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Modern Moral Gardens”: Nature, National Trust and the Modernity of Eighteenth-Century “English” Gardens

Laurent Châtel
p. 243-259

Texte intégral

the beautiful Wildness of Nature,
(Addison 4.190-91)

for Water is of as much Use in
Landscape, as Blood is in a Body
(Bickham 132)

  • 1  Landscaping firms today often use this ‘label’ as can be evidenced by looking at <>. 1/05/2012.

1“Sight is at the core of Addison’s aesthetics and the garden metaphor his usual rhetorical tool to account for the Pleasures of the Imagination”, so wrote Alain Bony in 1999 (Joseph Addison 276). This is what encited me to engage further with the Addisonian scopic regime, and furthermore to look again at the reasons for the centrality of the garden metaphor. In fact, as is well-known, the garden is more than a metaphor or tool for Addison since he actually spelt out in the Spectator a prescription for gardening – one which could be called gardening along nature, or in the natural way.1 In reflecting upon this, I was led to ask, what is left of Addison’s pioneering thoughts on garden and lanscapes? This points to the concept of modernity in its dual acceptation: on the one hand, the feeling that Addison was at once so much of his day and age and so novel (see Bony “Du discours du jardin au silence du sublime”); on the other hand, the issue of the resonance today of Addison’s garden precepts. Admittedly his suggestion that a piece of land could make a pretty “Landskip” has often been rehearsed, but does garden history nowadays take Addisonian aesthetics seriously?

2I wish to re-examine what is sometimes referred to as the English garden revolution – a phenomenon that radically altered the design, management and perception of public and private hortulean spaces in Europe. What more could one possibly add today about the modernity of the English garden without precisely rehearsing the old arguments? Can one pin down yet another side or facet of what it is that constitutes the “modern outlook” both in garden making and garden experience? What more is there to say about “English gardens” if the term “revolution” sums it all? Ironically enough, it is perhaps because such radical notions of rupture and change have been used that there may be room for further exploration: the focus on change has ironed out the “modern” components. I will start reviewing the previous accounts of hortulean modernity, then point to possible new avenues before concluding on their benefits and consequences.

Garden Historiography, Modernity and Nature

3When reviewing the characteristics of British modernity which have previously been recorded in garden historiography, one finds the following elements: the ha-ha, the taste for nature, a cult of freedom, a new epistemology, a pictorial or picturesque design. Firstly, what strikes is that of all the elements referred to, the discourse on and perception of nature is often relegated behind all the other explanations. The emphasis on the impact of science, the role of painting, and the political claims of liberty have swept nature under the parterre, as it were. In fact, the semantics designating the “new” garden both in French and English are instructive, as usage has privileged terms such as informal style, sentimental gardening,” irregular style, “Arcadian” garden, jardin irrégulier, jardin à l’anglaise, jardin sensible, jardin des Lumières, jardin pittoresque, jardin romantique, jardin anglo-chinois over and above “natural garden” or “modern garden” (which are also used, but less frequently). The words speak for themselves: each of the terms above highlights the political, aesthetic or literary remit of the “new” forms that emerged out of the 1680s, but leaves nature aside. The role of nature was high on Michel Baridon’s agenda: with his study of the new Lockean Weltanschauung generating a new apprehension of space and a foregrounding of sensibility (he often referred to this period as the “jardin de la sensibilité”), Baridon highlighted the scientific and philosophical grounding of the garden changes. But this vision has not percolated down to the critical literature in English and the Anglo-centered garden historians have not been the wiser for it. Why has nature lost its place as the true standard of the English garden? Put it bluntly, a lot of garden history has been locked in an essentially, exclusively aesthetic framework with categories and definitions.

