Faced with her sister Jane’s eager inquiries about when her initial coldness towards Mr. Darcy gave way to more tender feelings in Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet mulls it over for a moment before answering: “It has been coming on so gradually, that I hardly know when it began. But I believe I must date it from my first seeing his beautiful grounds at Pemberley.” The grounds, the reader infers, were a reflection of their owner’s character.

As one would expect, Jane Austen’s figures show up repeatedly in the gentle landscapes examined in Kate Felus’s charming The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden, as does Austen herself whom we find picnicking neat and businesslike in Godmersham Park in Kent “with a basket of Bread and Cheese & a bottle of Water, some books & work & Paper and Pencil.”1

The all-important figure was Lancelot Brown.

Garden design under the Hanoverians was a case in art history in which the British led rather than followed the dictates of the continent, dispensing with the geometric tyranny of the walled baroque garden with its straight avenues and poodle-trimmed evergreens: the French called the result le Jardin Anglais, writes Felus, and “it was imitated from colonial America to imperial Russia,” from Marie Antoinette’s Petit Hameau at Versailles to Catherine the Great’s Tsarskoye Selo outside St. Petersburg.

While earlier architects such as Vanbrugh and Bridgeman had experimented with the use of the ha-ha, the sunken wall, says Felus, it was William Kent, the head gardener at Stowe, who first “leapt the fence and saw all nature is a garden,” in Horace Walpole’s words. But the all-important figure was Lancelot Brown, who, as the leading designer of his day worked at more than two-hundred sites totaling some half a million acres, writes Felus: “It is not much of an exaggeration to say that he transformed the face of the English countryside.”

The Georgian park landscape consisted not just of trees, lawns, and water: strewn across it were so called “eyecatchers,” in the form of temples and ruins, the effect of which in the words of Brown’s self-appointed inheritor Humphry Repton was to “appropriate” the grounds to the manor.

Though inspired by Claude Lorrain’s and Nicolas Poussin’s idealized versions of the Roman countryside with their discreet temples and ruins, the British were more diverse in their tastes, notes Felus: along with the classical temples, ruins, and grottoes came gothic towers, colorful Turkish tents, and Chinese pagodas.

Kenneth Clark in Civilisation was the first to point out the importance of the Georgian contribution to art history, notes Felus, which was followed by a slew of books on the subject, among them Tim Williamson’s aptly titled The Polite Landscape.

But very little has been written on how the eyecatchers were actually used, which Felus sets out to rectify by describing the kind of activities that might occur throughout the day in a Georgian garden, elegantly supported by illustrations by Zoffany, Devis, Stubbs, Rawlinson, and Sandby, the last of whom Gainsborough considered the expert when it came to producing “real Views from Nature in this Country.”

During this period, the idea of the house party in the country was born,” writes Felus who traces the tradition back to Robert Walpole, the nation’s de facto first Prime Minister, and his “congresses” at Houghton Hall in Norfolk, where he would butter up his political allies.

And what would be more natural than for a proud owner to take his guests for a morning carriage spin of his property, heading for vantage points, and “contrive improvement” of his grounds. As Felus notes, the Georgians were inveterate tinkerers with the landscape. Assessing the landscape’s “capabilities,” was just what Brown was expert at—hence his nickname which, notes Felus, was never used to his face and only achieved wide currency after his death.

Thus Lady Ansom describes an inspection tour of Moor Park, the newly acquired Hertfordshire estate of her husband Admiral Anson, on which “Brown [acted the part] of an Artist who scorned to find difficulties in executing any great or beautiful Idea, & made nothing of raising or levelling any spot to the height desired.”

As Felus notes, a kind of circular logic seems to be operating here: “you improve to further enjoy. You further enjoy because you improve.”

“Water,” she says, “is a near essential aesthetic compound of the Georgian designed landscape,” and Brown and his pupils were wizards at creating artificial lakes upon which their noble paymasters could enjoy themselves.

But messing around in boats takes on a new meaning in the Georgian context, ranging from lazing in skiffs and in small sailboats to conducting mock sea battles with scale models of men-of-war as those staged by Sir Francis Dashwood of West Wycombe. Dashwood, who liked to pose as an eastern sultan, is remembered as Hell-Raiser-in-Chief in the outrageous Hellfire Club.

