A brief introduction to Parks and Gardens

A Guide to the English Landscape Movement

Art and antiquity influenced garden design in England in the Georgian era.

What was the English landscape style?

The English landscape style, developed in 18th-century Georgian Britain, is considered one of the country’s most significant contributions to the visual arts.

View towards a stately home, across grass lawns and a strip of water which, on the right hand side is crossed by a bridge.
Audley End was built in the early 17th century on the site of the abbey of Walden. Richard Woods created pleasure grounds, and between 1761 and 1767, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed and partially laid out a surrounding park. © Historic England Archive PLB/N071346.

Its most famous proponent was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, but many other landowners and gardeners adopted the English landscape style, recreating the landscapes on their great estates in a similar fashion.

What inspired the English landscape style?

In the 18th century, rich young men would go on The Grand Tour through Europe to finish their classical education.

Room packed with a collection of urns and busts.
Architect Sir John Soane undertook The Grand Tour to complete his education. The Soane Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London (his former home and office) was designed to display the artworks he collected during his lifetime. © Historic England Archive AA98/05938.

They would visit areas of antiquity, particularly Italy and Greece, because the Roman and Greek worlds were considered the ‘cradle of civilisation’. Here, they would collect works of art to take home as souvenirs and decorate their houses.

The English landscape style was particularly inspired by the works of French artist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682). Lorrain’s paintings were trendy, and the rich young men would bring them back from their Grand Tour – they were much easier to transport than a statue.

Classic landscape painting showing animals grazing in the foreground and a body of water crossed by a bridge on the right.
‘Pastoral landscape with the Ponte Molle, Rome’ by Claude Lorrain, 1645. Lorrain is considered one of the greatest of all landscape painters. © Historic England Archive PLB/N070561.

Lorrain’s paintings contain many elements reproduced by landowners and their master gardeners in what became the English landscape style. The fashion for these Arcadian landscapes spread among landowners, who commissioned other paintings of their new landscapes.

Oil painting of a wealthy man wearing Georgian fashions, seated on a chair in front of a landscape painting.
Francis Hayman’s portrait of John Conyers was painted around 1747. Conyers was the owner of Copped Hall in Essex, which features in the painting hung on the wall behind him. © Historic England Archive PLB/J920087.

How to identify the English landscape style

Featuring images from the Historic England Archive, here are 10 key features that show how art and antiquity influenced garden design in England in the Georgian era.

1. Bridges and cascades

Water was essential in 18th-century landscapes. Lakes and rivers reflected arched bridges, buildings and specimen trees.

Fishing and boating and theatrical productions took place on and around the water features, which were often made to look perfectly natural.

Stone bridge with classical embellishments crossing a strip of water.
The Classic Bridge on the grounds of Chiswick House was built in 1774. It was designed by the architect James Wyatt for the fifth Duke of Devonshire. © Historic England Archive PLB/K010177.

A bridge was a practical way to cross the water and an attractive feature in the landscape. Landowners commissioned top architects to create them alongside their houses.

Picturesque woodland scene featuring a man-made but naturalistic cascade of water.
This picturesque rockwork at Bowood Park in Wiltshire incorporates a cascade and grotto. It was built in 1785-7 and is sited at the head of a lake created by famed landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. © Historic England Archive CC5200553.

Making water behave and look naturalistic requires complex and groundbreaking engineering, diverting water sources from elsewhere. It also involved back-breaking work for men, armed only with metal-tipped wooden shovels and working with horses and carts. It was an expensive, muddy and time-consuming process.

2. Columns and statues

Trajan’s Column in Rome was the ultimate statement of wealth and power. It was much emulated by Georgian landowners if they could afford it. A column had no other purpose than to dominate the landscape surrounding it.

View across vast expanse of lawns towards woods and a tall column in the distance.
The Column of Victory in the park at Blenheim Palace was built in 1727-30 to celebrate the military victories of the Duke of Marlborough. The column was inspired by the pillar in the Piazza Navona in Rome. © Historic England Archive HT11630.

A column, usually with a substantial classical statue atop, demonstrated how wealthy and successful its builder was. It created something expensive and challenging to build for no other reason than to show they could.

Repairing a column is still a significant undertaking today, even with mechanical cranes doing the heavy lifting instead of the ropes, pulleys, people and horses, which were the 18th-century equivalent.

Statue of a naked woman on top of a plinth.
The 18th-century stone Doric column sited in Chiswick House garden originally supported a copy of the statue of the Venus de Medici – a favourite feature in many European gardens. At some point, the statue was removed. A replacement by Andrian Melka was installed in 2009. © Historic England Archive PLB/N090702.

3. Castles and ruins

If you weren’t lucky enough to have a castle in your landscape, you could create one to your specific taste. Some landscapes had sham castles or follies – quick and easy to build and quite theatrical in appearance.

Some were very much like theatre backdrops. Others were actual buildings that could be used to enjoy the landscape. Both changed the landscape to make it and its owners appear grander and older than it was.