4Secondly, the account of modernity suffers from an imbalance due to the pre-eminence of the pictorial explanation or rather, to pay lip service to Anglo-American usage, “picturesque.” Indeed at every turn the use of picturesque to embrace British creativity between 1700 and 1820 has obfuscated and, to a large extent, masked the earlier generation of garden thinkers and poets who foregrounded nature and the genius of the place. Picturesque as shorthand for “English gardens” muddles the overall view as I have shown in “Getting the Picture of the Picturesque.” Not only was the term multi-facetted at the time, but other layers of meaning having been added on in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it is odd that such an aesthetic category has been applied en bloc to the English garden. I would contend that there is a need to counterbalance this excessive reliance on the pictorial paradigm; point of view, composition, and light and dark effects are overemphasized as if what mattered in the new approach to nature was its “framing” rather than the taste and enthusiasm for it. Admittedly, garden historiography has traced the shift from the control of nature to subservience to nature, but the focus on pictorial representation almost lends a self-conscious, cynical air to garden makers and tourists alike – as if they were more concerned with point of view and tableau than anything else. Just as one finds “borrowed light” in painting – or in fact “borrowed view” in gardening, to designate the Japanese principle of using distant landscapes to extend the view – it seems to me that accounts of Georgian gardening misrepresent nature as a kind of “borrowed nature”, namely a detached, impassioned, calculated attitude to nature, which does not do justice to its environmental dedication.

  • 2  Gilles Clément invented the concept of « jardin en mouvement » to make sure the garden is a system (...)

5Thirdly, the definition of preservation or restoration which is still heavily dependent on the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century conception of what constitutes British national trust has contributed to warping the understanding of eighteenth-century attitudes to nature. The model for country house and garden restoration tends to fossilize and sanitize the texture of original features: the grass looks too immaculate, and the focus on specific temples and points of view freezes the “picture” which was doubtless more exciting and lively. Reconstructions aimed at preservation of a national heritage tend to transform gardens into museums – but not the latter-day museography with constant rehangings in gallery rooms; motion and duration are levelled out – a far cry from Gilles Clément’s garden in motion.2

6Fourthly, modernity has recently been said to lie exclusively in the “politics of the garden.” In the 1990s, the need was felt to raise the level of awareness about ideological motivations and portray garden writing and making as more of a political construct, or a national rhetoric: the British political agenda of the nation generated an invented discourse which could counterbalance a century of French “ordonnance” and thinking about gardens as well as fulfill the ideological need to fit the national agenda (Weltman-Aron and Châtel, “Le jardin ‘anglais’ ”). Such a denounciation of nationalism in the modern British garden project is tantamount to a “suspicious moment” in garden historiography – a kind of ère du soupcon which, however valid it may have been at one time, ought to be upstaged and replaced by a greater adherence to the energy and passion that went into the “garden revolution.” Skepticism and distanciation, both important critical tools, should now be balanced with an account of the ebullience and passion underlying garden writings and creativity, as evidenced in late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century writings.

Back to nature? Eco-thinking, or testing out the environmental substance of the Georgian age

7The call for nature and wildness has long been examined in garden history. “The wildness pleases. We seem to live alone with Nature. We view her in her inmost Recesses, and contemplate her with more Delight in these original Wilds, than in the artificial Labyrinths and feign’d Wildernesses of the Palace [...]” (Shaftesbury 199). William Temple, Shaftesbury, Addison, Pope and Shenstone, to quote just a few, have been enlisted to reconstruct a genealogy of advocates of nature. However, it seems to me that garden biographies long confined themselves to what they generally called “aesthetics of nature” (or what is called the informal style, style irrégulier, landscape movement or at best “naturalistic garden design”), with the now almost trite rehearsal of the aesthetic categories of the beautiful, the sublime and the “in-between” picturesque category. The relatively recent philosophical field of Environmental aesthetics confines the Georgian age to a discussion of these categories (Carlson). By dint of an unduly excessive pigeonholing of gardens within separate agendas and literary, political, art historical labels (Aracadian, Picturesque, Romantic, Tory, Whig, etc), garden history has turned its back to nature: the “environmental” dimension of the English claim to the “natural garden” has been smothered. I would like to argue that the commitment to nature advocated and practiced by Britain after the Glorious Revolution may be construed as a kind of environmental awareness.

