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Archive for the ‘Natural world’ Category

Great landed estates were symbols of the owner’s wealth and status in British society. Everything was put on grand display – from the exquisite architecture of the house itself to the furniture, jewels, silver plate, servants, books, carriages, horses, deer, game, forests, fields, and splendid grounds and gardens.

Longleat House in Wiltshire Image @www.longleat.co.uk

A fine estate certainly elevated a man in a lady’s estimation. Take this passage in Mansfield Park, written from Mary Crawford’s point of view:

Tom Bertram must have been thought pleasant, indeed, at any rate; he was the sort of young man to be generally liked, his agreeableness was of the kind to be oftener found agreeable than some endowments of a higher stamp, for he had easy manners, excellent spirits, a large acquaintance, and a great deal to say; and the reversion of Mansfield Park, and a baronetcy, did no harm to all this. Miss Crawford soon felt that he and his situation might do. She looked about her with due consideration,and found almost everything in his favour, a park, a real park, five miles round, a spacious modern-built house, so well placed and well screened as to deserve to be in any collection of engravings of gentlemen’s seats in the kingdom, and wanting only to be completely new furnished—pleasant sisters, a quiet mother, and an agreeable man himself—with the advantage of being tied up from much gaming at present, by a promise to his father, and of being Sir Thomas hereafter. ” – Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

(It is to Mary’s credit that, after this consideration, she prefered Edmund, the younger son, until she discovered that he intended to become a man of the cloth, and even then she did not give him up so easily.)

Visitors arriving at a landed estate took a circuitous route to the house along winding paths that were designed to show the grounds to their best advantage. They would pass through wooded areas and open fields, past lakes and rivers and herds of deer or cattle, and through a controlled wilderness area.

“The idea with Brownian landscapes is that you effectively go round them,” explains Mowl. “When [Capability] Brown did his landscape designs they would always have drives in them. They were an essential part of what he would do.” – The English Landscape Garden

Witton approach from Norwich, 1801, Humphrey Repton Red Book. Image @University of Florida Rare Book Collection

Groundskeepers of extensive parks that featured winding drives and a variety of formal and ornamental gardens employed several means of keeping grass under control. Grazing sheep and cattle represented the first lines of defense. These herds were allowed to roam over vast expanses of land. Eighteenth-century romantic sensibility required that nothing as obviously artificial as a visible fence be allowed to contain them.

Highclere Castle is surrounded by park land designed by Capability Brown. Grazing sheep in the foreground.

A landscape feature called a Ha-Ha prevented grazing herds from coming too close to the house. The Ha-Ha, which consisted of a deep trench abutting a wall and which was hidden from casual view even at a short distance, allowed for the naturalistic features of romantic landscape gardening to take hold.

The Ha-Ha prevented grazing animals from crossing from one area of the estate to another. Image © John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College

A Ha-Ha was so named because, as the myth goes, this landscape feature was so well hidden that an unsuspecting visitor would blurt out “ha-ha!” before falling into the trench.  This cross section shows how the system worked.

The trenches of a Ha-Ha could sometimes be 8 feet deep.The primary view is from the right and the barrier created by the ha-ha becomes invisible from that direction and sometimes from both directions, unless close to the trench. Image @Wikipedia

Not all Ha-Ha’s prevented deer, sheep, or cattle from grazing up to the front of the house (though considering their droppings, one would thinks that this would be highly preferred.) At Petworth, the Ha-Ha was placed at the side of the house.

Petworth with Ha-Ha on the side of the house. Image @The English Landscape Garden

Built at the edge of a pleasure grounds surrounding a house, the ha-aha made a virtually invisible barrier that kept the cows and sheep in their pastures yet allowed uninterrupted views from house into park of from park into distant countryside. It meant that pleasure grounds, park and landscape could seamlessly become one. It is probably French in origin. Charles Bridgeman is generally credited with it’s introduction, but the first remnants of a ha-ha had already been installed at Levens Hall in Cumbria in 1689. – Architessica: Gardens and Landscapes

The transitional area between the formal gardens and the large park surrounding the house was known as the wilderness. This area was as meticulously planned as the other areas of the estate, but here the plantings were more irregular and included native plants and trees; gravel walkways; a pond, lake or river or all three; waterfalls; lawns that resembled meadows; and areas where the vistas were framed to deliberately look natural. If cottages and villages were required to be moved to achieve this picturesque effect, then so be it. The master’s will was done.

