Talk by Jason Debney: How the Arcadian View from Richmond Hill Inspired the English Landscape Movement. Plus seasonal party

Date(s) - Monday 12 December 2016
8:00 pm - 9:45 pm

Duke Street Church

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brown-logoJason Debney, Co-ordinator of  the Thames Landscape Strategy, gave a talk on How the Arcadian View from Richmond Hill Inspired the English Landscape Movement.

England’s greatest landscape gardener, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, found inspiration in Richmond for some of his best work. In his talk, Jason Debney traced the origins of the English Landscape Movement and show how it was influenced by the Arcadian view of the Thames from Richmond Hill.

Jason’s talk was followed by our seasonal party with wine, soft drinks and nibbles.

John Foley reports on the talk

A Revolution on Richmond Hill? Surely not! But yes, for, as Jason Debney explained in a welcome return to the Society on 12 December 2016, the view from Richmond Hill was indeed the inspiration for a special type of revolution, happily a bloodless and beneficial one, in the artistic realm of landscape gardening. The English Landscape Movement was considered by German-born Nikolaus Pevsner to be this country’s most important gift to aesthetics.

A galaxy of Jason’s glorious slides gave a Grand Tour of the history of English gardens which before the 18th century followed the traditions of Renaissance Italy, France and also Holland. This meant strict mathematical formality, squares, circles and straight lines, topiary, parterres, rigid patterns. (Think Le Notre, Louis XIV’s master designer at Versailles.)

In England the rise in wealth of the aristocracy and of the nouveau riche led to the development of the 18th-century country house and estate. Whilst buildings tended to be in the classical Palladian style, there was a reaction against formality in garden design. The contemporary poets and writers Alexander Pope, James Thomson, Defoe and Addison were among those whose writing and thought about naturalism and the ideal landscape (and how to create a paradise on earth), were inspired by the views from Richmond Hill.

The idea of a broad vista of gracious buildings, rolling parkland, water, trees and panoramic views was taken up by such landowners as Lord Cobham at Stowe and Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington at Chiswick House. They wished to impress their visitors with such views, to exaggerate the extent of their estates, and to embellish those estates with classical outbuildings, sculpture and statuary.

Who were the revolutionary landscape design artists whose spades and forks led thiscampaign? Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, and most famously Lancelot ‘Capability‘ Brown, the tercentenary of whose birth was celebrated in 2016. Both Bridgeman and ‘Capability‘ Brown worked for Lord Cobham at Stowe, and it was the less well-known Bridgeman who is credited with the device of the ‘ha-ha’, a sunken ditch to replace hedges or fencing and to trick the eye into thinking the view was more expansive than it was.

William Kent worked at Chiswick for Lord Burlington, noted art collector and paragon of Georgian classical good taste, but ‘Capability‘ Brown is now thought of as the greatestdesigner of the movement. He and his firm worked on over 200 schemes. No task seemed too great for him: all gardens had ‘capabilities’. His seamless landscapes, the lakes he dug and the trees he planted are still to be marvelled at and enjoyed in many places just as they were by their aristocratic owners in the 18th century.

The movement spread: first, locally, to Syon House, Marble Hill House, Hampton Courtand of course to Kew (where the Hanoverian kings made their home; Queen Caroline of Ansbach, her son Prince Frederick and his consort Princess Augusta took up landscape gardening and laid out the first stages of Kew Gardens), then nationwide and overseas, so that the English landscape garden became a celebrated style.

Take a walk to remind yourself of the unique and historic view to be enjoyed from the top of Richmond Hill, its miraculous survival and cultural significance, and if you yourself own a garden, take comfort from the great man’s words. For however modest in size, it is sure to have its own capabilities!