  • 3  I purposefully use this phrase to echo the “return to nature” theory which for a long time signall (...)

8The eighteenth-century debate on corruption, luxury, decline and climatic catastrophes (notably with the November 1703 storm in Southern England) generated an advocacy of non-human agency, non-human intervention and a reappropriation of nature. Nature became the way to recovery for man. The oft-misunderstood return to nature3 – which of course never signified that man had to go and live out there in the wilds and strip himself into noble savagery – is presently reorchestrated by today’s ecological and environmental defenders of nature. Indeed by the same token one is invited today not so much to relinquish all commodities, urbanity, and industrialization (although a well-known couple Annick Bertrand and Yves Gillen have been doing just that in Les jardins du Marais, near Herbignac, Loire Atlantique), but rather to opt for organic gardening – a call more attended to in Britain, Germany and Austria than in France.

9Was there any properly “green” awareness in the English garden rhetoric and theory? Enlightenment people did not coin the word environment. Thomas Carlyle is credited with the first use of environment in the 1820s, but as Michel Baridon used to say, one should not be deterred by the non-occurence of a word from thinking out the phenomenon or mindset which may have existed without having been phrased. More often than not, the roots of conservation and preservation of nature are ascribed to the anti-industrial reactions of John Ruskin and William Morris, late Victorian society being the cradle of the National Trust. But the Georgian period ought to be seen as responsible for laying the foundations of a “green” discourse. In fact, as Roy Porter wrote in his Enlightenment Britain and the Creation of the Modern world, “[i]n declaring ‘All Nature is but Art unknown to Thee,’ Alexander Pope intended to be pious, but he was unwittingly providing the codebreaker to Georgian environmental history” (297). I will not attempt to construct a genealogy of proto-environmentalism, nor present the new garden ideas in 1700 as a stage in proto-ecological thinking, for I am aware of the anachronistic and scientific objections against that (Nisbet, Thomas). Admittedly, the globe then, basking in anthropomorphic eco-glory, was more likely to be perceived as self-sustaining. Man was still thought to have the right to appropriate the earth and its fruits although there was a lesson of humility that points to a congruence with today’s stance, a biocentric rather than homocentric poetry and thinking. “Nature pointed to the purification and perfection of mankind and extended human sympathies beyond the narrow bounds of artifice” (Porter 295). The radical commitment to Nature, environment and “landscape” generated what can best be described as a utopian impulse. Nature was the be-all and end-all of society, ethics as well as art (in a society that was increasingly commercialized, industrialized, man-made all around): it was ever-present as the touchstone for art, human equilibrium and sanity. “All Nature was a garden” (Walpole 138). This craze for all-nature also served an ideologically and economically motivated agenda, but the “ecological” or “environmental” dimension had an ethical, ontological and spiritual side to it which has been neglected. Or, to put it differently, the “enlightenment project” had a green side to it which would stand comparison with today’s ecothinking and the desire to sustain the earth’s potentials: it foregrounded values that can be construed as ethical gestures.

10Moreover, standard narratives emphasize the ideas of change, “shift,” or “novelty” but do not underline the pioneer utopian engage­ment with nature. The accounts of the new outlook on gardening are locked into a specific demonstration and a teleological presentation which serve the purpose of confirming the legitimacy of the story narrated. In order to revisit the “English garden,” I first propose to rebrand the English garden “Modern Moral Garden” – purposefully echoing Hogarth’s expression about his serial paintings – and look again at some well-known prose or quotations which are often enlisted when characteristics of the English garden are given. Particular attention will be paid below to the taste for the countryside at large, the genius of the place, wildness and the care for the environment.

