Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: View of the gardens at Stourhead Estate
In the seventeenth century, English gardens tended to look toward French models.
These carefully manicured gardens, featuring symmetrical arrangements within geometrically bound spaces, suggested an approach to nature that was primarily about controlling and taming it. From roughly 1730 to 1830, however, a new attitude toward nature took hold of the English imagination. The “picturesque” aesthetic, which influenced myriad cultural forms including not only gardening, but also painting and poetry, embraced nature’s wilder aspects, placing value on characteristics such as asymmetry, irregularity, roughness, and variety. Ironically, this vision of what nature should look like required deliberate cultivation.
In 1741, Henry Hoare II inherited the Stourhead Estate in Wiltshire, England, from his mother. With the help of Henry Flitcroft, he almost immediately began to design and implement a garden landscape described by Horace Walpole as “one of the most picturesque scenes in the world.” A central component of the picturesque garden was spectacular vistas. At Stourhead, one of these was the view captured in the photograph shown here. Trees frame the scene, which includes a stone bridge crossing a lake and a miniature replica of the Pantheon set amid the greenery on the far shore. Artifice and nature come together on several levels here. The garden itself, though seemingly “natural,” is entirely man-made. The lake is artificial and the trees are carefully arranged to structure the viewing experience. When placed in combination, the various types of trees lend the garden a multi-textural feel. The building in the distance offers more explicit evidence of the presence of human hands in the garden.
“Ancient” ruins, copies of Roman temples, and gothic structures were frequent sights in picturesque gardens. As one roamed through the garden, one would come upon these architecture elements and be prompted to reflect on history, mythology, art, and literature. These references to bygone eras, moreover, suggested to the British a time when human beings, not yet overcome by the corruption and urbanity of the present day, lived in a purer state, more attuned to nature.
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