Reviews of Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design
New York — The Romantic movement that came to full flower in the first half of the 19th century was nothing less than a transformation of consciousness, elevating emotion over rationality, inspiration over rules, and personal liberty over class structure. Radical changes swept through the world of landscape design, just as they did in the realms of literature and the arts.
The exhibit “Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design’’ at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York displays almost two centuries of important books, drawings, and manuscripts in this area. Gathered from several countries, the exhibit begins with the first etchings ever produced in China (circa 1713) depicting gardens of the emperor, which were a revelation to Europeans. The climax is Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux’s hand-drafted, wall-spanning “Entry No. 33’’ for the contest to design New York’s Central Park in 1858. (They won.)
Brahmin Boston was a leader in this international movement, with its parks by Olmsted (who lived in Brookline), writings by Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists in Concord, and Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, the country’s first garden cemetery and the first large-scale designed landscape of any kind open to the public. Looking at Boston’s great Victorian achievements in park building, it’s hard not to feel a little sad that today’s Boston can barely scrape together enough money to landscape the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway created by the Big Dig. Would Olmsted move his office from Brookline to Manhattan if he lived today?
After all, Manhattan seems to have solved such financing and maintenance problems. As founding president of the mighty Central Park Conservancy, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who co-curated this exhibit, helped raise $450 million in largely private money to restore and maintain Central Park. Also head of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, Rogers owns many of the objects in the exhibit and obtained the loan of others from abroad. Did she have a hand in prying the iconic “Entry No. 33’’ off its wall at the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation and getting it hung at the Morgan?
The Romantic movement’s cross-pollination between the arts, politics, technology, and culture is a major theme of the exhibit, which includes Romantic landscape art by J.M.W. Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, and Frederic Church. Rogers defines the evolution of the Romantic movement in four countries in magisterial essays for the handsome catalog (David R. Godine, $50). In England, she writes, Romanticism is predominantly literary and artistic, in France it is philosophical and theatrical, for Germans it has a mystical attachment to “folk, fatherland, and forest,’’ while in the United States it is essentially spiritual, rooted in Transcendentalist beliefs.
Though gardens with winding paths may seem pleasantly harmless, the Romantic movement has a political subtext, as it grew in part out of the 18th-century revolutions in America and France, which were very threatening to Europe’s aristocracy. “You could tell someone’s political outlook by their garden’s design,’’ said exhibit co-curator John Bidwell in an interview at the Morgan. The old order clung to stiff classical gardens where the plants were lined in rows, while a more naturalistic landscape reflected sympathy with the new ideas of freedom and equality.
One iconic piece here is Alexander Pope’s hand-lettered 1731 draft of a poem featuring a line that became a Romantic landscape-design credo: “Consult the genius of the place’’ — meaning respect the inherent nature and terrain of the land.
The once-famous antiquarian book collection of the financially gutted Massachusetts Horticultural Society is represented by a single volume. It was bought by the Morgan at a heartbreaking and ill-timed Sotheby’s auction, soon after the stock market crash of 2008, which delivered rare books of horticultural illustrations owned by the society into the hands of interior decorators, presumably for cutting up and framing. The 1834 book that survived to star in the current show is “Hints on Landscape Gardening,’’ a German masterpiece by Prince Pückler-Muskau.
“You could say that a piece of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society survives at the Morgan Library,’’ said Bidwell, who is also the museum’s curator of printed books. “It cost very little — we were the only bidder — but it was terribly foxed, dirty and discolored from unhappy storage conditions. It took our own conservation department a month to restore it. They took the book apart, and every page spent days in a bath of distilled water in sunlight on the museum’s roof. I could have cheated and pulled apart one page and framed it on the wall, but I wanted to show we had saved the whole book.’’
The author, Prince Pückler, was himself an interesting character. He spent his fortune landscaping his 1,350-acre family seat, Muskau, which today straddles the border of Poland and Germany. In debt, he divorced his wife, Lucy, to go heiress hunting in England in 1826. His letters to Lucy describing early 19th-century English society, landscapes, and his own search for her replacement were later published anonymously as “Letters of a Dead Man.’’ Failing as a fortune hunter, the prince returned to his patient Lucy and was eventually forced to sell Muskau, which was happily restored in modern times.