11First of all, let us examine the taste for nature at large, countryside or “broad views”, still referred to as the “champaign.” More often than not, the allusion to the English transformation of terraces with bastions and raised levels (which was meant as a way to see further afield in the distance) is accounted for as a proto-picturesque manifestation. Yet what is revealed by the lexical field of roaming, travelling, and progressing which was used throughout the early and middle eighteenth century is a fascination with visuality more than pictoriality. Addison specifically designated the prospect as one of the “Pleasures of the Imagination” in the June 23rd 1712 Spectator:

On the contrary, a spacious Horizon is an Image of Liberty, where the Eye has Room to range abroad, to expatiate at large on the Immensity of its views, and to lose itself amidst the Variety of Objects that offer themselves to its Observation. Such wide and undetermined Prospects are as pleasing to the Fancy, as the Speculations of Eternity or Infinitude are to the Understanding. (Addison 3.541).

  • 4  The first ha-ha is attributed to Bridgeman at Rousham (ca.1709), and the second at Blenheim.

12In the June 25th 1712 essay, he spelt out very clearly the enjoyment of a visual leap towards the countryside – just as the first “ha-has” were being implemented by Bridgeman and Kent.4 Most singular is to see retrospectively that on account of naturalness Addison was very much taken with the French style of gardening and not in fact reacting politically against France – as the standard narrative about the birth of English gardening generally argues:

We have before observed, that there is generally in Nature something more Grand and August, than what we meet with in the Curiosities of Art. [...] On this account our English Gardens are not so entertaining to the Fancy as those in France and Italy, where we see a large Extent of Ground covered over with an agreeable mixture of Garden and Forest, which represent every where an artificial Rudeness, much more charming than that Neatness and Elegancy which we meet with in those of our own Country. It might indeed, be of ill Consequence to the Publick, as well as unprofitable to private Persons, to alienate so much Ground from Pasturage, and the Plow, in many Parts of a Country that is so well peopled, and cultivated to a far Greater Advantage. But why may not a whole estate be thrown into a Kind of Garden by Frequent Plantations, that may turn as much to the Profit, as the Pleasure of the Owner? A Marsh overgrown with Willows, or a Mountain shaded with Oaks, are not only more beautiful, but more beneficial, than when they lie bare and unadorned. (Addison 3.551)

13New taste was not therefore necessarily and systematically motivated by a political reaction against France, but rather by an admiration for nature and sensitivity to form. Furthermore, the desire for a break-down of frontiers enabling viewers to encompass wide and large prospects should not be encapsulated under the “picturesque” label. Addison’s unlimited enjoyment of the eye’s capabilities is a desire for a free de-partitioning of space, which bears all the characteristics of a utopian quest. What the extract below unravels is a metaphorical jouissance of land which the gaze can embrace fully without necessarily being a land owner:

A Man of Polite Imagination is let into a great many Pleasures that the Vulgar are not capable of receiving. He can converse with a Picture, and find an agreeable Companion in a Statue […] It gives him, indeed, a kind of Property in everything he sees, and makes the most rude uncultivated Parts of Nature administer to his Pleasures: So that he looks upon the World, as it were, in another Light, and discovers in it a Multitude of Charms, that conceal themselves from the generality of Mankind. (Addison 3.538)

14The urge to have extended or enlarged views conveys psycho-physical qualities of expansiveveness and inquisitiveness which perfectly illustrate the spirit of enquiry now considered so emblematic of Enlightenment attitudes. Freemasonic practice and discourse, with its emphasis on vigilance and collective vision, no doubt contributed to a continuous visual utopia of all-seeingness in Enlightenment garden thinking (see Anderson and Stevens-Curl). But rather than hook it onto the picturesque as is too often the case with the standard narrative of British art, one had better focus on the notion of visual acquisitiveness and sublimity. In his prescriptions for a new type of garden, incidentally, the words Addison used are “grand” and “august,” which are more likely to evoke the sublime – a word in fact more often used than “picturesque.” In highlighting such a reverence to natural vitality as a concern for the sublime early on in the century, one disconnects the word “sublime” from Edmund Burke and late eighteenth-century “Gothic” interpretations influenced by novels and visual art such as that of Fuseli; this in turn enables a more fluid, continuous view of garden creativity throughout the eighteenth century in spite of the teleological reading of garden history still so prevalent today.

