LANDSCAPE GARDENING:in France and in England


I said: RH:  Grand palaces like Versailles and those of St.Petersburg are unhealthy social phenomena, since they were the product of virtual slave labor.  Versailles brought the French Revolution, St.. Petersburg the Russian one.  What about the grand gardens, like those of Versailles?  The same criticism applies.  However, Capability Brown's gardens generally involved adaption of the landscape rather than the vast geometric designs of Versailles, and thus much less abuse of manpower. Britain had nothing comparable to the French or Russian revolutions.  Christopher Jones objects: I don't think there is a very great analogy between the gardens of Versailles and the French revolution and the fact that there was no revolution in Britain.  In fact, the gardener of King Louis XIV, André le Nôtre was also the creator of Saint James' Park.  Already the stark geometric forms that characterized the park at Versailles were out-of-fashion by the time of the revolution; in fact, Queen Marie Antoinette played "farmer" at her own little "hameau" inside the palace grounds in a natural setting.  The only thing I can see is the relation between a "man over nature" syndrome that accompanied the very big egos of Louis, Tsar Peter or Frederick the Great that was expressed by pushing nature into a strict form instead of letting the natural state take over.

RH: The palaces of Versailles, etc. were the expression of the "very big egos" of their builders, a symptom of what was wrong. The change to "jardins à l'anglaise" was too little and too late, and it did not go very deep. George III of England had been pushed by his mother to be like the absolute monarchs of the continent, but he did not do so, despite a parliamentary motion condemning the increase in his powers.  George III was farmer George, interested in the welfare of ordinary people, and generally popular.  It is unfortunate that most people know about him through a movie, "The Madness of the King" (or "The Madness of George III", which reduces his life to his period of madness.  This is more grist to our "Learning history" mill.
 
I  said: Grand palaces like Versailles and those of St.Petersburg are unhealthy social phenomena, since they were the product of virtual slave labor.  Versailles brought the French Revolution, St. Petersburg the Russian one.  What about the grand gardens, like those of Versailles? I pointed out that the English gardens designed by Capability Brown not a comparable expression of an absolutist system involving virtual slave labor.  From France, Christopher Jones objects: This exchange beginning to sound very English --I almost half expect to read a note by Margaret Rutherford about pruning roses.  Versailles had a positive political aspect as well a the obvious "absolutist" connection: by gathering the French aristocracy under one roof (a large one, I admit) the various civil wars, [Frondes] and coups that plagued the country were ended forever.  And the palace was useful PR for foreign ambassadors etc.  (And Britain also had its nasty civil war and revolution that led Charles I to the scaffold.)  Previously, historians pegged the costs of building and servicing Versailles at close to 20% of the French GDP of that time.  Recently, it has been revealed that the figure was closer to 6%. RH: "The various civil wars and coups that plagued the country were ended forever",  Good Lord! What about the French Revolution?
What historian "revealed" that the cost of Versailles was less than a third of the generally recognized figure.

From England , George Sassoon writes:  The British aristocracy of the time erected large houses without using slave or grossly underpaid labor.  The list of Capability Brown's works which you obtained includes Longleat, near where I am at the moment, where there is a nearby village known as Little Scotland from the workers who came down to work there, which they would not have done if they were forced laborers. The list also includes Wimpole Hall, over which I flew when training at Cambridge.  Seen from the air, the most impressive thing about this residence is the 2.5 mile avenue of trees, extending in the direction of London.  Someone at the Flying Club told me that the builders wanted to extend this to Hyde Park Corner, about 70 miles.  I do not know if this is true or not, but it is a scheme not beyond the ambitions of the time.  The trees at the time I saw them were elms, but have now been replaced with limes, the so-called Dutch Elm Disease having got the originals.  This disease - a fungus and/or insects - in fact came from Canada in a shipment of timber via Holland.  North American elms are apparently immune to it.  I lost some trees from my own woodlands here to the "Dutch elm", not many fortunately as the woods and parkland trees here are mostly beech or ash. As regards Versailles, local opinion here was that this was (to use a modern expression) completely "over the top".  Capability Brown merely enhanced the natural landscape features with far less labor, which may be why so much of his work survives today.




Ronald Hilton 2005

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last updated: April 13, 2005