eighteenth century, the ha-ha was first described in print in 1709 by the gardening enthusiast, Dezallier d’Argenville in his La Theorie et la Practique du jardinage (The Theory and Practice of Gardening).
According to d’Argenville - and his first English translator, John James - the ha-ha derived its name from the success of the optical illusion it created from a distance on viewers of the garden: the hitherto concealed ditch and wall would ‘surprise the eye coming near it, and make one cry, “Ah! Ah!”’
Trend-setting at Stowe
The gardens at Stowe were among the first – if not the first – in England to possess a ha-ha. The ha-has installed by Charles Bridgeman and John Lee there in the 1720s, under the patronage of the first Viscount Cobham, were certainly those that met with the greatest interest from visitors belonging to the landed classes with estates of their own in which to copy the design.
Writing to his cousin, Daniel Dering in 1724, John Perceval, 1st Earl of Egmont (father to the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval), observed of Stowe: ‘what adds to the beauty of this garden is, that it is not bounded by walls, but by a ha-hah [sic], which leaves you the sight of the beautiful woody country, and makes you ignorant how far the high planted walks extend.’
Literature and the ha-ha
Accordingly, following the examples at Stowe, the ha-ha was enthusiastically adopted throughout the parks and gardens of the country under the reigns of the first four King Georges. Its popularity was attributable to the Georgian taste for landscapes favoured by influential writers like Joseph Addison, who encouraged his readers to seek out prospects that were ‘naturally apt to fill the mind with calmness and tranquility’ and thereby form ‘virtuous habits of mind.’
Since such perfectly harmonious views were rare natural occurrences, they had to be artificially created with the help of devices such as ha-has. Thus, poet Alexander Pope offered his friend, Richard Boyle, the practical advice to ‘surprise, vary and conceal the bounds,’ of his garden in order to create the desired effect.
By 1814, readers of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park would have had little problem understanding Miss Crawford’s remark on ha-has, which touches on their efficacy in preserving the appearance of uninterrupted verdure: ‘I have looked across the ha–ha till I am weary. I must go and look through that iron gate at the same view, without being able to see it so well.’