15Now on to the expression “genius of the place,” which, because it has been overused and emptied out of its meaning, also deserves “greening.” Book titles, gardening magazines, headings of chapters in teleological history (with a Hegelian flair) have impoverished the meaning of “genius” as well as the conjunction between “genius” and “loci.” More often than not it is associated with Alexander Pope and Lancelot Brown as if Pope had led the way and “Capability” Brown had extended his message to the point of being nicknamed after his talent for assessing the capabilities of a spot. But there is more to the “genius of the place” than the knowledge of and respect for topography: its first uses were a wonderful overlay of meanings ranging from a pagan Weltanschauung which still believed in nymphs and deities to a Deist or Christian recognition of the wonders of nature. What Pope truly argued is that nature had been inverted and there was a need to revert back to nature: “No artful wildness to perplex the Scene / [...] The Suff’ring Eye inverted nature sees” (Pope, l.115-6):

To build, to plant, whatever you intend,
To rear the Column, or the Arch to bend,
To swell the Terras, or to sink the Grot;
In all, let Nature never be forgot.
Consult the Genius of the Place in all,
That tells the Waters to rise, or fall,
Or helps th’ambitious Hill the Heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling Theatres the Vale,
Calls in the Country, catches Opening Glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies Shades from Shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’intending Lines;
Paints as you plant, and as you work, Designs.
(Pope, l.47-50; l.57-64)

16Pope is inviting man to keep his ear to the ground, develop his sensitivity to the natural environment and be a witness rather than a controller or director of nature: the genius of the place is a form of eco-literacy that educates man to take his bearings from nature’s forms, shapes, colours and effects – namely “naturalization” or “acclimatization.” The modern garden is an injunction to learn to settle, adapt or fit to one’s surroundings. Through humility, respect and tolerance, Englishmen and women claim they would learn to humour, converse and be polite with nature. While politeness is often discussed in the context of social codes and conversation pieces, I would argue that there was a definitely British sense of natural politeness, i.e. a “commerce” or art of conversation with nature. That the English wished to ingratiate themselves with nature is yet another manifestation of the utopian attempt to befriend, cherish, imitate, and sustain the right equilibrium with nature – the ingredients of today’s ecological talk. In Pope’s words, “Nature shall join you.” Now it seems to me that this stepping back of man, this hands-off attitude which takes advice from nature could be said to resonate with today’s discourse about the unobtrusive presence of man on earth.

17It is in this light that one may re-read the moral and philosophical agenda underpinning the green thoughts of Pope and Addison as well as the great landscape writers of eighteenth-century Britain such as Shenstone, Walpole, Gilpin or Beckford who never failed to advocate gentility towards nature. The appeal to non-human agency or the non-obtrusiveness of man with emphasis on politeness and discretion in the handling of nature is another facet of the utopian claim of the “modern” English garden. Man’s wisdom in the garden was taken a stage further in the writings of William Shenstone, setting forward a kind of environmental laissez-faire, whereby the gardener’s “invisible hand” is active but inconspicuous:

[...] Thomson wished the garden to be extended, so as to include the valley on the left hand; not considering that I meant no regular garden, but to embellish my whole Farm. The French, it appears, have their [P]arque ornée; and why is not Ferme ornée as good an expression? [...] ‘You have nothing to do (says he) but to dress Nature. Her robe is ready made; you have only to caress her; love her; kiss her; and then – descend into the valley. (Shenstone 288)

18This compares well with garden columnist Matthew Wilson’s advice in the Daily Telegraph for April 4th, 2008:

  • 5   Matthew Wilson, “Stop digging and learn to love the bugs that keep the soil healthy and balanced” (...)