Public parks had not yet been invented when Mount Auburn Cemetery opened in Cambridge in 1831. Romantic landscaping was supposed to be a selling point, but it proved almost too popular. It “inadvertently attracted overwhelming throngs of visitors,’’ writes co-curator Elizabeth S. Eustis in the catalog. “Desecration of garden cemeteries by ‘persons on pursuit of pleasure’ became a compelling argument for the creation of public parks.’’
Though the subject is Romantic design, this is largely a sepia-colored exhibit that visitors must enter through the intellect rather than the emotions. To add some bright shots of green, the Morgan has also hung contemporary color photos of the historic gardens. But the catalog is more visually satisfying, and Rogers’s essays make illuminating reading, as they deftly clarify a potentially complex subject. The exhibit’s “Red Books,’’ morocco leather-bound plans that 18th-century landscape designer Humphry Repton made for prospective clients, are visible in their entirety online at www.themorgan.org.
— Carol Stocker
This large-format, deluxe volume accompanies a recent exhibition at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City. Co-curator Elizabeth Barlow Rogers contributes a feature essay introducing Romanticism as it developed in Europe and America during the 18th and 19th centuries and further discusses the movement’s influence on landscape design. Garden planners attempted to capture the power and beauty of nature, while imparting moral lessons or producing sensual pleasure. This ethos has informed many public parks, gardens, and cemeteries. The Morgan exhibit includes diverse documents and visual art, reproduced here in color, with descriptions by Elizabeth Eustis (Boston Architectural Collection) and John Bidwell (Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings, Morgan Library). An example is a lithograph of Balcony Bridge in Central Park, designed by architect Calvert Vaux around 1860. VERDICT This valuable work on the history of landscape design in Western culture will be of most interest to landscape architects, art historians, and students.
— David R. Conn, Surrey P.L., B.C.
NY Daily News
If you were to ask most people the significance of the period from the early 18th to the late 19th century, they would most likely characterize it as the age of the Industrial Revolution.
The machine was transforming society and the landscape in radical ways. Perhaps the most dramatic instance of the impact of machines was the railroad, which created new understandings of time and space and also wreaked havoc with the natural landscape.
This seems a useful subtext for approaching “Romantic Gardens, Nature, Art and Landscape Design,” the extraordinary show that will be at the Morgan Library and Museum until Sept. 12.
Drawing on the unfailingly impressive resources of the library itself and the collection of Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, founder of the Central Park Conservancy, whose idea it was, the show traces the literary and philosophical origins of a countervailing view that developed, quite unconsciously, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution.
While industrialists saw nature as an exploitable commodity, poets and essayists – and eventually landscape architects – saw it as a stimulus to the emotions. They strove to reawaken souls deadened by the “sophisticaters, calculators and economists.”
Interestingly, one of the first voices in England to perceive the special powers of nature was the poet Alexander Pope. We associate him with the formality of the Augustan Age. But he sounds a different note in his advice on gardening to Lord Burlington, written in verse. He rejects the notion of artificial symmetry that was the French model,
“Consult the Genius of the Place in all,” he writes. “Still follow Sense, of ev’ry Art the Soul.” He condemns the fashionable gardening style of the day, topiary, in which bushes and trees are trimmed to resemble humans and objects. His own gardens at Twickenham were a model of what he sought. A manuscript of his poem is part of the exhibit.
So is a first edition of an equally well-known poem, William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” from the revolutionary “Lyrical Ballads” he published with his friend, Samuel Tayloer Coleridge. Throughout his work Wordsworth stresses the – quite literally – refreshing quality of Nature. Interestingly on the first page of “Tintern Abbey” he inserts a footnote – an explanatory few words, to make sure none of his readers missed the point.
An unusually interesting example of the dialogue between literary men and visual artists is the juxtaposition of a landscape in the Swiss Alps by Turner, the English artist championed by the critic John Ruskin. Taken by the power of Turner’s drawing, Ruskin sought out the same spot in Switzerland and did his own drawing, an amazing act of homage.
The show has drawings of important artistic landscapes in France and Germany, but its most interesting material shows the impact of Romanticism in America. The most powerful result of the philosophical musings of writers and philosophers on the Continent was the design for a project known as Greensward.
In 1858, in an instance of almost unimaginable wisdom, the City Fathers of New York set aside acreage in the middle of Manhattan Island greater than the principality of Monaco and organized a contest to determine how this land might be fashioned to create the images of beauty, of the picturesque and even of the sublime that would provide stimulation and solace to the city’s burgeoning population.
