Printer Friendly

Landscape gardens in essence.

The publication in facsimile of F.M. Piper's 1811-12 manuscript on the design of English landscape parks is a major event for garden historians. In the first of an occasional series of review articles, Todd Longstaffe-Gowan assesses the book, and discusses the challenging questions it raises about our understanding of eighteenth century English landscape design.

In Sweden, the name of Fredrik Magnus Piper is synonymous with the English landscape garden. Indeed, until recently there was hardly an eighteenth-century 'English' landscape garden of any consequence in Sweden that was not ascribed to the country's much-vaunted, first professionally trained, landscape gardener.

Piper (1746-1824) is no stranger to landscape historians outside Sweden, who know his work through the catalogue of the Piper exhibition at the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm (1981), John Phibbs's essay 'Pleasure Grounds in Sweden and their English models' published in Garden History (1993, vol. XXI, no. 1, pp. 60-90) and Magnus Olausson's book Den Engelska parken I Sverige under gustaviask tid ('The English Landscape Garden in Sweden during the Gustavian Era', Stockholm, 1993). Few, however, will be acquainted with Piper's Description of 1811-12. The architect has been subjected to another round of rigorous scrutiny, with the not so surprising result that the number of gardens now attributed to him has been significantly reduced. This assessment does not detract from the legacy of the talented Swede--a man whose works, in Olausson's words, 'merit comparison with those of the greatest of his contemporaries in Europe'. His oeuvre, although small, was very influential.

Born the same year as King Gustav Ill, Piper had, by virtue of his father's position as Surveyor to the Royal Household, easy access to those in power. However, throughout his life, he remained somewhat of an outsider. This might in part be attributed to his parvenu noble status in class-ridden Sweden (his father was not ennobled until 1776), but a more plausible explanation is that his professional development and recognition were tainted by his 'less than gracious manner'. What little we know about the personal character of 'petit Piper' (as he was described by C.F. Sundvall) suggests that he was, in John Harris's words, 'a little full of himself'--or, in Olausson's less charitable appraisal--devoid of personal charm and capable of being 'unforgiving, peevish and pedantic'. These faults, combined with his 'sullen and morose manner', doubtless played into the hands of his detractors. That Piper achieved the degree of success he did during his lifetime is all the more remarkable because he made no secret of the fact that he deplored the 'conceited Ideas and whims' of the king and his fawning retinue of 'Ladies and Cavaliers' that frustrated his efforts to secure important royal commissions.

By dint of hard work and determination Piper used his natural artistic talent and practical skills to great effect. He read mathematics and hydrostatics at Uppsala University between 1764 and 1766, and subsequently studied engineering at the Trollhattan locks and the naval dockyards at Karlskrona. After a spell at the Academy of Fine Arts and an apprenticeship to the civil engineer Carl Fredrik Adelcrantz, he was encouraged and sponsored by the Francophile King Gustav Ill--himself a talented amateur architect--to continue his studies abroad. He travelled to England in 1773 to acquire 'an understanding of garden architecture, in the hope that he will eventually do our nation such service as nobody hitherto seeking perfection in the genre has accomplished'.

In London, Piper was taken on by the architect Sir William Chambers--the 'special protector of Swedes in London'--who employed him for roughly a year, until Piper departed, unannounced, for France and Italy. There he continued his studies, acquiring new insights into landscape gardening by meticulously recording the Villa Lante in Bagnaia, the Villa Doria Pamphili in Rome, and the Villas Conti and Aldobrandini in Frascati. In France he acquainted himself with the baroque gardens at Versailles and Marly-le-Roi and their celebrated waterworks.

It was, however, Piper's field studies conducted during his second English excursion, in 1779-80, that were perhaps to be the most decisive in his career. During this period he visited and recorded his observations at several celebrated amateur gardens, including the Leasowes, Painshill and Mulgrave Castle, and undertook systematic studies of some larger landscape parks, such as Stowe, Hagley and Stourhead. He encapsulated these observations in a scheme that he developed for an imaginary royal park. This large 'general plan' was exhibited at the Royal Society of Arts in 1780--a scheme which formed the basis for two subsequent exercises, the last being his Description of the Idea and General-Plan for an English Garden of 1811-12.