As rewarding a therapy as it might be (my father often used digging as a cure for the blues), every time we cultivate, we kill. Well cultivated, fertile soils are better left alone and undisturbed, where the creatures within will happily get on with the business of keeping the soil healthy and balanced.5

19The Shenstonian lexicon of affection and softness can also be detected in Walpole’s description of Kent’s genius – even if again and again it is the pictorial element that most commentators have singled out:

He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden. [...] Thus the pencil of his imagination bestowed all the arts of landscape on the scenes he handled. The great principles on which he worked were perspective, and light and shade. [...] But of all the beauties he added to the face of this beautiful country, none surpassed his management of water. Adieu to canals, circular basons, and cascades tumbling down marble steps, that last absurd magnificence of Italian and French villas. [...] The gentle stream was taught to serpentize seemingly at its pleasure, and where discontinued by different levels, its course appeared to be concealed by thickets properly interspersed, and glittered again at a distance where it might be supposed naturally to arrive. (Walpole 137-39, my emphasis)

20The best phenomenological, situationist approach to garden design is illustrated by Addison who in himself is an epiphenomenon of a great attention to the elements of nature and the natural habitat of the garden, notably in his “Letter to the Editor” (Spectator 477, 6 September 1712). The garden is itemized with a deliberately separate focus on water, land, rocks, air, which act as synecdoques of the whole; while being a typically neo-classical composition, the itemization can also be interpreted as a form of humility vis-à-vis the elements and a fragmentation of man’s interests similar to the “environmental” wisdom that suffuses Chinese treatises about gardening or landscape painting:

I must not omit that there is a Fountain rising in the upper Part of my Garden, which forms a little Wandring Rill, and administers to the Pleasure as well as the Plenty of the Place: I have so conducted it, that it visits most of my Plantations, and have taken a particular Care to let it run in the same manner as it would do in an open Field, so that it generally passes through Banks of Violets and Primroses, Plats of Willow, or other Plants, that seem to be of its own producing. […]

As my Garden invites into it all the Birds of the Country, by offering them the Conveniency of Springs and Shades, Solitude and Shelter, I do not suffer any one to destroy their Nests in the Spring, or drive them from their usual Haunts in Fruit-time. […] (Addison 4.188-91, my emphasis)

21Some might be tempted to argue that this reeks of the sentimental prose of Thomas Gray or William Beckford, gushing forth naively and soppishly about birds. Yet the vocabulary used delineates a culture of service and respect to nature, with a special concern for seasons and growth in this extract from The Tatler 161 (18-20 April 1710):

The place was covered with a wonderful Profusion of Flowers, that, without being disposed into regular Borders and Parterres, grew promiscuously, and had a greater Beauty in their natural Luxuriancy and Disorder, than they could have received from the Checks and Restraints of Art. There was a River [...], that by an Infinite number of turns and Windings, seemed to visit every Plant, and cherish the several beauties of the Spring, with which the fields abounded.

22The Georgian sensibility to the conditions influencing the development of trees lives up to today’s environmental awareness and discourse. I see in the use of “humour” a touchstone of Addison’s modernity:

Our British gardeners, on the contrary, instead of humouring Nature, love to deviate from it as much as possible. [...] I do not know if I am singular in my Opinion, but, for my own part, I would rather look upon a Tree in all its luxuriancy and Diffusion of Boughs and Branches, than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a Mathematical Figure (Addison 3.552)

23Similarly, the concern for wildness reverberates in today’s laissez-faire protocoles of lawn mowing, pioneered in France by Gilles Clément with his advocacy of wild patches left to their own (natural) devices:

My Compositions in Gardening are altogether after the Pindarick Manner, and run into the beautiful Wildness of Nature, without affecting the Nicer Elegancies of Art. (Addison 4.188-191)

24In the eighteenth century wildness was sought after because it had never been ranked so highly before, and was an extra pleasure, experienced aside, as it were, while today it is cherished because it is felt to be rare and threatened. The comparison is not totally absurd. For after all, the eighteenth-century curiosity in wildness could also be seen as a fear that the geometrical paradigm and the absolute crave for neatness might erase all touches of irregularity in nature. The preservation of pockets of organic, chaotic vitality ought to be seen as a continuous effort since the eighteenth century to protect wild life away from the excessive upkeep and undue regimentation of gardeners’ controlling eyes and hands. It is in this light, too, that one may read or reread Addison’s “pretty Landskip” as the right balance or negotiation between cultivated land and wilderness (unruly, free, unregulated, rough areas).