In Pride and Prejudice 1995, Elizabeth Bennet and Lady Catherine de Bourgh conduct their heated discussion in Longbourn’s “wilderness”. No grazing required here.

These wilderness areas were unique to topography and region, for each estate was uniquely different.

Nature in Herefordshire is not like nature in Lancashire and the garden style that tries to emulate the same form everywhere (particularly
one imported from another country entirely) is destroying what Pope had called the genius loci.” – (Wildness in the English Garden Tradition: A Reassessment of the Picturesque from Environmental Philosophy Author(s): Isis Brook Reviewed work(s): Source: Ethics and the Environment, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Spring, 2008), pp. 105-119)

This plan of Paca Garden in Annapolis, MD, shows the formal gardens separated from the park by a wilderness area with pond, bridge, and follies. Image (a) Creating a Period Garden

Walking along a wilderness provided one with an endless variety of aesthetic experiences. Paths wended their way through woods that opened up to vistas. Large trees provided shelter for a bench or revealed moss growing on gnarly roots. Rivers, ponds, follies, and bridges provided natural sources of visual patterns. They were pleasant places to visit:

 A ‘pleasant place’ is supposed to be naturally crafted. It’s a balance between two opposites: wanting to cultivate the land and letting it grow freely.  However landscapers and architects finally accomplish this goal, the product always ends up being a beautiful oxymoron. – Landscape as Amenity

Chawton House grounds. One of the vistas from a gravel path. Image @Tony Grant

The exercise of walking along a wilderness ground was both visually and physically stimulating. These wilderness areas took years to design and arrange, with large trees moved from one area to another, buildings demolished or transported, and hillsides lowered or raised to “improve” the view.

Moving a full grown tree into place, Hayes, 1794

Such improvements, as they were generally known, required meticulous planning and strenuous effort. Master landscape gardeners like Lancelot “Capability” Brown and  Humphry Repton became household names. Jane Austen knew about such efforts and their resulting changes:

Mr. Rushworth, however, though not usually a great talker, had still more to say on the subject next his heart. “Smith has not much above a hundred acres altogether, in his grounds, which is little enough, and makes it more surprising that the place can have been so improved. Now, at Sotherton, we have a good seven hundred, without reckoning the water meadows; so that I think, if so much could be done at Compton, we need not despair. There have been two or three fine old trees cut down that grew too near the house, and it opens the prospect amazingly, which makes me think that Repton, or anybody of that sort, would certainly have the avenue at Sotherton down; the avenue that leads from the west front to the top of the hill, you know,” turning to Miss Bertram particularly as he spoke. But Miss Bertram thought it most becoming to reply—

“The avenue! Oh! I do not recollect it. I really know very little of Sotherton.”

Fanny, who was sitting on the other side of Edmund, exactly opposite Miss Crawford, and who had been attentively listening, now looked at him, and said, in a low voice—

“Cut down an avenue! What a pity! Does it not make you think of Cowper ?’ Ye fallen avenues, once more I mourn your fate unmerited.'”

He smiled as he answered, ” I am afraid the avenue stands a bad chance, Fanny.”

“I should like to see Sotherton before it is cut down, to see the place as it is now, in its old state , but I do not suppose I shall.” – Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

Sir Humphrey Repton, Whiton (Before) Image @British Architecture

Sir Humphry Repton left a valuable legacy with his Red Books. It was his habit to sketch before and after landscapes for his customers and present the drawings to them bound in red covers. His improvements for Whiton are subtle but important. Two parallel streams have been turned into a serpentine lake with a waterfall at one end. The distant fields provide a focal point with artfully arranged trees. If you look closely at the gravel path on the left, you can spy a gardener.

Sir Humphrey Repton, Whiton (After). Image @British Architecture

The samples below of Ferney Hall from The Morgan Library and Museum show the before and after drawing of an improved vista in which, using Jane Austen’s words, ” a prospect was opened”.

