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Review - The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden

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By Sutherland Lyall

The Arcadian Friends: Inventing the English Landscape Garden.
By Tim Richardson.
Bantam Press, 2007. £25

Tim Richardson used to be Country Life’s gardens editor, so you know what you’re getting with The Arcadian Friends. It’s primarily about the intricate social and political connections of those who commissioned and sometimes helped design English landscape gardens from the Glorious Revolution of 1689 up to the mid-18th century. That cut-off point marks the rise of Capability Brown and English landscape’s subsequent descent into the ‘dangerous excitements of the Picturesque [which] soon faded. Their gardens were meaningless – at least compared with what had gone before.’

So if you are seeking a scholarly exposition of the development of English landscape design, forget it. Instead of treating his material even-handedly, Richardson is cheerfully and fogeyishly partisan. As one example, he says of sharawadgi (a term author and diplomat Sir William Temple used in 1692 to describe, roughly, irregularity in Chinese landscape): ‘I do not propose to spend much time on the concept of sharawadgi. It is very hard to pronounce.’ Later he says of Horace Walpole’s 1771 history of English garden design: ‘I have quoted Walpole only sparingly in this book, because his Whiggish agenda has badly skewed our understanding.’ You mentally substitute this with: ‘because it doesn’t fit my general thesis’.

This thesis includes the proposition that the semi-informal landscape of 1750 ultimately evolved from the wiggly paths to be found in the bosquets of Baroque formal landscapes. That’s a popular though far too simplistic idea, but it fits with Richardson’s preference for a formal/informal version of the English garden – neither one thing nor the other. A second proposition is that, as with English Palladian architecture, early English garden design was essentially Anglo-Dutch – being based on a sensible desire among English landowners to appear to support the new Dutch (and later German) regimes in England. Fine, except that a corollary of this is that the gardens of subsequent Hanoverian England can be classified as either Whig or Tory – the difference is not clear-cut.

Or at least not in this book, because half the illustrations are of men in big wigs, leaving Richardson little room to present coherent visual evidence. And this is a fundamental problem, because unless landscapes of the time can be clearly distinguished as either Whig or Tory, his rationale for chronicling the intricate social and political connections of their owners and devisers collapses.

But who needs boring old evidence-based stuff about landscape when it’s just a peg for a jolly ramble through the aristocracy of late-17th and early-18th century England?

A word, though, to Richardson’s editor. You should have cut out all those ghastly, coy word-plays, such as, ‘it marks a watershed of sorts. There was certainly a lot of water there,’ and, ‘They were Eurocrats, as in aristocrat not bureaucrat.’ These and much worse pepper the text and make you want to cry.

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