Messing around in boats takes on a new meaning in the Georgian context.

As patriotic celebrations of British naval prowess, writes Felus, such shows were not without risks: a visitor described how one of Dashwood’s battles abruptly ended after one of the captains sailed too close to the mini-fort on the side of the lake, causing him to be hit by a blank round “which occasion’d him to spit blood and so put an end to the battle.”

Water had other uses. Physicians such as George Cheyne in his Essay of Health and Long Life from 1724 had extolled the benefits of cold baths, and the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum had inspired the construction of baths and grottoes on the estates, like the grotto belonging to the banker Henry Hoare, known as Henry the Magnificent, at Stourhead in Wiltshire.

“I had a delicious souse in the cold bath this morning to the tune of French horns playing round me all the while belonging to a company who lay in our inn took advantage of the second view before they decamped,” Hoare writes in a letter and goes on to describe how his eleven-year-old granddaughter Herriot “dives like Di Dapper and there is no keeping her out of the water in this hissing hot weather.” Di Dapper, notes Felus, was a popular name for the little grebe.

But all this hospitality could overwhelm the poor host: “My house is an inn,” Lord Coventry at Croome (Worcestershire) grumbles, blaming “the hospitality my ancestors exercised for some generations at Croome, [which] makes it impossible for me to effect any privacy or retirement.” No wonder, Felus notes, that the poor man created an array of garden buildings to seek refuge in.

Thus garden buildings became ideal places to retire to in the afternoons for a spell of quiet reading or letter writing, like the temple built at Downhill in county Londonderry by the Earl Bishop, i.e., Frederick Hervey, fourth Earl of Bristol and Church of Ireland Bishop of Derry. On the temple, which was modeled on the Temple of Vesta, a 1801 visitor wrote: “The Bishop has built a handsome Grecian temple full of valuable but mouldering books, some on shelves and some piled in disorder on the floor. Since no provision was made for heating it can only be used in the summer months . . . on some occasions the wind on the plateau was so strong that servants could get back to the house only on hands and knees.”

A tad exposed, perhaps: many parks featured a pleasantly secluded garden hermitage, a root house, or a cave like the one Rousseau used at Wootton Hall in Staffordshire when working on his Confessions. To complete the illusion, writes Felus, some came equipped with a wax work contemplative hermit while others employed their very own live specimen. Charles Hamilton at Painhill made his hermit sign a seven-year contract forbidding him to even speak to the servant who brought him food. He lasted only three weeks before he was found deep in his cups in the local tavern.

He lasted only three weeks before he was found deep in his cups in the local tavern.

Such places also came in handy for amorous dalliances: a not exactly subtle satirical cartoon featuring the Earl of Bute, Princess Augusta’s advisor on the botanical gardens at Kew, had the subtitle “A view of Lord Bute’s erections at Kew; with some part of Kew Green and Gardens.”

In Bacchus’s Temple at Stowe, Lord Cobham had used the local vicar Convey Rand, known for his lechery, as the model for the satyr in the wall paintings, while Dido’s Cave became known as the Randibus. And as Felus notes, Hubert Gravelot’s 1742 illustration for Pamela of the summerhouse in front of which our heroine fights off the advances of Mr. B. looks suspiciously like Dido’s Cave at Stowe.

Meanwhile, for the children, the parks must have been Paradise: “Mama told me to write you today and tell you we make ourselves dirty little pigs by digging a pond and she has ordered each of us a pair of trousers to keep our breeches clean. We fish almost every day and I expect two targets to shoot at with bow and arrow. We have some fireworks to let off tomorrow night,” Thomas Robinson wrote to his uncle describing his stay at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, visiting his grandmother Jemima Gray.

Rousseau had encouraged gardening and outdoor activities for children, notes Felus, but wise parents took a selective approach to his writings, ignoring his warning about the pernicious effects of reading on children: They still made their offspring read copiously.

Cricket, quoits, and battledore and shuttlecock were favorite activities, says Felus, which accounts for the many portraits of children holding shuttlecocks. The revival of archery from late 1770 encouraged good posture and showed off a woman’s figure. Rowlinson has a fine drawing of an archery shoot at Hatfield, while a Zoffany painting shows two boys raiding birds’ nests, while a third practices archery.