Ferney Hall by Repton. Image @The Morgan Library

The after image provides a glimpse of a folly. Instead of acting as a barrier, the woods give way to the scene, which provides a pleasant stopping point for the wanderer to sit and view. While such scenes looked natural, they were not.

Ferney Hall, After, by Repton. Image @The Morgan Library

Though visually the wild and the domestic were one is the same, “these were carefully managed scenes, designed to look natural, but actually contrived on a vast scale” – Landscape as Amenity

The wilderness was designed some distance from the house. Approaching closer, the visitor would see a more formal arrangement of fountains and shrubbery and mazes and flower gardens.

Chawton House: View from the wilderness towards the house and more formal plantings. Image @Tony Grant

The gentlemen who had these gardens designed for them had all been on the Grand Tour and learned the classics,” says Timothy Mowl of the University of Bristol. “It was part of their make-up and they wanted to display their taste and learning within gardens.” – The English Landscape Garden

Wrest Park, Bedfordshire. Image @The Telegraph UK

Landscape designs informed the process of maintaining the grounds. Large estates employed many gardeners to keep cricket and croquet fields in pristine condition, cultivate the ornamental and kitchen gardens, and oversee the orchards and hot houses. The question is: How did they do it?

Extensive gardens surrounding Wrest House in Bedfordshire. Wrest Park Gardens are spread over 150 acres (607,000 m²) near Silsoe, Bedfordshire, and were originally laid out in the early 18th century, probably by George London and Henry Wise for Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent, then modified by Capability Brown in a more informal landscape style, without sacrificing the parterres. Image from The Leisure Guide

As mentioned before, the first line of defense was allowing herds of sheep and cattle to graze. However, their by-products left something to be desired. (If anyone has ever walked through a cow pasture, they will know what I mean.)

English Garden at Leeds: Artfully contrived to look both contained and natural. Image @Landscape Into Land

Lawn mowing and ornamental landscaping held no particular interest to 99% of the people who lived during the Georgian era. Cottagers and town dwellers maintained small plots of vegetable gardens and laborers worked in the fields, using scythes to cut wheat and grain for their employers.

18th century method for harvesting grain with scythes. Image @Our Ohio

The laborers wielding scythes in the above image provide a clue to how grass was clipped – using a smooth, well-rehearsed motion, they worked in teams to cover large areas of ground. Their labor was cheap and they followed a system that included working in the morning when the ground was still damp.

Mowing Clover, late 19th c., by Arthur Verey

To prepare the lawn for scything, a gardener would:

“pole” the lawn first (swishing a long whippy stick across the grass to remove wormcasts) and … roll the ground to firm it and set the blades of grass in a uniform direction.” – Notes and Queries, The Guardian UK

19th Century Coalbrookdale Roller. Rolling the lawn tamped down the grass and seed, and promoted growth and strong roots. Image @jardinique.co.uk

The secret to maintaining a close-cropped lawn was to trim it frequently, about once a week. Lawn edges were best trimmed with sheep shearing clippers.

This gardening family is using shears, a rake, and a scythe in their cottage garden.

The grass was kept free of daisies with an instrument named a daisy grubber, which is the long-handled instrument with angled pick in the image below. Daisy grubbers are still sold today, as they apparently do the job well.

Dibbles and daisy grubber. Image @Garden History -Tools the Dibble

Dibbles were used to dig holes in the ground to plant seeds or bulbs, pry up roots, or jab weeds out between bricks and stone.

18th century gardener taking direction from a landscape designer. Note the man pruning the tree.

Even with these instruments, maintaining these large gardens took intensive labor. One can just imagine how much work was involved in protecting tender plants from insects and marauders, early frosts, and dry spells; and forcing exotic fruits and vegetables to grow out of season in hot houses.

Engelbrecht. 18th century German print of gardening – planting.

While improvements were made over the course of the 19th century, some customs remained the same:

“rich people used to show their wealth by the size of their bedding-plant list: 10,000 plants for a squire; 20,000 for a baronet; 30,000 for an earl and 50,000 for a duke. ” – Ernest Fields, Life in the Victorian Country House by Pamela Horn, p. 75.

