Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

The Eighteenth Century: From Geometric to Informal Gardens

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  • At the beginning of the eighteenth century, particularly in England, the first voices were heard against strict geometric gardens with rigidly trimmed topiary trees, and in favor of more natural garden layouts. The emergence of an informal garden style based on irregular rather than straight lines was influenced in part by late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century travel books on the Far East, illustrating the winding paths and random rock formations in Chinese gardens. This growing vogue for the Orient resulted in the chinoiserie garden style, usually expressed by adding Chinese structures to the garden, a famous surviving example of which is the pagoda (25.19.43, 25.19.38) in Kew Gardens, London (1760). The chinoiserie proved to be an enduring phase in European garden art; up to the very end of the century, various books—notably William Chambers’s Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772) and Georges-Louis Le Rouge’s Jardins anglo-chinois (1776)—continued to be published on the subject.


    This growing vogue for the Orient resulted in the chinoiserie garden style, usually expressed by adding Chinese structures to the garden.

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    The Early Landscape Garden: Classical Literature and Imagery
    Two additional important sources for the development of the more natural, informal garden-park were classical literature (Virgil) and the idyllic images of the Roman campagna depicted by the seventeenth-century French landscape painters Claude Lorrain (65.181.12) and Nicolas Poussin. Among the first to show inspiration from idealized landscape paintings and pastoral poetry were Chiswick House near London (by William Kent, 1725–29), Stourhead and Stowe (42.79.7) (by Charles Bridgeman), all incorporating Palladian pavilions or rustic structures to revive the mythic Arcadian fields and to underline the true "genius of the place" (Alexander Pope). Much frequented by foreigners, these gardens would stimulate the evolution of the jardin à l’anglaise or Englischer Garten in France (Méréville) and Germany (Wörlitz).


    The Landscape Garden: "Capability" Brown and Humphry Repton
    While gardens in the Baroque and Rococo style enjoyed continued popularity on the Continent (Veitshöchheim, Germany) well into the mid-seventeenth century, in England the landscape garden had become established as the new taste by 1750. The undisputed master of the English landscape garden was Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1716–1783), who from the middle of the eighteenth century transformed English greens into Elysian fields, at Blenheim, Stowe, and Claremont. Concentrating on sweeping undulating lines, serpentine lakes and walks, and the articulation of light and shade by rearranging hills and wooded areas, Brown created a series of picturesque scenes focused on Palladian temples, classical monuments, and bridges. Brown's principles were further developed by Humphry Repton (1752–1818), whose successful career depended in part on his Red Books (45.10.1), illustrating his clients' estates before and after suggested landscape improvements. Repton's achievements included the introduction of picturesque sensibilities as well as glasshouses for exotic flora. By the end of the eighteenth century, in spite of Brown and his followers, strict geometric areas planted with flowers were reintroduced, ushering in a new phase in garden history.

    Vanessa Bezemer Sellers
    Independent Scholar