Labeled “Entry 33,” the huge work in brown ink on paper, somewhat faded, is the vision of Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux. It is the masterpiece we know as Central Park. None of the other entries came anywhere near the profundity of Olmstead and Vaux’s design, which reflected their acquaintance with parks and gardens in Europe.
As part of their proposal they included “before and after” drawings to make clear to the judges of the contest the complexity of the work ahead. These are also on display. It is to the credit of the commissioners that they were not daunted by the heavy demands of “Entry 33” and went forward with it.
The exhibit abounds in material that documents the progress from theory to reality in several countries. In the French section is material about the ideological significance of one of the most beloved sites in Paris, the Pere Lachaise Cemetery.
For me one of the most fascinating drawings is an 18th century English design for a grotto to house an ornamental hermit. As I understand it, as the lord of the manor strolled through his gardens with his guests they would stop, take tea at the grotto and converse with its occupant.
Though not a vain person, I have always imagined I would make a splendid ornamental hermit. I would hope it would be possible to incorporate a few modern conveniences without spoiling the overall effect of the grotto. If any dotcom billionaires fancy the idea of hiring an ornamental hermit, I’m available.
— Howard Kissel
New York Times
One of the greatest landscapes of the Romantic era can be found right in the middle of Manhattan. It isn’t a Turner, a Friedrich, a Delacroix – or anything in a museum, for that matter. It’s the 843-acre “Greensward” plan designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux in the mid-19th century – or, as we know it, Central Park.
Olmsted and Vaux imported topsoil from New Jersey, but their vision of rolling hills and curving paths came from Europe. There, in paintings and writings and on grand estates, the Enlightenment’s strict geometries were slackening. Versailles, with its manicured, monarchical hedgerows, was no longer the model. Artists and aristocrats sought out rustic, informal scenery, reflecting a new immediacy in politics and religion.
You can pore over plans for Central Park and its precedents at the Morgan Library & Museum, in the exhibition “Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art and Landscape Design.” This captivating, if geographically unbalanced, show traces the Romantic movement from its first flowerings on English estates to American Transcendentalism in full bloom.
It begins with Alexander Pope, the 18th-century poet whose estate, Twickenham, became a sort of pre-Romantic theme park. (It had, among other attractions, a grotto covered with shells, mirrors and crystals.) At the Morgan you can see an autographed manuscript of Pope’s “Epistle to the Earl of Burlington,” which coined an excellent phrase for tasteful landscaping: respecting the “genius of place.”
Pope wasn’t talking about genius in the modern sense; he meant a kind of essence or spirit of the land. This idea found a somewhat ridiculous expression in the hermitage, a shelter often inhabited by a hired “hermit” (or, for the less wealthy, a mannequin). You can see one in Gijsbert van Laar’s “Storehouse of Garden Ornaments,” a book of engravings that catalogs various faux ruins and dwellings.
Pagodas, mosques and Italian villas were also popular garden features. At times the Romantic landscape could be a bit of a hodgepodge, as suggested by a 1763 etching of Kew Gardens titled “A View of the Wilderness, With the Alhambra, the Pagoda and the Mosque.”
The show takes an especially incisive look at the Picturesque movement, epitomized by the architect Humphry Repton. Repton and his peers shaped estates as if they were constructing landscape paintings, with an eye to foreground, middle ground and background.
The Morgan has several of Repton’s “Red Books,” polished presentations he used to woo clients. Each picture has watercolor overlays that lift up to reveal the before and after: removing a clump of trees here, adding a lake there.
Some Britons found Repton’s approach too doctrinaire. The Picturesque was pilloried in caricatures by Thomas Rowlandson and in Jane Austen’s “Northanger Abbey.” (Henry’s impromptu hillside lecture on the Picturesque prompts Catherine to declare the city of Bath “unworthy to make part of a landscape.”)
Other Romantics, seeking shock and awe from their landscapes, turned to the sublime. One of the highlights of the show is a Turner watercolor, “The Pass at St. Gotthard, Near Faido,” from the Morgan’s collection. Turner gave this alpine scene an extra jolt of adrenaline by using the end of his brush to scratch whitecaps onto the churning river. His efforts were noted by the critic John Ruskin, who made his own sketch on-site after retracing Turner’s footsteps.