Engelbrecht’s plate of an 18th century gardener working with flowers

Landed owners showed off their wealth through a variety of means, including the number of servants they employed.

Master and mistress in discussion with the head gardener

It was not unusual for a great estate to employ 60 – 100 gardeners. There was the full-time staff, consisting of a master gardener, who had begun his apprenticeship as a boy, and his assistants.

Pruning

Scottish gardeners were preferred, as it was thought that they had received the best training. Unmarried apprentice gardeners moved from estate to estate in order to gain experience and be promoted.

Dungbarrow

Junior staff worked long hours, around 60 hours a week, for, in addition to their gardening duties, they had to maintain the temperatures in glassed-in conservatories and meticulously care for archery, cricket, bowling and croquet lawns.

Woman using a rake

The master gardener hired local labor seasonally to help during peak times, so the number of laborers fluctuated.

The head gardener at the Thornham estate in Sussex at the end of the 19th century. Image by kitchen915

18th century garden cart and basket

With improvements in gardening equipment, including the invention of the lawn mower in 1830 by Edwin Beard Budding, machines began to take over the hard work of the scythe men.

First lawnmower invented by Edwin Beard Budding. Image @The Chronicle of Andrew Jackson, Wikispaces

I imagined a Regency gentleman pushing one in his regalia, and found this wonderful advertisement. After Budding’s initial invention, a variety of lawn mowers were invented, each improving on the other.

Mowing a lawn in 1832. Credit: Ann Ronan Picture Library / Heritage Images

Needless to say, large areas of lawn needed a more efficient method of keeping the grasses trimmed. As the 19th century progressed, horses were employed to pull large lawn mowing machines.

Horse pulling a lawn mower. Image @The Cultural Landscape Foundation

They wore special leather over shoes to protect fragile lawns, such as those shown in the image below.

This short video on YouTube demonstrates how 18th century gardeners dealt with sudden cold snaps.

More on the topic:

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“Now, Edward,” said [Marianne], calling his attention to the prospect, “here is Barton valley. Look up it, and be tranquil if you can. Look at those hills! Did you ever see their equals? To the left is Barton park, amongst those woods and plantations. You may see one end of the house. And there, beneath that farthest hill, which rises with such grandeur, is our cottage.”

“It is a beautiful country,” he replied; “but these bottoms must be dirty in winter.”

“How can you think of dirt, with such objects before you?”

“Because,” replied he, smiling, “among the rest of the objects before me, I see a very dirty lane.”

“How strange!” said Marianne to herself as she walked on.

“Have you an agreeable neighbourhood here? Are the Middletons pleasant people?”

“No, not at all,” answered Marianne, “we could not be more unfortunately situated.”

Country lane, Barry Lyndon

I had the leisure of viewing Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon the other day, I say leisure, for the film is over three hours long and I took the opportunity to pull images. These two stills of country roads reminded me forcibly of the difference between Marianne’s histrionic behavior in Sense and Sensibility and Edward’s reactions during a time when both characters are experiencing extreme disappointment in their love lives.

Marianne has completely given over to her emotions after Willoughby departs, and Edward struggles to hold up his chin, knowing he is in love with Elinor but is bound by his engagement to Lucy Steele. His view of the landscape is utilitarian. He sees none of the sweep of grandeur and only the practical aspects of the scene below and can only imagine it in the winter, when roads are rutted and muddy. Throughout Sense and Sensibility, Marianne expresses picturesque point of views. In this scene in particular, she also demonstrates her youth and immaturity, giving Edward a churlish answer about their new neighbors, which, while perhaps  true, the sensible Elinor would never admit.

William Gilpin was instrumental in promoting the Romantic picturesque movement, which defines an aesthetic sensibility of a charming or quaint scene. Marianne Dashwood, whose personality tends towards the melodramatic, embraces the fashion for the picturesque ideal, whereas both Elinor Dashwood and Edward Ferrars represent a more practical viewpoint which depends less on the sublime and relies more on what their experiences and restrained personalities tell them to feel.