Piper returned to Sweden in 1780, and within months of his arrival he was appointed court surveyor and charged with the responsibility 'to supervise the Parks of Our Royal Castles, with regards to their design and decoration'. Much was expected of him--not least by Gustav Ill, who was in the throes of laying out his gardens at Drottningholm and was eager to exchange ideas with his young charge. Piper threw himself into this work with great enthusiasm; however, his proposed revision of the scheme by Gustav III and C.F. Adelcrantz did not please the king. As Olausson remarks: 'in his arrogance, Piper does not seem to have considered the fact that the extensive changes which he proposed could be indirectly interpreted as a criticism of his royal client'.

None of Piper's proposals were, in fact, executed, and Drottningholm was laid out to the king's own specification. Piper was instead directed to recast the gardens at Haga, which he did without royal interference. The resultant landscape was the most 'uncompromising English concept aimed at integrating architecture and park': the old garden's parterres were swept away and replaced with oval lawns framed by serpentine walks, the margins of the artificial canal were replanted and new walks and drives were introduced. The project was an instant success--indeed, so much so that it created an 'exaggerated belief in the unlimited possibilities of the new garden style prevailing at that time': no site was too small or too insignificant to be transformed into an English park. Piper soon found himself designing English parks for a handful of the king's closest companions, at Tyreso (1781-86), Bellevue (1784, 1789) and Tivoli (1784-85); he also laid out a ferme ornee at Godegard in Ostergotland.

Piper's career began to wither in the late 1780s as he became increasingly marginalised by the king, who may have tired of the architect's hubris. This setback and others--including Gustav's assassination in 1792--galvanised him to apply for leave to travel to England, where he familiarised himself with the latest gardening fashions. Once again the Swede revisited his hobby-horse, the English landscape garden, and prepared a design for a country house and park, which he submitted to the Royal Society of Arts. This, too, was exhibited; the proposal was a reinterpretation of his earlier submission.

In 1794 Piper returned to Stockholm, where he was elected deputy president of the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts. Two years later he developed a scheme for the Royal Garden in Stockholm that was partly executed. From 1800, Piper dedicated himself to a few new building projects in Vastmanland (c. 1803) and Halland (c. 1810-12), and a public 'place of pleasure and promenade' in Karlskrona (c. 1813). At the close of his life he revived the General Plan initiated in London in 1780, a work that he doubtless intended to publish as a lasting memorial to his ideals. This was not to be--until this publication in facsimile, with an accompanying explanatory book.

The first volume of the newly published Description, titled 'Text and Commentary', contains four essays--all in both Swedish and English. The introductory essay, by the eminent British architectural historian John Harris, discusses Piper's place in the English topographical tradition, and charts the individuals, publications and landscapes that influenced him when he toured England between 1779 and 1780, and again in 1793. Harris--the biographer of Sir William Chambers--argues that Chambers was 'almost certainly instrumental' in promoting Piper's garden studies and travels. He also proposes that Piper's 'idiosyncratic and compelling mode of draughtsmanship' sets him apart in the historiography of English garden art, and that his exquisite views of Stowe, Painshill (Fig. 1) and Stourhead constitute a unique record of these and other 'natural arboreal landscapes' made or remodelled in the second half of the eighteenth century.

Here Harris's enthusiasm gets the better of him, for several others compiled comparable topographical records: John Spyers--who worked in Brown's office--produced over 100 topographically astute, amateur views of Hampton Court Park and gardens and neighbouring Bushy Park between 1770 and 1780; and the Frenchman Jean-Claude Nattes executed over 160 atmospheric pencil and ink wash views of Stowe between 1805 and 1809. It is almost certain, however, that Piper was among the only recorders of the mechanics of garden hydraulics (Fig. 2)--from lakes to cascades--that were such important constituents of English gardens of the period.

