image: University of Chicago Magazine - logo

link to: featureslink to: class news, books, deathslink to: chicago journal, college reportlink to: investigationslink to: editor's notes, letters, chicagophile, course work
link to: back issueslink to: contact forms, address updateslink to: staff info, ad rates, subscriptions

  > > Investigations
  > > Coursework
  > > Doctoral studies
  > >
  > > Syllabus



Rude rocks and mossy caverns: A grand tour of English gardens

Never mind what the end of civil war and 1688 meant for the British monarchy and Parliament-it's what happened to gardens that Kimerly Rorschach wants her students to consider on this drizzly February afternoon.

"As we move into the 18th century, the monarchs are less central to what's going on in landscape gardening," explains the associate professor in art history. In 1688 Parliament firmly established a constitutional monarchy, "and the great land-owning noble families moved to the top of the food chain." Under their well-financed trowels, the great gardens of Europe began to look very different from the vast, highly geometric, intricately planted gardens overseen by Louis XIV, France's "Sun King," at the palace of Versailles, which Rorschach's students have just studied.

It's the beginning of week seven in Rorschach's art-history course Gardens in Italy, France, and England, 1500-1800. In today's lecture Rorschach sticks to broad themes-with a paper due on the impact of Italian Renaissance art and theory on French and English gardens, the students could use a little coddling. "No guys yet, huh?" she'd joked before dimming the lights, and one of the five punctual women informed her, "I did see Patrick in the library, so at least he's surfaced." Sure enough, within minutes the blond Patrick, three other men, and the rest of the women appear, duck under the beams of two slide projectors, and slip into chairs around the rectangular tables in the first-floor room of the Cochrane-Woods Arts Center. One guy clutches a fresh double-spaced printout titled "Birth of the Wild."

In her black turtleneck with a teal-and-black plaid blazer, the small-framed Rorschach recedes into the shadows. (She's used to surrendering the limelight to artworks-she is also the Dana Feitler director of the David and Alfred Smart Mu- seum of Art.) All eyes focus on the west wall, where the red dot of her laser pointer trips along tree-lined avenues and circles the classical pediments and columns of country estates. There are lush landscape paintings, blueprint-like bird's-eye views of designs, and pen-and-ink sketches.

During the next three sessions, she says, the class will study examples of what Tom Williamson in Polite Landscapes: Gardens and Society in 18th-Century England calls "late-geometric" gardens, for the natural irregularities that crept into otherwise controlled geometric designs. Unlike Versailles, where every flourish has a mirror image, in these designs "the symmetry can still be seen, but irregular features are shoehorned in." The gardens, Rorschach believes, feel less "gardeny." Instead, emphasis is on architectural accents, reflecting the artistic ideals the English gentry brought back from increasingly popular "Grand Tours" of Italy, with its classical villas and gardens. Slides depict temples and stone grottoes as garden focal points.

"And this is a period," Rorschach notes. "There's a tendency to look back at this time from the informal notions that followed or to analyze it as a breakdown of formality. But let's tease out the characteristics of the gardens in their own right, rather than as a whistle stop before heading on to someplace else."

One thing that's new in this period is land ownership itself: the gradual parceling off and enclosure of the English countryside, ending centuries of commonly held rural areas. Hedgerows sprouted like thick green walls, and "ha-ha's"-peripheral trenches-sank into the earth, keeping grazing sheep in and trespassers out without spoiling the view. (The name comes from the surprised "Ah! Ah!" uttered by visitors who came upon them during garden strolls.)

For the rest of the session Rorschach gives a quick slide tour of late-geometric gardens. There's the Duke of Marlborough's Blenheim estate in Oxford, in the very early 1700s the first to break from the "bastion style" of formal gardens. East of Oxford, there's Stowe, with statues, topiaries, and temples and a visible lack of "small-scale fussy elements." Just outside London is Lord Burlington's Italianate garden at Chiswick, with its orangery and three long avenues branching from a point off-center of the main house.

The class ends. As a pile of stapled pages grows on the table, the lights come up and the students head out into the rainy chill.