25Finally, what British modernity puts to the fore is the ethical or spiritual dimension of the garden. What with the pictorial emphasis and other misguided interrogations, garden historiography can be said to have missed out on the profane, secular reappropriation of Thomas Burnet’s awe of nature. Thus in Spectator 477 (6 Sept 1712), Addison’s precepts offer a quasi-medical or therapeutic dimension to the garden, not just because of the plants that might be grown in it, but because he insists on wisdom and shows that the garden can empower man into being stronger and better inclined to happiness:

In the Summer season the whole Country blooms, and is a Kind of Garden, for which Reason we are not so sensible of those Beauties that at this Time may be everywhere met with: but when Nature is in her Desolation, and presents us with nothing but bleak and barren Prospects, there is something unspeakably chearful in a Spot of Ground which is covered with Trees that smile amidst all the Rigours of Winter, and give us a View of the most Gay Season in the Midst of that which is the most dead and melancholy. I have so far indulged myself in this Thought, that I have set apart a whole Acre of Ground for the executing of it. The Walls are covered with Ivy instead of Vines. The Laurel, the Hornbeam, and the Holly, with many other Trees and Plants of the same Nature, grow so thick in it, that you cannot imagine a more lively Scene. The glowing Redness of the Berries, with which they are hung at this time, vies with the Verdure of their Leaves, and are apt to to inspire the Heart of the Beholder with that vernal delight which you have somewhere taken Notice of in your former papers.

[....] YOU must know, Sir, that I look upon the Pleasure which we take in a Garden, as one of the most innocent Delights in humane Life. A Garden was the Habitation of our First Parents before the Fall. It is naturally apt to fill the mind with Calmness and Tranquillity, and to lay all its turbulent Passions at Rest. It gives us a great Insight into the Contrivance and Wisdom of Providence, and suggests innumerable subjects for Meditation. I cannot but think the very Complacency and Satisfaction which a Man takes in these Works of Nature, to be a laudable, if not virtuous Habit of Mind. (Addison 3.189-192; my emphasis)

  • 6  In Arcadian Friends, Tim Richardson argues that the garden revolution was the invention of ‘politi (...)

26Addison’s words point to a “modern moral garden” which cares for the body and provides the right balance for the mind and the soul: it assuages pangs and pains. Such a commitment to solace and meditation implies a withdrawal from public activities which some might be tempted to read in political terms (Richardson).6 Naturally at a time when religious interpretations divided political parties themselves, – Tories and Whigs standing for their respective traditions – modernity signalled itself by a willingness to herald the garden as a spiritual bulwark against excess, division and corruption. But I would argue that garden creation is and has always been a political gesture – meaning not a political affiliation, but rather an ideological stance. The modernity of the “moral” garden was not its party politics, but its pioneering engagement with nature and the natural environment: such a spiritual outlook is undeniably ideological.


27I would like to draw a number of conclusions about the benefits of revisiting British gardens as “Modern Moral Gardens.” The historiographical pitfall of a research focussed on origins is that the discourse on garden has tended to be historical (or even “storical”), genealogical, biographical and teleological. Highlighting modernity does not imply that one erases past attempts – Lenôtre’s modern garden, Dutch topiaries – but it foregrounds the role of the eighteenth-century in shaping the creation of the national “Natural Trust.” While one often tends to associate the emergence of a green heritage awareness with the late Victorian age, I would contend that the Georgian period could well be enlisted as a pioneer of eco-thinking. I do acknowledge that we cannot grant Georgian thinking with pre-environmental foresight, nor pretend that the garden was the cradle of ecological, green politics. What distinguishes the two periods is a scientific leap, not into the dark, but into an understanding of the frailty and precariousness of “ecosystems” with which the eighteenth century cannot be credited, even if there was a constant vigilance on instances of decline, decay and catastrophe. The “modern moral garden” as propounded by Enlightenment Britain can be said to have been a laboratory or green think-tank which mapped out many of today’s environmental concerns. This perspective will hopefully contribute to the mapping of future garden studies as sketched out in recent studies (Brunon, Mosser). British Enlightenment pointed to a welfare of nature that has to this day remained a prerogative of British culture, as botanizing Rousseau would no doubt himself admit.

