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Medieval to 16th century | 17th - 19th century | Garden Restoration | The Nonsuch Restoration Project

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The Great Estate Landscape Gardens


An article by L. Robyn O'Hara


Estate park gardens were some of the largest and most majestic of all the different kinds of gardens in the 18th century. Far from the small kitchen and medicinal gardens of the commoner or the orchards and infirmary gardens of the monasteries, these focused on a new style of design for landscapes, and the best operating example to compare for modern Americans is Central Park in New York City.

If you've ever seen Central Park then you have a good idea of what these huge pleasure parks looked like. These were the grounds of castles and estates. Acres and acres of neatly tended lawn and walkways, statues and reflecting ponds, whimsical topiaries and everything from low growing shrubs to tall fruit trees made up this type of garden. With an eye for the natural beauty of nature, these parks were well tended, but kept the original shapes of the woods and moors that they were a reflection of. The 18th century ushered in the age of landscape architecture for England.

One of the first great 18th century landscape designers was Charles Bridgeman. Bridgeman became a popular name with other landscape architects of his time with his very dramatic redesigns of the estate gardens belonging to wealthy English nobles. He laid out the plans for the extravagant estate garden of Lord Cobham, which incorporated temples, finely carved stone statues, pillars, summer houses, and a miniature replica of an Egyptian pyramid. Bridgeman participated in the design of a garden at Rousham House in Oxfordshire that included cascades, fountains, square pools, an outdoor theatre, and a wilderness area that could be viewed from a vantage point within the main garden. He was an inspiration for the landscape architects of today.

These estate pleasure gardens often ended with high walls, on the other side was the forest, and often times the lord of the estate would stock the forests with wild boar and other animals to hunt at his leisure. These hunting expeditions were a big part of 18th century wealthy entertainment, and while the men were out hunting, the women would walk the smaller sections of the estate gardens or sitting quietly talking by one of the many reflecting pools. Walls were to ensure privacy and their stark lines also set off the landscaped grounds.

These gardens had full service areas for a luncheon. Stone pathways opened up to covered areas were the lady of the house could entertain outside, and her guests would be served lunch on the huge patios by the servants. This brings us to another excellent garden designer of the time, Capability (Lancelot) Brown.

The leading landscape gardener of his time, he was known for favoring the distinctively English style of grand and picturesque, "tended nature", and asymmetrically structured landscapes with lots of expensive orchards and evergreen trees, expansive lawns on which to have garden parties, meandering streams, and sylvan lakes. (With streams and actual lakes, you can begin to get an idea of how large these parks actually were.) During the 18th century he was in high demand, as every wealthy land owner wanted his grounds turned into an estate park. Where at one time they only owned property or a large wooded area, these medieval landscapers had to have teams of workers to grade the earth and set up pathways, and often it was simply easier to follow the natural rise and fall of the landscape. The result was an amazing design, coupled with the natural landscape as the earth had intended it.

Brown began as a young gardener to the gentry and, working at the famous gardens at Stowe during the 1740s, became a disciple of William Kent. In 1749 he became a consulting gardener and earned his nickname by often telling clients that their properties had “capabilities.” Brown could reportedly take any large area of land and recreate it as an estate pleasure park. Brown created many of the most important gardens of the 18th century, including those at Petworth House, Kew, Blenheim Palace, Ashburnham Place, and Warwick Castle.

The 18th Century English, Victorian and Edwardian garden styles each have their own distinctions. The background and tradition of the English gardens started with the interest of the well to do in the seventeenth century. Landscape paintings, increased travel and a longing to have the French designs brought over and made their own led the wealthy of this era to consult and hire landscape architects. The English had begun to think of nature as something beautiful and ideally wild instead of the strict designs seen in the French designs of the day. It's not that the 18th English gardens were not formal, they were, and they simply followed a design of nature, for instance, curving pathways instead of grids. The natural environment of the estate was enhanced and accentuated to encourage picturesque views, especially those views as seen from the high windows of the second floor of the estate. From this vantage point the owners could watch the seasons change in such a way as to be inspired to write and paint, a popular pastime during the winter months, especially for the lady of the house. The English climate and current landscape made it easy for the great designers of the day, as it was well suited to this expression. William Kent and Lancelot "Capability" Brown advanced this landscape estate garden expression.

Altering topography, planting tree groves and creating natural looking lakes were part of the process. While reflecting pools, square and made from stone, were still popular additions to the parts of the garden closest to the estate, you'd need only take a short ride on your horse to see the lakes and trees further out on the estate, carefully landscaped to look as though they'd been there all along. Planting schemes were dominated by indigenous species of evergreens and hardwoods, which was just as well, as these were easier for the planners to acquire, and most wealthy land owners were much like the homeowners of today - they wanted their landscape in and ready to show off yesterday! Plants were not as manicured as in the past and typically left in their natural forms. The possibilities were endless.

With respect to the spatial planting of the era, the opening up of the small gardens of the past enabled the landowners to include more and more of the landscape, leaving behind the formality in favor of nature, with her softer contours and features.

These huge pieces of estate garden lands were not only used for pleasure. The wooded areas behind the park like surroundings were often a source of income for the families who owned them. The timber industry proved to be a lucrative investment for the estate owners. The pastures were often turned into lush lawns by allowing sheep to graze, providing another source of income. The no fences or hedges idea for the English park gardens and the grazing sheep in the landscape added to the overall feeling of a natural English garden.
Interestingly enough, the reason that we have lawns today in the United States is a direct result of 18th century landscape planners. Not liking the moss that seemed to be everywhere, these wealthy gardeners brought in grass seed. That's right; the lawn that you work so hard on during the weekends is not, in fact, indigenous! Can you imagine how time consuming these parks would have been to take care of? The families who owned these gardens must have been well to do, indeed.

Imagine what it would have been like to roam these estate pleasure parks in the 18th century, or be part of a wild fox or boar hunt on your own property. The trees and open park like atmosphere must have been truly glorious for the landowners to look out at from the balconies of the estates. How elegant it must have been for the owners and their guests to enjoy a picnic lunch among the grassy slopes of the huge yard, or chase children around these makeshift playgrounds of the eighteenth century.

Today a small part of this era has been recaptured in the estate parks; some are open to the public and have been turned into public parks by the cities. You can stroll among the rose gardens or sit by restored fountains, even eat your lunch in some of the same spots as the people from long ago. What a beautiful and wonderful way to preserve history. You can find out which parks are open to the public and research more about how these parks were constructed by typing medieval or 18th century garden parks, or estate parks into your search engine. May the grandeur of the past inspire you!

Please also visit Old London Maps on the web as many of the maps
and views available there have plans and depictions of gardens from
the medieval period through to the late nineteenth century.

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