Gilpin's watercolor shows how best to achieve a picturesque effect through the clumping of trees.*

The following quote about William Gilpin’s influence on this new aesthetic movement is from the aptly titled, Penny cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, Volumes 11-12, Charles Knight, London, 1838, p. 222:

But Mr Gilpin was a person of a remarkably refined taste, as is evinced by writings of his, of a class entirely distinct from those we have enumerated. These are his volumes in which he has illustrated, both by his pencil and his pen, the picturesque beauty of some parts of England, and generally the principles of beauty in landscape. The first of these works was published in 1790 in two volumes 8 vo; it was entitled Observations relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty, made in the year 76 in several parts of Great Britain, particularly the Highlands of Scotland. This was followed by two other volumes of the same character, the greater part of them relating to the lake country of Cumberland and Westmoreland. Two volumes more on Forest Scenery succeeded. Besides these there are his Essays on Picturesque Beauty, Picturesque Travels, and the Art of Sketching Landscapes; Observations on the River Wye; and Picturesque Remarks on the Western parts of England. These form a body of works which were well received by the public at the times of their appearance, and which are now gathered into the libraries of the tasteful and the curious, so that copies rarely present themselves for public sale.”

The picturesque ideal expressed itself in literature, poetry, and paintings, and its influence could still be felt in the romantic paintings that depicted the natural beauty of America’s vast landscapes, such as the Hudson River School of painting.

Excellent posts about the topic are found in the following blogs:

*William Gilpin, How to Clump Trees, Bodlein Library

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Writer Michelle Ann Young has been writing about flora & fauna in the Regency world in her informative blog, Regency Ramble. If you wonder what Jane Austen’s natural world was like during her countryside rambles, click here to read Ms. Young’s posts on the subject.

“Broom flowers in this month.” I often get gorse and broom confused. They both sport yellow flowers, but gorse if very prickly and flowers earlier in the spring. Broom is a much more gentle plant. It was used in the old days as an emblem or a cockade, worn on a lapel or a hat.

If I may add my personal observation, gorse and broom are considered pest plants today. I wonder if they were in Jane Austen’s time?

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Mrs. Digweed returned yesterday through all the afternoon’s rain, and was of course wet through, but in speaking of it she never once said “it was beyond everything,” which I am sure it must have been.

Jane to Anna Austen Lefroy, June 23, 1816

Jane Austen’s last summer before she died was a miserable one in terms of weather. Popularly known as “The Year Without a Summer,” 1816’s unusual weather pattern began half a world away. On April 1815, Mount Tambora erupted on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa. There had been a great deal of volcanic activity in the region between 1812 and 1817, but the gigantic eruption that blew the mountain’s top off on April 12th, 1815 spewed an enormous amount of volcanic debris into the upper atmosphere, blocking the sun with tiny particles of dust and affecting global temperatures.
After a major explosion, volcanic gas and dust remain in the upper atmosphere. These particulates are then steadily spread around the globe by winds. A catastrophic volcanic event, even a minor one, is “enough to delay the arrival of spring thaws, enough to project killing frosts into the growing season, and enough to shorten the growing window.” (Wickens)

That year the British experienced the third coldest summer since records were kept in 1659. Crops failed in SW England, and the price of rye and wheat rose, which resulted in food riots. An epidemic of typhus broke out in SE Europe, killing between 10,000-100,000 people, depending on which account one chose to believe.

What was Jane Austen’s reaction to the third worst summer weather in recorded history? She barely seemed to notice, although my observation may be off since many of her letters were destroyed by Cassandra and other members of her family. Jane made no unusual mention of the climate in the surviving letters of that year. Perhaps for an Englishwoman a few more days of wet, miserable, and cold weather were nothing to write home about. Still, it is disheartening to know that during the last full summer of her short life, Jane experienced unusually cool temperatures all through the season. She had already begun the downward spiral in health that would lead to her death. The dreary climate could only have added to her flagging energy and general sense of malaise.

  • Find out more about this event in this article: 1816- The Year Without a Summer: An Overview of the Eruption of Mount Tambora, by Simon Wickens.
  • Illustration: The Squall, James Gillray, 1808, Princeton University Library Collection

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