For the next class, Rorschach arrives bearing seeds for thought: passages written by contemporary authors Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Third Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713); Joseph Addison (1672-1719), whose essays in the fledgling periodical Spectator are still famous; and the Augustan poet Alexander Pope (1688- 1744). Nature is what the class will consider today: how English landscape gardens "used" it, compared to how the Sun King and other European royalty controlled it in their gardens.

A woman with dark tendrils of hair framing her face and almond-shaped eyes volunteers to read Shaftesbury aloud:

Even the rude Rocks, the mossy Caverns, the irregular unwrought Grottoes, and broken Falls of Waters, with all the horrid Graces of the Wilderness itself, as representing Nature more, will be the mare engaging, and appear with a Magnificence beyond the formal Mockery of princely Gardens.

"You could argue that he is referring to Nature in the Platonic sense, but I think this is something new to us," Rorschach interjects excitedly. She gives the next passage to Patrick, and Addison waxes poetic on the "natural embroidery of the meadows" and an estate that's both a profit and a pleasure, that "a man might make a pretty landscape of his own possessions."

Pope, read by a woman with a mass of golden curls, calls on garden designers to

Consult the Genius of the Place in all;
That tells the Waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th' ambitious Hill the heav'n 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.

"Paints as you plant" is the perfect lead-in for the day's leading man: William Kent (1685-1748), the landscape designer who defined 18th-century informal gardens. Rorschach flashes a Kent design. It's one of the rough pen-and-ink sketches she'd shown the previous session. Drawn from the perspective of someone standing in the garden, its feathery lines are in contrast to the precisely scaled bird's-eye maps of past weeks' study.

Kent, Rorschach tells the class, was a landscape painter, and he designed gardens as a painter: "entirely with views in mind," sketching out foreground, middle-ground, background. She returns to slides of Stowe, that "palimpsest of 18th-century garden evolution," showing artistic renderings aside present-day photos. Rorschach is right about the period's asymmetry: the gardens jut out into a ha-ha-bordered triangle on one side, and pools and waterways follow their natural shapes. The architectural influence of Kent's own Grand Tours is unmistakable. In an area dubbed the Elysian Fields, the Temple of Ancient Virtue is a replica of the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. Across the meandering River Styx sits the Temple of British Worthies, with busts of political figures such as Queen Elizabeth, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Edward the Black Prince. The Temple of Modern Virtues, a short walk away, was designed as a ruin ("implying there was no such thing").

Gazing up at the richly colored slides, an Asian-American woman named Danielle asks, "How solid are those temples?"

"Even the classical temples look flimsy don't they? I'm glad you brought that up," Rorschach replies. Kent, it seems, built as a painter too: the buildings have the fragile look of a drawing, despite the solid stone masonry that survives to the present day.

Next on the day's tour is Stourhead-not a Kent design, but a clear example of gardening-as-painting. The slides lead away from the house, on a "circuit walk" around a pond with vistas of classical temples and an underground grotto. "There's been a lot of speculation about the garden's iconography," says Rorschach. The son of Henry Hoare, who owned and designed the gardens, died while on his Grand Tour. "Some say the gardens recast the dead son's life as the journey of Aeneas." The underground grotto, it's said, represents Aeneas's journey to the underworld.

Leaving up a view of Stourhead, its Temple of Apollo posing against a backdrop of pond and distant hills, Rorschach flicks through several works by the French landscape painter Claude Lorrain, lingering on one depicting Aeneas at Delos. The similarity between the painting and Hoare's garden is remarkable: the temple and water are almost identical, and the "foreground, middle-ground, background" approach is immediately apparent. The students bend their heads and furiously take notes. Rorschach waits, ready to show them the next garden, with its classical temples, embroidered meadows, and willing woods.
- S.A.S.

  APRIL 2002

  > > Volume 94, Number 4

  > >
Auteur! Auteur!
  > >
A Run for Our Money
  > >
My Life as a Mind
  > >
Thinking Inside the Box
  > >
Home, home in the Reg

  > > Class News

  > > Books
  > > Deaths

  > > Chicago Journal

  > > College Report

  > > Editor's Notes

  > > From the President
  > >

  > > Chicagophile
  > > e-Bulletin: 04/15/02



uchicago ©2002 The University of Chicago Magazine 1313 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637
phone: 773/702-2163 fax: 773/702-2166