There’s more from England, including drawings by Samuel Palmer and an early printing of Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” but the show is only halfway through. France, Germany and America share the second of two galleries, which demonstrate how British Romanticism mutated as it spread across the Channel and the Atlantic.
In France the Romantic landscape became the setting for a love story: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s “Julie, ou La Nouvelle Héloïse.” It was also a royal folly, as in the hamlet of rustic buildings attached to Versailles for the amusement of Marie Antoinette. But Romanticism had a public, progressive side, too, in garden cemeteries like Père Lachaise and new parks commissioned by Napoleon III.
German Romanticism was darker and more folkloric, to judge from Goethe’s novel “Elective Affinities” and a moonlit scene by Caspar David Friedrich. For the Prussian Prince Pückler-Muskau, landscaping was an obsession – “Parkomania”– that led to bankruptcy.
Across the pond, Emerson and his fellow Transcendentalists brought religion to the Romantic landscape. So did painters like Frederic Church, here represented by a panoramic study of Niagara Falls.
In his album “Picturesque America,” also on view, the poet and New York Evening Post editor William Cullen Bryant cultivated a market for European-style landscape tourism (particularly in the West, newly accessible by the transcontinental railroad). Closer to home, Bryant’s newspaper laid the groundwork for Central Park.
The show ends with Olmsted and Vaux’s large “Greensward” plan, from the 1857 competition to design the park. Also on view are a pair of before-and-after presentation drawings showing views to and from Vista Rock; the “before” section consists of photographs by Mathew Brady.
Some of these fascinating materials are here because Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, the founding president of the Central Park Conservancy and the president of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, conceived the exhibition and was its co-organizer. (She had help from John Bidwell, the head of the Morgan’s printed books and bindings department, and Elizabeth S. Eustis, a faculty member in the Landscape Institute of the Boston Architectural College.)
In the “Greensward” plan you can see how Olmsted and Vaux adapted ideas from Repton, Ruskin and other Romantics to fit an urban environment. Bridges over sunken transverse roads allowed carriages to pass above workaday traffic, and dense plantings along the perimeter made the park look endless. Pope put it best: “He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds/Surprises, varies, and conceals the bounds.”
“Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art and Landscape Design” runs through Aug. 29 at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue, at 36th Street; (212) 685-0008, themorgan.org.
— Karen Rosenberg
Times Literary Supplement
One of the first of many striking items on display in Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design is a small book, Jacques Delille’s Les Jardin: poëme, opened to reveal an etched plate depicting an eighteenth-century gentleman with brawny legs leaning over and against a monument, evidently supporting himself in grief, his hands covering his face, racked with tears. In the background, we see a woodland garden tactfully landscaped to create a gentle wild, overhung with a delicate willow and dotted with bridges, monuments and benches to enhance contemplation. The verses in the caption enjoin us: “Approchez, contemplez ce monument où pleuroit en silence un fils religieux”. Who is this unhappy son? Probably some Rousseauvian, the visitor concludes, with a touch of scorn. Imagine her surprise on learning that it is – Alexander Pope! Alongside is the large, fold-out frontispiece to John Serle’s A Plan of Mr Pope’s Garden, as It Was Left at His Death, with a Plan and Perspective View of the Grotto (1745), both a guide to the increasingly popular garden and grotto and a plan to enhance its “romantic” wildness while preserving some of its formality, particularly in the approach to the obelisk commemorating Pope’s mother. And next to Serle’s Plan is the first, handsome manuscript sheet of Pope’s “Of Taste: An Epistle to the Earl of Burlington”, whose famous injunction “Consult the genius of the place in all” rings like a refrain throughout this exhibition.
This cluster of items is typical of the many surprises on display at the splendidly organized Morgan Library show, where books, manuscripts, prints, drawings and paintings tell the story of how English landscaping theories and practices were adopted and adapted in France, Germany and the United States, each with discernible national, spiritual, civic or sometimes purely commercial agendas, from the early eighteenth until the late nineteenth centuries. When it first appeared in 1782, Delille’s poem, which celebrated landscaped nature in its wilder, more melancholy aspects, made no mention of Pope’s filial grief, but by 1801 his poem had expanded and the volume was illustrated, by someone who hadn’t the faintest idea who Pope was or what he – rather famously, in England –looked like. By then, Pope’s weeping willow was widely known, and he could be seriously imagined in France more than a generation later as a lachrymose “chantre” rather than as a satirist, with a garden that was Gilpinesque avant la lettre.
