English Gardens of the 17th Century
English gardens had degenerated into meaningless repetitions of French and Dutch fashions by the end of the seventeenth century. Conventional plans were mimicked or exaggerated until the formal manner became merely an affected mannerism. Finally, nothing remaining but the defects of the old system, a reaction resulted in its entire destruction. On the ruins was created the Landscape Garden, in the strict meaning of the word no garden at all, but a stretch of cultivated scenery. The English — perhaps because they had most abused the conventional system — were the first to raise an outcry against formal gardening. Formality could certainly be carried to no greater excess; it was logical to seek beauty in a contrary extreme.
Freedom from every restraint was the gospel of the new school. Kent, its leader according to Walpole, was the first to jump outside the fence and insist that the garden should be "set free from its prim regularity, and the gentle stream taught to serpentize." His method, as described by Lord Kames, was, "to paint a field with beautiful objects, natural and artificial, disposed like colors upon a canvas.” It requires indeed more genius to paint in the gardening way: in forming a landscape upon a canvas, no more is required but to adjust the figures to each other. An artist who lays out grounds in Kent's way has an additional task: he ought to adjust the figures to the several varieties of the field.
In plain words, nothing remained of the old style in the new gardens. These latter consisted of smooth lawns of grass, diversified by clumps of trees, and intersected by curved paths or irregular pieces of water. Nature was said to abhor a straight line; hence walks and brooks were always laid out in "serpentine meanders." Marks of decay are often to be seen in nature; Kent reproduced this effect by planting dead trees and stumps. These attempts to make a beautiful wilderness often resulted in nothing but a confused mass of disorder, and were received with ridicule even by the sentimentalists.
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