Small castle viewed from undergrowth and across an exanse of grass. In the background are woods.
Blaise Castle is a sham castle and prospect tower built in 1766 for Thomas Farr by London architect Robert Mylne. The sham was habitable and provided views of shipping on the nearby Severn and Avon rivers. © Historic England Archive AA98/04343.

In 1766, Thomas Farr built Blaise Castle folly so that he could climb to the top to watch his ships returning along the River Avon to Bristol. He invested heavily in the slave trade and was bankrupted by the blockade of shipping in the American War of Independence. The Hartford family later bought the estate and campaigned to abolish slavery.

Ruins were also part of the Gothic romance so fashionable in the Georgian era. Some old estates had ruins in situ, such as abandoned medieval castles or the remains of religious houses, like Roche Abbey, which was part of the larger Sandbeck Estate.

Ruins of an abbey viewed across a body of water.
Following the Dissolution, the abbey and Sandbeck estate were acquired by the Saunderson family. In the 18th century, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was engaged to landscape the parkland, incorporating the ruins into the design. © Historic England Archive AA081301.

Originally a Cistercian abbey for nearly 400 years, Roche Abbey was dismantled following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1538. Two hundred and thirty years later, Capability Brown remodelled the landscape around the ruins.

4. Churches and mausoleums

Churches were often the tallest building in the local landscape, with a tower or spire making a great ‘eye-catcher’ in the view. But sometimes, the church was in the wrong place for that perfect vista.

View across a river towards a country house on the right and landscaped grounds, including a church on the distant horizon.
This view looks northeast across the Croome River towards Croome Court and the Church of St Mary Magdalene. The church was designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown Brown as an eye-catcher from the house. It replaced the original church that stood near the house. © Historic England Archive DP113633.

During the 18th century, churches were often moved and rebuilt to be part of the landscape scheme. Some were made to look more like classical temples than the more traditional medieval Christian churches they replaced.

The movement of a church would not necessarily be convenient for the parishioners, especially if rebuilt at the top of a hill. Often, only the graves of ‘the great and the good’ were moved to the new site.

View across a stip of water and up an expanse of grass towards a domed mausoleam in a classical style.
Dominating the landscape, the Howard family mausoleum at Castle Howard was built between 1729 and 1742. It was influenced by the Tomb of Cecilia, built just outside Rome in the first century BC. © Historic England Archive DP059930.

Similarly, mausoleums (tombs on a very grand scale) were placed in the landscape, not within church grounds.

Once again, borrowing the idea from classical antiquity, the mausoleum served as a memorial and burial place for the family who owned the estate. Or, sometimes, their beloved pets.

5. Gateways

Gates and gateways announced that you had arrived somewhere significant. They also served as a warning to those who weren’t welcome to stay out.

Stone gateway with three arched entrances filled by wrought iron gates.  Expanse of gravel in the foreground leads up to the gate.
Lion Gate is the main entrance to Audley End. Originally constructed in 1616, it was rebuilt in 1786. A central carriage entrance is flanked by smaller pedestrian entrances. © Historic England Archive BL05288.

The gateway might be at the main entrance to an estate. However, stand-alone gateways were also built within large landscapes, serving as a statement, eye-catcher and destination to aim for when touring the pleasure grounds.

Dramatic gateways were borrowed from the classical world, where they had been built to celebrate military successes.

The Wellington Arch, also known as Constitution Arch, was built in 1826 at the end of the Georgian period. It was erected to celebrate the British military victories in the Napoleonic Wars under the command of the Duke of Wellington.

Large stone arch with statue of Wellington on horseback on top.
Wellington Arch was built in 1825-7. Originally intended as an entrance to Buckingham Palace, it was sited in front of the Hyde Park Screen. Later, the monument to Wellington was removed to Aldershot in 1883, and the arch moved to Constitution Hill. © Historic England Archive DD97/00149.

6. Boats and bathhouses

The presence of a lake or gently flowing river in your landscape offered great opportunities for using the water for entertainment.

Group of four people in a boat at the edge of a body of water. In the background a large house is visible through a gap between trees.
A deer park was established at Ditchley in the early 17th century. A new house and garden terrace were built early in the following century. The old fishpond was converted into an ornamental lake in 1740s. © Historic England Archive HT03687.

Boating was the main activity on a lake, sometimes in a highly decorated pleasure craft. Some lakes played host to spectacular theatrical performances enacted on and around the water.

Fishing was popular, as was swimming (primarily for men). A more discrete way of enjoying your water was in your bathhouse.

Stone building with thatched roof behind a strip of muddy water.
The Bath House at Wrest Park was built between circa 1769 and 1771. It included a plunge pool of roughly cut stone blocks, designed as a romantic semi-ruin. This photograph shows the bathhouse after restoration, part of a 20-year project. © Historic England Archive DP232099.