Displaying about one hundred items (not counting modern-day colour photographs of Stowe, Sezincote, Muskau and Central Park), Romantic Gardens: Nature, art, and landscape design covers all the key figures William Gilpin, Humphry Repton, Uvedale Price, Richard Payne Knight, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Girardin, Haussmann, Hirschfield, Bryant, Olmsted – and more, in felicitous and informative groupings all of which celebrate either nature itself or natural-seeming landscapes that hide their artful construction while seeking to influence the mind and emotions of the beholder. If there is a thesis to this gentle assembly, it is that printed books played a role in disseminating as well as promoting sometimes highly charged national ideas about nature.
The term “landscape gardening” was invented by Humphry Repton, though the practice in the early nineteenth century was more widely referred to as ‘improvement”. For Repton, an ingenious marketer, estates improved according to the famous before-and-after plans beautifully laid out in watercolours in his red books – and later in books such as Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795) and Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803) – virtually guaranteed gentlemanly status. But in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, such improvement does not seem to come off too well. Mr Rushworth – the silliest gentleman in Austen’s canon, and also the richest - wants “that Repton, or anybody of that sort” to cut down an avenue of venerable old trees on his estate and improve the prospect, though the presence of sunken fences (ha-has) shows that his estate has been “improved” before to create views uninterrupted by fence lines. This new plan, coupled with Henry Crawford’s enthusiasm for it, seems to make Austen’s disapproval of “improvement” axiomatic. But Austen’s views were more complex than that, and more accommodating, Her letters and novels do not mention the picturesque controversies inaugurated by Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price, who attacked the father of “improvement”, Capability Brown (and by extension Repton as well), for the blandness and smoothness of his designs, advocating instead irregular sight lines, older rampant plantings, rutted pathways, and the like. But we do know that Austen admired Gilpin, and most of her characters appreciate the picturesque in its easeful modes as well as in its more rugged varieties. Elizabeth Bennet exclaims, “What are men to rocks and mountains?”, before her trip to Derbyshire, but when she first beholds the prospect of Pemberley, she recognizes it as a tastefully improved site – where “a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance” and “where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste” – and on that account she deems Darcy’s authority legitimate because lovely, harmonious with nature, and therefore fit.
In a way then, Austen’s allusion to “any Repton” is a left-handed compliment to him and to the prevalence of his (and, earlier, Brown’s) notions of landscape gardening both as a sign and naturalizing instrument of status. And those notions reached far. Romantic Gardens rightly gives a lot of space to Prince Hermann Ludwig Heinrich von Püchler-Muskau who, proclaiming his “Parkomanie”, devoted much of his life and all of his money to laying out his ancestral estate along Reptonian lines.
Landscape gardening and debates about the picturesque permeated polite society during the early nineteenth century and any educated person could read and understand a landscape accordingly. The Morgan’s display of two of Thomas Rowlandson’s pen and watercolour drawings for the Doctor Syntax series – “The Doctor Sketching the Lake” and “His Horse Takes Fright at a Gibbet” shows this admirably. Generally considered an attack on the fad for Gilpinesque touring in search of the picturesque – as well as on the commercial object of publishing one’s travel sketches – the drawings actually execute an abundance of picturesque scenes, while making clear the Doctor’s inability to read them. The pen and watercolour drawings delicately represent shrouding mists and craggy hills – both picturesque par excellence – that are obscured or no longer visible in prints and reprints of the Tour. And as for Doctor Syntax’s parodied aspiration to publish his picturesque sketchbooks, the Morgan’s exhibition stresses the shrewd marketing of Rudolph Ackermann, who published this successful series (and its sequel), while at the same time manufacturing and selling paper and paints for those interested in following in Gilpin’s – and Doctor Syntax’s – footsteps.
