It’s spring! In the UK at least, March generally sees the reopening of many sites to the public after the closed winder season. April is apparently National Gardening Month and with the May Bank Holidays the outdoors suddenly become the backdrop to all kinds of refreshing interpretations for the country house and its garden.
I feel this subject often sits separately to that of the architectural history of the country house. There are differing approaches to the country house garden and the majority are glorious illustrations of the evolution of vast gardening and landscaping ideals. As I’ve likely mentioned before, even at a young age, it was the outside space which drew me to the country house initially but once inside I seemed to dismiss the parkland and formal parterres for a long time. For many historians of the country house, it is difficult to fully engage with both simultaneously and I know I still feel more confident discussing the social and architectural history rather than the aesthetics of the outdoors.
However, such approaches in the methodology shouldn’t be given too much weight here as the
country house garden is better admired through less dry academic dialogue. If anything, the country house garden invites all to observe an idealised nature – an Arcadian treat for the visitor. There is also the unforgettable freedom of the country house garden and its park which stimulates curiosity as well as the imagination. Therefore, for this first post of four I want to focus on Adrian Tinniswood’s Country Houses from the Air (1997 edition) since this allows for initial study of the patterns and scale of the exterior world of the country house. I also like the concept of looking at the country house garden from a distance and metaphorically moving in to consider aspects of it more closely by concluding with a case study.
In the introduction to the publication, Tinniswood makes a fine argument for the definition of the English country house which is crucial in pulling together the readers’ own preconceptions. I have been challenged on this on several occasions and it isn’t easy to define in simple terms. What Tinniswood does to assist is to quote Ludwig Wittgenstein when debating family resemblances in the posthumously published Philosophical Investigations (1953), ‘If you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that…And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail’. With the inclusion of Blenheim Palace, Knole, Groombridge Place, and Lulworth Castle (above) in Country Houses from the Air, this definition is imperative to understanding these similarities which are both obvious and yet not so. Still, this is the country house; a cluster of similar characteristics which most visitors would nod their heads in agreement at, and at which many owners and managers know instinctively as a part of their world.
And so to it: this book is significant because it helps identify the older ideals of the owners, their occupation with grandeur and fashionable aesthetics, and ultimately the overall composition of their home and ancestral seat. Alongside the fantastic colour images of the aerial views by Jason Hawkes sit prospects by Knyff, Kip, Harris, and contemporary artists commissioned at the time of architectural remodelling or rebuilding.
Tinniswood’s publication allows the reader to not only admire the obvious aesthetics of the country house garden and parkland but also tells of the techniques for capturing these images throughout the history of the houses themselves. Here Tinniswood comments, ‘The historical images that serve as a counterpoint to Jason Hawkes’ photographs range in time from the medieval cartulary roll depicting Boarstall [Buckinghamshire] to C. E. Kempe’s late-Victorian line-and-wash drawing of Groombridge Place [Kent] and the early-twentieth-century views of Ightham Mote [Kent] and Arundel [Sussex].’ Such images are also telling of the trends in portraying the country house and it’s gardens. The majority of the historical images date roughly between 1680 and 1720 with many of these representing aerial or bird’s-eye views. Of these, Tinniswood notes, ‘the acknowledged masters of the craft…are Leonard Knyff and Johannes Kip.’
A fine example is Penshurst Place.
Here the scope and development of the exterior setting is clear. the earliest part of the house was established by Sir John de Pulteney who became Lord Mayor of London four times between 1331 and 1337. The estate eventually came into the hands of Sir William Sidney and has remained in the family ever since. Crucially, this is the garden to help establish this run of posts but also its connection with country house poetry which has previously been discussed here. Though the engraving by Kip is a century later, it is easy to visualise the words of Ben Jonson in ‘To Penshurst’ (1616) in which he wrote, ‘The early cherry, with the later plum, Fig, grape, and quince, each in his time doth come; The blushing apricot and woolly peach Hang on thy walls, that every child may reach.’
In the early nineteenth century some parts of Penshurst were rebuilt in a Tudor-Gothic style and the formal gardens were laid out in the 1850s by George Devey who used Kip’s 1720 engraving as the inspiration for the updated scheme. The image to the left captures the site from roughly the same prospect as that by Kip and the stretch of land shows how much has unchanged since or been inspired by the engraving. Yet, the scars of past aspects are often obvious – note the circular trough where there once stood a low level plantation clearly visible in the older engraving.
These map perspectives are clever studies in the Siennese style which incorporated careful observation, ground level surveys and detailed plans before executing the final draft. Generally, it seems that the engravings were the result of individual commissions and represented a celebration of completion in building works and large scale remodelling. Tinniswood is cautious to point out that a handful of these were likely projections of aspiration, but that otherwise most were true of the scene as it would have appeared at the time. Take Newby Hall (above) as an example. At the very end of the 17th century Celia Fiennes travelled through Yorkshire, stopping at York, Harrogate and Ripon before moving on to Burton Agnes and Hull. Of Newby, she wrote,
…it looks finely in the approach in the midst of a good parke and a River runns just by it, it stands in the middle and has two large Gardens on each side; you enter one through a large Iron Barr-gate painted green and gold tops and carv’d in severall places…and the Squares are full of dwarfe trees both fruites and green, set cross wayes which lookes very finely; there is Flower Garden behind the house, in it and beyond it a Landry [sic] Close with frames for drying of cloths…
The bird’s eye view would eventually fall out of favour and instead the fashion for landscape painting would take its place; such depictions being better suited to the sweeping romanticised parklands adopted from the second half of the 18th century. Nonetheless, the changes in garden design, architectural planning and the prospect of the country house as taken in by the contemporary visitor are documented well by Tinniswood throughout the publication.
What the next three posts will do is to detail the chronology of country house garden design as well as introduce the influences and those who have become synonymous (and some lesser known) with some of the major changes in landscaping from the 16th century onwards. Some sites have invested a great deal of physical energy and funding towards large garden projects so it is only fair to dedicate time to these too. What is certain, is that there will be some fantastic images yet to come; spring is definitely here!
Blog posts on Kip and Knyff (A study of Knyff) https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2017/04/01/kip-knyff-part-1-knyff/ (and of Kip) https://parksandgardensuk.wordpress.com/2017/04/08/kip-and-knyff-part-2-kip/
Wikipedia on Knyff : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leonard_Knijff and Kip: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Kip
Isaac Hawkin Browne, An Essay on Design and Beauty (1739)
R. Havell & Son, A Series of Picturesque Views of Noblemen’s and Gentlemen’s Seats (1823)
Gervase Jackson-Stops, An English Arcadia 1600-1900. (1992)
Leonard Knyff and Jan Kip, Britannia Illustrata or Views of Several of the Queens Palaces also the Principal Seats of the Nobility and Gentry of Great Britain (1707)
Christopher Morris (Ed.), The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes: c.1682-c.1712. (1982)
Joseph Nash, The Mansions of England in Olden Time (4 vols, 1839-49)