University of Vermont Extension
Department of Plant and Soil Science

News Article 

Landscape Designers of England and Europe

By Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont

Many of our gardens, perhaps even your own, have been influenced by English and European styles of gardening and landscaping. Originating in the beginning of this century, and the few centuries prior, these ideas are often traced to a few key individuals.

Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932) from England, is recognized as the greatest influence in the 20th century on herbaceous gardens. Known for her use of flower and color in garden designs, she used them in woodlands, herbaceous borders, and water gardens. Planned graduations of color are particularly evident in her designs. She wrote about these theories in some of her ten books including Wood and Garden and Colour in the Garden.

A collaborator with Gertrude Jekyll and major influence on her was the landscape designer William Robinson (1839-1935), who is best known for his "natural" design. He valued plants in the garden for their changing forms. He was quite interested in such different gardens as the English kitchen garden (herbs), rock gardens, and woodland gardens. In addition to publishing the weekly magazine The Garden, he wrote several influential books including The English Flower Garden.

There were many influential landscape designers in England in the 18th and 19th centuries, too numerous to mention here, although a couple do deserve a brief mention.

Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1715-1783) designed the great parks and estates for the wealthy in the latter half of the 18th century. He would tell all his clients that their properties had "great capabilities," and so he earned the nickname, "Capability." His influence was so widespread that most areas of England today have at least one landscape designed by Brown. His most famous is perhaps Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill.

Brown is largely responsible for changing the English landscape from a formal design of knot gardens, parterres, and topiaries to informal meandering paths, streams, serpentine lakes, and rolling hills with scattered groupings of trees--a "natural," yet man-made, look. He viewed his landscapes as tastefully improving on nature, yet having some function, some utility. Applauded by many for his new style, he was criticized by others for destroying so many of their prized formal landscapes and plantings.

Although Brown was perhaps the most influential in this revolution in the English landscape, his contemporary William Kent (1685-1748) is often credited as the architect of the fully mature English landscape. Although originally a painter, furniture maker, and later architect, Kent is perhaps best known for his landscapes. Influenced by poets of the time, including his friend Alexander Pope who wrote "all gardening is landscape painting," his landscapes imitated nature.

He viewed all nature as a garden, in contrast to the formal gardens of the period. Classical elements such as temples and grottos often were seen in his landscapes, set among lakes, water cascades, lawns, hills, and woods. His only surviving and unaltered landscape can be found at Rousham in Oxfordshire.

So where did all these formal gardens come from that were opposed by Kent and redesigned by Brown?

Many can be traced back to George London, a horticulturist and landscaper in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Working under various nobles, London came to prominence as a head gardener at the time of William and Mary. Influenced by the French school of formal design, he was responsible for many of the formal and original landscapes of estates in England. One of these, Blenheim Palace, was later redesigned by Capability Brown for a "natural" effect.

In addition to his landscapes, London established Brompton Park Nursery. In this period it was the foremost plant nursery in England, and it is from here that most of the new plants from world explorers at the time were introduced to gardens.

The French formal style, learned by London, is attributed to André Le Nôtre (1613-1700). Known for his very formal and geometrical gardens, Le Nôtre is perhaps best known for his gardens at the Palace of Versailles. This, and all his other landscapes on the very large scale, has a strong central axis, framed vistas, and formal parterres (gardens on various levels). He had the greatest influence of anyone on European landscape design during the 17th and 18th centuries, and has been referred to as "the most copied and celebrated landscape designer in western history."

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