The exhibition is rich in singular juxtapositions. One of my favourites is the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads (1798), opened to Wordsworth’s “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”, alongside a far less well-known letter by Dorothy Wordsworth to Lady Beaumont (December 23, 1806) on which William has drawn a detailed plan of a winter garden for her. An accomplished amateur landscape gardener – as Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount show – Wordsworth relished this commission for his patrons and friends at Coleorton Hall, then still under construction. Strictly following Addison’s Spectator No 477, the plan is a sort of genre piece, with a concession to the formality of a central alley, appropriate to the setting, Throughout this winter garden, Wordsworth has banned all deciduous trees whose barren limbs might inspire desolating thoughts, planting only evergreens instead – firs, laurels, hollies, yews – to create a place winter cannot touch, carefully laying out her Ladyship’s walks to discrete areas, to a secluded bower, through glades, by a slope of smooth green turf, past a fishpool, or across from prospects of an ivied cottage.
Perhaps the most breathtaking grouping of exhibits moves from the picturesque to the sublime with an autograph manuscript from Ruskin’s Modern Painters placed alongside Turner’s “The Pass at St. Gotthard, near Faido” (1843), which the Morgan acquired in 2006. Ruskin was the proud owner (indeed the commissioner) of this turbulent, awesome watercolour, calling it “the greatest work [Turner] produced in the last period of his art”. Ruskin retraced Turner’s steps in an attempt to study his vision and his methods, and alongside Turner’s painting we find Ruskin’s “Rocks in Unrest” (1886), which replicates the same scene.
A tour through Romantic Gardens ends with a section on Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, whose enormous “Greensward Plan”, entry number thirty-three in a competition for the “improvement” of 840 acres of rocky and swampy land between 59th and l06th Street in New York, became the plan for Central Park, This section in many ways ties together the entire exhibition, prominently displaying an autograph letter of 1890 in which Olmsted acknowledges his debts to Gilpin and Price, just as he elsewhere recommended the study of Pükhler-Muskau, Olmsted’s and Vaux’s designs owe something to Repton as well, for each small section of the large design features a “before” and “after” prospect, the former represented by a photograph of the present barren, unprepossessing scene, and the later by a colourful painting (probably by Vaux) of what the “improved” scene will look like – lush, green, and full. In one photo, we can see a shanty still standing, the sole reminder of the 1,600 people - African Americans and others in Seneca Village, and the Irish poor who ran piggeries farther south –who were cleared out of the greensward to make way for Central Park. Like that one-eyed, one-legged beggar who appears “before” in Repton’s famous watercolour of his own cottage, only to vanish when the “after” flap is lifted to reveal a scene from which poverty and labour have been excluded, these poor folk are banished from the Romantic garden.
The catalogue Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design deserves special praise, not only because it is handsome, but also because it is substantial, and includes a lengthy essay on Romantic landscape by Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who curated the exhibition along with John Bidwell and Elizabeth S. Eustis. Dulce et utile, then, on all counts. Likewise pleasant and instructive is Fiona Cowell’s Richard Woods (1715-93): Master of the Pleasure Garden, an excellent study of one of Capability Brown’s less well-known contemporaries. Cowell readily concedes Brown’s greater lustre, talent, and importance, but, showing that improvers proliferated as the fashion of naturalism became more popular, she argues that the practices of “garden-variety” improvers need study if we are to understand the diversity of improvements during the time and the context that make Brown distinctive, Though virtually unremembered (Romantic Gardens does not mention him), Woods had forty known commissions during his career (compared to Brown’s 200 or so). Some of these – such as Wardour Castle, Hengrave Hall, Cusworth – were very prominent, some employed Brown as well, and many others were on too modest a scale to have interested Brown.
Unlike Brown, Cowell remained attached to the ferme ornée as a landscape ideal, and made prominent use of pleasure gardens and kitchen gardens, all of which make him seem old-fashioned in retrospect. Cowell’s learned book is particularly informative about the nuts and bolts of landscape gardening in eighteenth-century England: workers’ wages and their discontent, the increasing number of nurseries throughout the period, the availability of flowers and roses, the use of sunken fences, the role of foremen; all of the practical concerns that make Romantic Gardens – or any gardens – possible.
— Claudia L. Johnson
Wall Street Journal
The Romantic movement of the 18th and 19th centuries has been called a cult of the senses. For Romantics, feeling and intuition took precedence over logic and exercising the imagination and memory was as important as addressing actuality. Romantics prized the natural world, the irregular and ruined, the exotic and remote. They preferred the medieval to the classical and celebrated emotion and excess rather than reason and moderation.