Angling was another favorite afternoon activity, involving both children and grown ups. Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler, written during the Civil War as a way to escape its horrors, was still widely read, and the sport was so popular that fishing pavilions were built, some combining boating, bathing, and fishing. To accommodate the anglers, the boat house at Enville in Staffordshire, according to a 1777 account, had “a curious sliding window [which] opens to the water, adorned with painted glass in whimsical groups of grotesque figures [and] is certainly very ornamental.”

A Zoffany painting shows the period’s leading actor David Garrick’s garden at Hampton House by the Thames, with Garrick and his wife having tea on fancy furniture, while his brother is fishing, so far without much luck, apparently.

Though the Brits did not go to the extremes of some of their continental imitators, most notably Marie Antoinette and her Petit Hameau, the complete fake village at Versailles where the queen would play at being a shepherdess, their activities do have a distinct Neverland quality to them, says Felus.

The evenings were especially magical. In her diary, Catherine Battie describes a party at Selborne in Hampshire where the participants dressed up as shepherds and shepherdesses: “Having had their fortunes told by the hermit, they went to the garden tent where “we shepherdesses danced; at nine the lamps were lighted, enchanting scene. . . . Oh, never did I see anything like it . . . . ’tis Arcadia Happy, happy vale . . .”

Walpole, the inveterate party animal, likens the scene at Esher Place in Surrey to a Watteau painting: here Walpole and le duc de Nivernois, the French translator of Walpole’s 1780 essay The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening, which celebrates Kent and Brown, were both dancing minuets. “I blush again for I danced, but was kept in countenance by Nivernois, who has one more wrinkle than I have.”

But he also describes a miserable occasion at Stowe, which the participants spent “wrapped up in cloaks and great coats for fear of catching cold . . . . We supped in the grotto which is as proper to this climate, as a sea-coal fire would be in the dog-days at Tivoli.” The musical entertainment was provided by “an ancient militia-man who played cruelly on a squeaking tabor and pipe.”

That wretched militia-man certainly sticks in the mind, but he was scarcely typical of the entertainment put on at the great estates. The rich often hired star performers, such as the Italian castrato Solomusto from the Italian opera. At Exton in Rutland, Handel, a popular country house guest, was promised a relaxing time in June 1745: “Selfishness however prevail’d,” noted a family member, and the great man had to compose for his supper, and the result subsequently performed.

And at great occasions, such as celebrations of military victories or an eldest son coming of age, there were elaborate fireworks. A bill from a firework artist for a party at Croome includes “Chinese Trees of Silver Flowers, Italian Suns, Roman Candles to throw up Blazing Stars, Gold Flower-pots.” Illuminated transparencies and lanterns strung up in the trees were equally popular, inspired by London’s Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens.

It all came together at the Duchess of Northumberland’s “Festino” in June 1762, about which Walpole wrote: “The garden was illuminated and it was quite a fairy scene. Arches and pyramids of lights alternatively surrounded the enclosure; a diamond necklace of lamps edged the rails and descent with a spiral obelisk of candles on each hand; and dispersed over the laws were little bands of kettledrums, clarinets, fifes etc.”—“and the lovely moon, who came without a card.”

Now out of a population of 18 million, 350 noble families may not sound like much, notes Felus, but their garden habits filtered down to middle-class professionals, doctors, and clergymen: in his Norfolk parsonage garden, James Woodforde had created his own mini-version of the big estates, complete with a pea-green wooden temple, from which he would sit and shoot seagulls, and a converted horse pond where he sailed his model boats, one of which, we learn, bore the name Anna.

And the illustrations include the idyllic garden shed belonging to William Cowper’s house, Orchard Side in Olney in Buckinghamshire, which, in the poet’s words, was the size of “a sedan chair.” With a trapdoor in the floor with room for a few bottles, this was where he wrote his poetry during the summer.

Felus’s delightful book is timed to coincide with Brown’s three-hundredth anniversary. Some deplore his role as the destroyer of French formal garden, others his taming of the British countryside. But as any true eighteenth-century admirer will agree, baroque gardens tend to be too regimented, while nature left to its own devices becomes downright messy. Brown and the Georgians got the balance just right: “Nature to advantage dress’d.”


1 The Secret Life of the Georgian Garden, by Kate Felus; I. B. Tauris, 240 pages, $29.