The sublime Gothic landscape

IMG_1280While I tend to find a bit of Gothic in everything, sometimes it stares you in the face, and onIMG_1288 a recent visit to the landscape gardens at Stowe I felt as though I was walking back into the eighteenth century. The grounds are run by the National Trust, while Stowe School occupies the house and surrounding buildings. From the 1730s Stowe was renowned for its gardens, with visitors coming from all over the world to see them, but in the 1740s ‘Capability’ Brown, at the beginning of his career, was appointed to redesign the grounds, and though some of the original features (such as the temple) were kept, the more formal aspects of the garden vanished, with the idea of ‘landscape’ taking over.

Viscount Cobham, the man responsible for taking on the young Brown to reshape his gardens, was part of the beginning of a revolution in taste, of which Walpole’s Strawberry Hill House was a part. Instead of the formal gardens with neat flowerbeds and rows of strictly planted trees, the fashion was for something more exotic, thrilling and sublime. TheIMG_1285 sublime is key here: though Edmund Burke’s On the Sublime and the Beautiful (1757) wasn’t published until a decade later, the thinking behind it was forming. Burke wrote that ‘The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature … is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.’ In a socially acceptable way, this is what such gardens did. Stowe is designed so that with every corner turned, another surprise awaits the walker; temples, grottos, statues, lakes – all is laid before us so that entertainment and amazement accompany every step. Some of the surprises come with a frisson of Gothic terror, too: imagine the grotto, for example, with its waterfall and cavernous space, in the twilight, and it is the perfect setting for Mrs IMG_1287Radcliffe’s novels.

In 1748, William Gilpin wrote an imaginary dialogue between two (classically-named!) visitors to Stowe, which emphasises just these points:

‘Polypth. Yes, indeed, I think the Ruin a great Addition to the Beauty of the Lake. There is something so vastly picturesque, and pleasing to the Imagination in such Objects, that they are a great Addition to every Landskip. And yet perhaps it would be hard to assign a reason, why we are more taken with Prospects of this ruinous kind, than with Views of Plenty and Prosperity in their greatest Perfection: Benevolence and Good-nature, methinks, are more concerned in the latter kind.

Calloph. Yes: but cannot you make a distinction between natural and moral Beauties? Our social Affections undoubtedly find their Enjoyment the most compleat when they contemplate, a Country smiling in the midst of Plenty, where Houses are well-built, Plantations regular, and every thing the most commodious and useful. But such Regularity and Exactness excites no manner of Pleasure in the Imagination, unless they are made use of to contrast with something of an opposite kind. The Fancy is struck by Nature alone; and if Art does any thing more than improve her, we think she grows IMG_1284impertinent, and wish she had left off a little sooner. Thus a regular Building perhaps gives very little pleasure; and yet a fine Rock, beautifully set off in Ciaro-obscuro, and garnished with flourishing Bushes, Ivy, and dead Branches, may afford us a great deal; and a ragged Ruin, with venerable old Oaks, and Pines nodding over it, may perhaps please the Fancy yet more than either of the other two Objects. – Yon old Hermitage, situated in the midst of this delightful Wilderness, has an exceeding good Effect: it is of the romantick Kind; and Beauties of this sort, where a probable Nature is not exceeded, are generally pleasing.’

IMG_1310The sublime is an intrinsic part of the Gothic because it provokes both pain and pleasure, as Burke wrote, and because it encourages the mind to wander in the direction of the soul, and to expand our thinking. Kant wrote that  ‘Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless, so that the mind in the presence of the sublime, attempting to imagine what it cannot, has pain in the failure but pleasure in contemplating the immensity of the attempt’. The gardens are arranged so that it feels as though one could walk forever: every turn offers a new prospect, and the thoughts do indeed wander along different paths as you go. The Gothic revival features at Stowe in buildings including a Gothic temple, which I understand one can stay in, alongside classical temples, statues, columns and the marvellous Palladian Bridge.

So this garden, like a few others of the period, features the Gothic – a carefully cultivated wildness which appealed to the emotions – and the classical, a more ordered and symmetrical style, reminiscent of distant places and cultures. The potential clash of cultures adds to the appeal of the place, I thinIMG_1313k. Timothy Mowl points out in Gentlemen Gardeners that Brown’s work at Stowe in fact offers ‘a three-in-hand of the classical, the Gothic and the Chinese.’ There is another element, however, which really interested me: the seven statues of Anglo-Saxon deities, sculpted by Rysbrack. In a clearing, where one might usually expect to see statues of classical origin, such as Athena or Neptune, we see now-obscure English deities (from whom the days of the week are derived) who seem to assert Englishness over the classical and Gothic elements of the gardens. It’s been suggested that this was a strong Whig assertion of British nationalism at a time when this was on the rise – perhaps not only politically motivated but also part of a rise in romantic nationalism, as a nostalgia for England’s history grew – something which IMG_1281the Gothic novel often played upon. In fact the political aspects of the garden are fascinating; Viscount Cobham used the grounds as a vehicle for expressing his contempt for his political rivals.

I was overwhelmed with the beauty and the planning of the gardens: whether a visitor takes a short or a long walk, it is all laid out for convenience and enjoyment. The map alone gives an idea of the delights in store: The Temple of Ancient Virtue, The Sleeping Wood, Circle of the Dancing Faun, Congreve’s Monument, Season’s Fountain, and Captain Grenville’s Column, to mention just a few. It’s easy to see why Viscount Cobham’s gardens were so popular with his many visitors (apparently Catherine of Russia enjoyed them so much that she copied them in the grounds of Catherine’s Palace near St Petersburg).

There is a fascinating poem by Gilbert West, written in 1832, which celebrates Stowe and many of the aspects which were not disturbed by Brown. A great deal more information on Stowe can be found here, and the National Trust page for Stowe is here.


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