I recently attended a lecture (on Zoom of course!) about Thomas Gainsborough and his connection to the English landscape. Many people will be familiar with his portraits, but the landscapes in the background are not always commented on so widely, unless it is the painting of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews, which seems to be the subject of a huge range of interpretations (not all repeatable in a horticultural blog perhaps).
The 18th century was a period of great upheaval – the South Sea Bubble burst in 1720 triggering a financial panic; in 1721 the country had its first prime minister in Sir Robert Walpole; in 1739 Britain declared war on Spain; in 1745 Bonnie Prince Charlie landed in Scotland to claim the British throne; in 1756 the Seven Years war between Britain and France began; there was unrest both in America and at home and throughout this period, there was a Hanoverian king. It is all too easy to forget that two of the great names associated with landscape architecture, William Kent and Lancelot Brown, were working against this background, with Brown finding little favour with the ordinary person by uprooting and moving whole villages when they stood in the way of his designs.
It is also no coincidence that Brown, Kent and their peers were creating landscapes which came to be seen as quintessentially English. Reacting against the formality of the classic gardens which were inspired by those on the continent and France in particular, they designed gardens that were intended to reflect the ‘sinuous curves’ of the English countryside. Ironically, Brown, who never travelled outside the shores of his home island, was inspired by the paintings of French artists such as Poussin.
In the background of Gainsborough’s paintings, this same concern with the natural is evident. Even in his most famous portraits, for example the one of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the actress Perdita. Both show an English landscape populated by English trees, most commonly the oak.
Duchess of Devonshire, Thomas Gainsborough
Mrs. Mary Robinson (Perdita) Thomas Gainsborough
Apparently, as Gainsborough was not a ‘plein air’ artist, in order to remind himself of the shape of the oak he would arrange stems of sprouting broccoli in front of his easel!
This tension between what is an English garden and what is from mainland Europe has influenced garden design throughout history.
With the RHS encouraging people to plant a tree in their Roots for Remembrance, a nationwide memorial initiative, it seems an appropriate time to think about the role of the oak in English landscape culture.
Vija, Feb 2021