7. Grottoes

Another popular way to animate the landscape was to create a grotto that could be discovered unexpectedly whilst exploring the grounds.

In classical times a grotto was the cave home of a nymph or water goddess. Grottoes were also very popular in the more thrilling 18th-century novels. Having a grotto surprise showed your guests your classical education and fashionable reading habits.

Rough stone entrance to a grotto, viewed across a body of water.
The Grotto at Ascot Place was built around 1850. It comprises a main chamber lit by an octagonal lantern, passages and other, smaller chambers. The walls are decorated with white quartz crystals, and artificial stalactites descend from the roof. © Historic England Archive AA98/04115.

With a partially-concealed entrance, a grotto could be designed to make visitors feel adventurous. Your eyes take a moment to adjust to the darkness inside. As you move forward, you are dazzled by a new light source illuminating a visual surprise.

This could be a goddess statue or a roof made of crystal rocks, all carefully lit for maximum effect.

Grotto featuring cobbled foreground and statue of a reclining figure in an arched space on the left.
The Grotto and River God’s Cave was built around 1748 at Stourhead Park. Comprising several passages and chambers, it includes a cold bath and spring and a statue showing a story from Virgil’s ‘Aeneid’. © Historic England Archive UXC01/01/01/0022/36.

Grottoes were made of rustic-looking stone. Some were decorated with large and exotic shells, brought to England through the international shipping trade. This supported the growing British economy but also fostered the transatlantic slave trade and the East India Company. Indeed, much of the money funding the development of these landscapes had its roots in exploiting British colonies and enslaved people.

8. Hermitages

Hermitages were small buildings in the landscape, far away from the hustle and bustle, where it was possible to be a hermit. Most hermitages were used as summer houses on the pleasure grounds.

Small stone building with door frame made from tree trunks, surrounded by woodland.
The Hermitage at Brocklesby Park was built in the late 18th century. It is constructed in brick and tufa and includes tree trunk pillars supporting a slate roof. The interior is decorated with tree boles and rustic furniture. © Historic England Archive DP165186.

Some estate owners tried to employ people to be their resident hermits, but with limited success in most cases. It was easier to install a dummy that didn’t wander off to the local pub.

9. Ornamental farm buildings

Eighteenth-century landscapes were still working agricultural businesses. The landscape needed to produce food, wool and timber to feed people and earn money for the estate.

Flock of sheep watched by a man walking his dog. Other people walk through the landscaped parkland in the background.
A flock of sheep being herded on the grounds of Kenwood House, Camden, Greater London. Kenwood is a mid-18th century landscape park featuring lakes and woodland. © Historic England Archive AA084202.

Essential farm buildings, often called ‘offices’ on the plans, were designed to look attractive in the most aesthetically pleasing way and enhance the fantasy of the English landscape style.

Some estates developed ornamental farms designed with aesthetic principles but still productive. Working farmhouses, stables and other ‘offices’ were designed to look attractive yet be practical working buildings.

Deer grazing in parkland in front of a large stone building.
High Stables, a detached racing stable range on the Studley Royal estate, was built between 1728 and 1732. After Studley Royal House was destroyed by fire in 1946, High Stables became the principal residence. © Historic England Archive DP033697.

10. Ha-ha

A ha-ha is a carefully disguised wall and ditch.

Georgian landscapes were working estates based on agriculture and farming when most British people still worked on the land.

Brick ha-ha wall bordering a landscaped garden runs diagonally from left foreground. People are walking along a path that runs alongside the ha-ha.
The brick ha-ha at Chiswick House was built in the 18th century and separates the lawn and the Italian Garden to the north of the villa. © Historic England Archive DP052525.

For a proud landowner, keeping your (sometimes prizewinning) livestock out of your front garden without any ugly fences spoiling your view was no joke. Hence the introduction of the ha-ha.

Ha-ha were designed to look like a smooth lawn from the house. Deep and robust enough to keep livestock in the fields beyond, they allow those in the house to admire sheep, cattle and deer animating the landscape from a distance. Infinity pools aim for the same optical illusion today.

The Role of Historic England
Many buildings within the English landscape are protected as Listed buildings or scheduled monuments in the case of ruins. You can find out more about them from the National Heritage List for England.

4 comments on “A Guide to the English Landscape Movement

  1. Charles Kightly

    Very informative, thanks

  2. Great introduction into the relatively recent shaping of our quintessential English landscape, albeit serving to highlight the influences of many other countries and cultures.

  3. Tom Robinson

    I think your “How to identify the English landscape style” manages to catalogue some features yet completely misses the point about this sensibility. The English Landscape School was intended to portray an idealisation of landscape that borrowed from painting and referenced the classical world and yet was distinctively English. The arrangement of garden and parkland space on a large scale but without obvious geometry was knowingly done. You need to add to your analysis to explain this. The features you list are currants in the bun and not the bun itself.

  4. Alan.Beesley.

    Thank you for highlighting these Houses&,Gardens
    Alan Beesley 25/6/22

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