Romantic ideals are manifest in Chopin’s études, in the ghostly maidens in the second act of Giselle, in Keats’s odes, in Delacroix’s paintings, and in those over-the-top “Gothic” thrillers, all sinister settings and hapless victims, brilliantly skewered by Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey. But Romanticism’s most lasting influence may be on the landscape itself, as we learn from Romantic Gardens: Nature, Art, and Landscape Design at the Morgan Library and Museum, a collaboration among John Bidwell, the Morgan’s Astor Curator of Printed Books and Bindings, Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, who is, among other things, President of the Foundation for Landscape Studies, and Elizabeth S. Eustis, who teaches in the Landscape Institute at the Boston Architectural College. This instructive, intelligent, and delectable exhibition documents the fascinating story of how the ideals of Romanticism changed the way people perceived nature and how they then strove to transform the natural world to reflect their altered perceptions.
Seventeenth century gardens reflected a desire to control nature; clipped hedges, geometric “embroidered” beds, and straight allées imposed order and symmetry on the landscape surrounding symmetrical buildings. The Romantic aesthetic rejected these aspirations, preferring the bucolic charm of farm land, the unpredictability of wooded hills, and the terribilitá of wilderness. Romanticism wanted nature to be beautiful (gentle and harmonious), picturesque (wilder, but “artistically” composed), or sublime (extreme and awe- or terror-inspiring). The beautiful and the picturesque were relatively easy to achieve on the grounds of an estate, with judicious cutting and planting, some redesign of paths and waterways, and the addition of evocative faux ruins or a hermitage; the sublime, which involved making human beings feel insignificant when confronted by – say – steep drops and vertiginous waterfalls, was more difficult. Romantic gardens, whatever their emphasis, were as artificial as their Baroque predecessors, created to suggest untouched nature; carefully conceived clumps of trees, ponds, streams, and meandering paths combined to shape reverie-provoking, emotionally-stirring “prospects” that appeared spontaneously formed.
The Morgan’s exhibition brings these ideas to life with 18th and 19th century books, prints, manuscripts, drawings, plans, drawings, and watercolors, first introducing Romantic “theory” and then demonstrating how these revolutionary ideas informed landscape architecture in England, Germany, France, and America. The sumptuous, often surprising selection includes such treasures as a manuscript page on “the modern landscape” by John Ruskin and books by the English landscape architect Humphrey Repton demonstrating how to turn ordinary prospects into models of the beautiful, with moveable overlays showing “before” and “after.” And more, including the delectable 1790 volume, Grotesque Architecture; or, Rural Amusement, Consisting of Plans, Elevations, and Sections, for Huts, Retreats, Summer and Winter Hermitages, Terminaries, Chinese, Gothic, and Natural Grottos, Cascades, Mosques, Moresque Pavilions, Grotesque and Rustic Seats, etc. Embodying the picturesque are images of castles, ruins, and rugged scenery by John Constable and Jean-Honoré Fragonard, among others, along with William Gilpin’s widely read books promoting travel to remote regions of Great Britain for the thrill provoked by nature’s splendors and relief from the unlovely effects of the Industrial Revolution. The sublime is illustrated by J. M. W. Turner’s dramatically exaggerated watercolor of towering mountains and roiling water at the St. Gotthard Pass, by Caspar David Friedrich’s eerie moonlit landscape, and by Frederic Church’s view of Niagara Falls.
The Romantic ethos took different forms in each country under review. The pervasive German theme of becoming one with nature is documented by watercolors of a private ideal landscape created over thirty years by a Prussian aristocrat with “parkomania.” In France, because of the influence of Rousseau, and in the U.S., because of transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, experiencing nature was bound up with notions of idealism, moral uplift, and the public good. The American section of Romantic Gardens encapsulates this through the work of such crucial figures as Alexander Jackson Davis, Frederick Law Olmsted, and Calvert Vaux. Wonderful documents of Central Park’s development, including Olmsted and Vaux’s enormous (winning) competition drawing and early photo presentations, underscore the connections between Romantic ideas about the benefits of contemplating nature and the creation of carefully wrought, surrogate nature for urban populations.
Large photographs of surviving Romantic gardens and landscapes punctuate the show, but New Yorkers have only to go to Central Park or Prospect Park. Visit the Morgan and you’ll look at these miraculous fragments of the natural world not just as urban amenities but as works of art announcing the highest ideals and deepest feelings of the Romantic movement.
— Karen Wilkin