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Primary Sources

Addison, Joseph. The Spectator. Ed. Donald F. Bond. Oxford: Clarendon, 1965; re.1987; vol. 1-6.

Anderson, James. The Constitutions of the Free-Masons Containing the History, Charges, Regulations, &c, of that most Ancient and Right Worshipful Fraternity for the Use of Lodges. London: 1723.

Bickham, George. The Beauties of Stow or, a Description of the Pleasant Seat, and Noble Gardens of the Right Hon. Lord Viscount Cobham. London: 1750.

Pope, Alexander. An Epistle to the Right Honourable Richard Earl of Burlington. Occasion'd by his publishing Palladio's designs of the baths, arches, theatres, &c. ... London: [1731] [1732].

Shaftesbury, 3rd Earl of., The Moralists, a Philosophical Rhapsody. Being a Recital of certain Conversations upon Natural and Moral Subjects. London: 1709.

Shenstone, William. “Account of an Interview between Shenstone and Thomson.” 1746. Edinburgh Review, or Literary Miscellany 15 (1800): 286-89.

Walpole, Horace.The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening” in Anecdotes of Painting in England; with some Account of the Principal Artists; and Incidental Notes on other Arts. London: Strawberry Hill Press, 1765-80, chap. VII.

Secondary sources

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<> 01/05/2012.

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1  Landscaping firms today often use this ‘label’ as can be evidenced by looking at <>. 1/05/2012.

2  Gilles Clément invented the concept of « jardin en mouvement » to make sure the garden is a system kept alive; see <>. 1/05/2012.

3  I purposefully use this phrase to echo the “return to nature” theory which for a long time signalled the “emergence of Romantic ethos,” especially owing to a misunderstanding of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s precepts (retour à la nature). Ironically, one might say, a “return” to nature is genuinely needed in the overall thinking about gardens.

4  The first ha-ha is attributed to Bridgeman at Rousham (ca.1709), and the second at Blenheim.

5   Matthew Wilson, “Stop digging and learn to love the bugs that keep the soil healthy and balanced” The Daily Telegraph, April 4th 2008 1/05/2012.

6  In Arcadian Friends, Tim Richardson argues that the garden revolution was the invention of ‘political activists’ such as Addison, as if garden creativity had not always been an ideological matter and a political vehicle throughout history.

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Laurent Châtel, « Modern Moral Gardens”: Nature, National Trust and the Modernity of Eighteenth-Century “English” Gardens », XVII-XVIII, HS3 | 2013, 243-259.

Référence électronique

Laurent Châtel, « Modern Moral Gardens”: Nature, National Trust and the Modernity of Eighteenth-Century “English” Gardens », XVII-XVIII [En ligne], HS3 | 2013, mis en ligne le 15 juillet 2016, consulté le 21 février 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/1718.691

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Laurent Châtel

Laurent Châtel est Maître de conférences à Paris-Sorbonne et chercheur en délégation CNRS (Maison Française d'Oxford, USR 3129). Il s’intéresse aux questions d’esthétique en Angleterre au XVIIIe siècle. Ses recherches portent d’une part sur William Beckford (il a participé au catalogue de l’exposition de l’Institut du Monde Arabe, Les Mille et une Nuits, Hazan, 2013) et d’autre part, sur l’histoire culturelle des jardins et des paysages britanniques (il a co-écrit Jardins et paysages en Grande-Bretagne au XVIIIe siècle, Paris, 2001, et de nombreux articles désormais accessibles en ligne). Son profil est consultable sur <>

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