"CAPABILITY BROWN"

WILLIAM GILPIN AND THE PICTURESQUE

An aesthetic revolution that occurred in Britain in the eighteenth century revolved around several main theories, but the most important theory that applied to landscape was that of “the Picturesque”, most often associated with the writings of William Gilpin.

Originally an ordained minister in the Church of England, he began writing these popular treatises as a means to raise funds for his school. 

The picturesque emphasized roughness over smoothness, boldness over elegance, and variety over uniformity. These concepts were initially influential in painting and then to landscape design.

Gilpin’s defining ideas influenced friends such as Horace Walpole and the royal family, including King George.  While the wealthy could afford to indulge themselves with the Grand Tour (the traditional travel of Europe undertaken by upper-class European society), appreciating and purchasing great paintings and ultimately contracting landscape designers such as Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphrey Repton, Gilpin was instrumental in influencing the rising upper-middle, the minor gentry and tradesmen.  By leading tours through the countryside and publishing aquatint landscape prints he created an aristocratic taste level among the rest of the public.

anonymous engraving, Ackerman's Repository of Arts, The Strand 1809

anonymous engraving, Ackerman's Repository of Arts, The Strand 1809

 Edward Austen (Jane's brother) on the Grand Tour unknown creator, the Jane Austen trust

 Edward Austen (Jane's brother) on the Grand Tour unknown creator, the Jane Austen trust

His concept of "the Picturesque," which first appeared in the Essay on Prints as an additional concept to "sublime" and "beautiful," was intended to formulate an appreciation for landscape in the paintings of Nicolas Poussin or Claude Lorrain.  

Essay II: On Picturesque Travel is a manual for appreciating travel and sketching the landscape as a way to preserve the beauty in one’s mind.

Lorrain: The Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, 1660

Lorrain: The Marriage of Isaac and Rebekah, 1660

Meanwhile, Jane Austin’s novels (Sense and Sensibility, Pride and Prejudice,

Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Emma) used the picturesque as a backdrop. While a fan of her writings illuminated his concepts to a larger audience, although at time it has been suggested that she satirized him. 

Throughout each of these novels the landscape holds a defining and center-stage role.   Her heroines are brought up in well-established homes and were receptive to the matters and opinions of current taste. Her novels reflect the social and landscape history of England.  

Her novels assimilate and promote the ideals of Gilpin, yet also satirize them.  In one of Gilpin’s publications he provided instructions for the groupings of cows in a pasture – “to unite three and remove the fourth.” Many landscape painters followed suit.  But, in Pride and Prejudice, one character refuses to join in a stroll with the teasing observation, "You are charmingly group'd, and...The picturesque would be spoilt by admitting a fourth."

William Gilpin illustrations of how to group cows Bodelian Library In Sense and Sensibility, one character is dismayed that another is apparently ignorant on picturesque theory and promptly instructs him… “ I shall call the hills steep, which ought to be bold; surfaces strange and uncouth, which ought to be irregular and rugged: and distant objects out of sight, which ought only to be indistinct through the sift medium of a hazy atmosphere. It unites beauty and utility – and I dare say it is a picturesque one too.”   When Elinor Dashwood teases her sister about her passion for “dead leaves” she responds by reminding Elinor that it is her appreciation of the picturesque.

Humphrey Repton, General View of Longleat, Stapelton Collection

Humphrey Repton, General View of Longleat, Stapelton Collection

Thomas Cole (Hudson River School), The Garden of Eden 1828  wikimedia commons

Thomas Cole (Hudson River School), The Garden of Eden 1828  wikimedia commons

FREDERICK LAW OLMSTED

Frederick Law Olmsted (1822-1903) is recognized as the founder of American landscape architecture and the nation's foremost “parkmaker.” Olmsted moved his home to suburban Boston in 1883 and established the world's first full-scale professional office for the practice of landscape design. During the next century, his sons and successors perpetuated Olmsted's design ideals, philosophy, and influence.

Over the course of his career projects  he designed, established and contributed to scenic reservations (i.e.: Yosemite Valley 1865, Niagara reservation 1887), major urban parks (i.e.: Central Park 1858, Prospect Park 1866) park systems (i.e.: Buffalo Park system, Boston’s ‘Emerald Necklace’, Rochester and Louisville), residential campuses (Stanford University, Hartford Retreat), government building grounds, parkways and site planning for the World’s Exposition of 1893.

Lesser known and spoken of are the designs of country estates for wealthy clientele, of which Olmsted designed a number of.  His greatest private client was the Vanderbilt family and it’s many heirs to the fortune of William Vanderbilt. (Olmsted had actually been a neighbor to William Vanderbilt on Staten Island in th 1840's and was now designing the family mausoleum in that same area.)   Olmsted created the Biltmore estate (beginning in 1888) in Asheville North Carolina for George, the youngest of the eight children. Three of George’s sisters had also engaged Frederick Law Olmsted to design their properties.

One of these sisters was Eliza Vanderbilt who married Dr. William Seward Webb, who left the medical profession at the urging of the Vanderbilt family. Webb was propelled into the finance and railroad industries, eventually increasing his fortune as builder of Adirondack Railway Services. The couple lived in New York City and built an ambitious estate in Shelburne, Vermont, which has survived and become notable for its agricultural, technological and architectural achievements. A working farm, at it’s peak in 1902, "Shelburne Farms" included nearly 4,000 acres of farmland with 300 employees to maintained this estate. Between 1886 and 1902, the Webb’s purchased 32 farms on Shelburne point, amassing all this land situated on Lake Champlain in Northern Vermont, framed views of the Green Mountains in the distance, just south of Burlington. 
Shelburne House
view from house looking east
view from south lawn of house looking west

The architect was Robert H. Robertson, who worked alongside F.L. Olmsted.  Shelburne Farms includes four major building on the site – “Shelburne House” (now an inn) the “Coach Barn,” Farm Barn,” “Horse Breeding Barn  Sheep and “Dairy Barn” -- dairy cattle, horses, pigs, gaming pheasants and poultry were raised on this farm.  As many as 100,000 trees a year were planted to create the sculptural landscape, (Capability Brown would be envious), 20 miles of roads and carriage trails were built.
serpentine road leads through...
woodlands...
opening to a clearing in the distance..
with the house perfectly sited on a hill.

Olmsted brought to this site an organizing concept that separated the farm into three types of spaces: farm, forest and parkland.  He also brought design principles learned from his early European travels and mastered in parks such as Prospect Park, Brooklyn.  
Shelbourne Farm: a (Lancelot "Capability') Brownian landscape via F.L. Olmsted
These design principles, commonly though of as the  English naturalistic landscape tradition of the early 18th century – are broad meadows with occasional clumping of shade trees, undulating hills, rich and diverse woodlands that transition into these meadows, looping roads strategically through the landscape to alternately reveal and obscure views and the appreciation of an expanse of water to reflect the sky.
rolling hills + meadows meets lake

(framed views from house)
Guests would tour the farm and horse operations, enjoy carriage rides, boating on Lake Champlain, croquet or golfing on the estate’ golf course. Presently, the site is designated a national historic landmark and has evolved into a non-profit (supported by significant donations) with a teaching component (environmental education center) working farm and an inn.

**With exception of F.L.Olmsted public domain portrait, all photos ©Todd Haiman 2010