Harris's prefatory remarks are followed by a transcription of Piper's Description of the Idea and General-Plan for an English Garden, to which is in turn appended two insightful essays by Magnus Olausson, a leading scholar in the field of eighteenth-century Swedish landscape history. The first essay deals with Piper's personal development, his work and achievements, and the second provides a 'textual criticism' of his Description, analysing in detail aspects of the architect's manuscript, such as the play and distribution of water, the planning of roads and paths, planting design, the use of inscriptions, and his interest in the ferme ornee. The second book, titled The English Park, is an extremely handsome facsimile reproduction of Piper's original manuscript.

What continues to puzzle scholars, and what remains central to any discussion of Piper and his work, is his trustworthiness as an interpreter of English landscape gardening, his accuracy as a draughtsman and the extent to which his European experiences moulded his perception of English landscape. These are important questions as they in turn pose further questions about the veracity of our current views of the eighteenth-century English landscape garden. There are two schools of thought on the subject. Olausson is of the opinion that whilst Piper was in England he paid little or no attention to the work of Brown and his followers. If Piper's record of English landscape gardens makes them appear formal, or if his own schemes in the English taste have a whiff of regularity (Fig. 3), it is because his work was coloured by his familiarity with French and Italian gardens. Piper, he argues, expressed undisguised admiration for French engineering and garden design, commenting in 1809 that the 'large and regular style achieved by le Notre and his imitators particularly in France and Italy should by no means be rejected'. Piper was, he concludes, 'something of a paradox': having introduced the English landscape park to Sweden, he proceeded to contrive gardens that were 'faithful to what he had learned in Italy and France'.

The other school of thought--to which I subscribe--is that Piper recorded reasonably accurately the English landscape as he saw it, but that he discerned underlying structures that English commentators failed to see. Many of the landscapes that he recorded--including Stowe and Stourhead--had, at the time of his visits, formal elements or structures, some of which were 'relict features' left by earlier garden improvers, and others that had been contrived by the landscape gardeners of the day. For instance, we now know that Brown did not 'sweep away' all traces of the formal landscapes where he was working; Phibbs has proved that he very often used geometric forms and formal elements in his own landscapes.

Some might argue that Piper's drawings are not entirely reliable--that there are distortions or inaccuracies in some of his surveys or sketches of features at such places as Stowe or Painshill. This might possibly be attributed to the fact that the drawings that have come down to us were not, in fact, produced in the field, as is so commonly believed, but were worked up afterwards, and adjusted to suit his recollections. However, whether or not Piper's drawings were produced en plein air, he was clearly obsessed with achieving a degree of topographical accuracy--if only to capture the essence of a garden. He remarked that to be able to obtain a 'clear conception' of an English park, it was not sufficient to 'draw all the paths, Canals and planted areas on paper. It is also necessary through washes in appropriate Tints to show the inclinations of all the hills, and greater or lesser swelling of Terrain, so that all the roads and paths thereafter are seen to rise and fall, according to the nature of the soil in this respect, in other words, so that the whole is like a well-drawn Topographical Situation chart which is customary in a Fortification context'.

If Piper's drawings produced for his Description, or those he prepared for this various built or proposed works resemble French or Italian beaux-arts exercises, perhaps it is because the English landscape that he so admired--possibly to the point of obsession--was more akin to what we now regard as the jardin anglais, or the jardin anglo-chinois, than we realise. Perhaps we should question the assumption that the English landscape garden was above all asymmetrical and informal. Those who recoil at this thought, or are disinclined to consider this thesis might, perhaps, then credit Piper with prefiguring the tradition of so-called ornamental gardening practised with great success by such landscape improvers as Humphry Repton (1752-1818) and John Buonarotti Papworth (1775-1847).

Todd Longstaffe-Gowan is a landscape architect and historian. His book The Gardens and Parks at Hampton Court Palace will he published by Frances Lincoln with Historic Royal Palaces in April.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Apollo Magazine Ltd.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2005 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Longstaffe-Gowan, Todd
Publication:Apollo
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 2005
Words:2287
Previous Article:Vital English art: futurism and the vortex of London 1910-14: C.R.W. Nevinson's pre-war association with the Italian Futurists profoundly affected...
Next Article:From Flanders to Florence: the Impact of Netherlands Painting.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |