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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.