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«Landscape and Identity: Baby Talk at the Leasowes, 1760 Author(s): John Archer Source: Cultural Critique, No. 51 (Spring, 2002), pp. 143-185 ...»

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Landscape and Identity: Baby Talk at the Leasowes, 1760

Author(s): John Archer

Source: Cultural Critique, No. 51 (Spring, 2002), pp. 143-185

Published by: University of Minnesota Press

Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1354639

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AT 1760 John Archer


I havelost my roadto happiness, confess;

I and, insteadof pursuingthe way to thefine lawnsand venerable oakswhichdistinguishthe regionof it, I am got into thepitifulparterre-garden amusement, view the noblerscenes and of at a distance. I thinkI can see the roadtoo that leadsthe betterway, and can shew it others;but I havemanymiles to measure backbefore can get into it I and no kindof resolution takea single step.My chiefamusements to myself, at presentare thesametheyhavelong been,and lie scattered aboutmy farm.

TheFrenchhavewhat theycall a parque orn6e;I suppose,approaching aboutas nearto a gardenas theparkat Hagley.I give my placethe title of a ferme ornee; though,if I hadmoney,I shouldhardlyconfinemyselfto such decorations that namerequires. havemadegreatimprovements; the as I

–  –  –

a few years into the project that would occupy him Only another decade and a half until his death in 1763, poet William Shenstone penned the above lament to his close friend Richard Graves in

1748.1 But in contrast to his closing plea, Shenstone soon did not want for visitors to the landscape garden he was constructing adjacent to his house at the Leasowes, an 89-acre estate about six miles west of Birmingham in the English Midlands. By the 1750s the Leasowes had become a place of some renown, attracting visitors from home and Cultural Critique51-Spring 2002-Copyright 2002 Regents of the Universityof Minnesota | JOHN ARCHER abroad. Soon after Shenstone's death numerous guidebooks were published in response to the demands of tourists, both ambulatory and armchair, for aid in appreciating the site.

Visitors' accounts naturally extolled the natural and architectural beauties of the Leasowes, but they also suggest that the site was more than just the simple aesthetic object of regard that a modernday visitor might seek, or a stage set for theatrical display of the owner's tastes and allegiances of the sort that prevailed on aristocratic estates in the decades before Shenstone's time. Joseph Heely, author of several guidebook accounts of the Leasowes, instead portrayed perambulation of the circuit walk as a private, necessarily autonomous experience, at one point characterizing it as a "solitary maze." Shenstone's friend Richard Graves similarly referred to the Leasowes as well suited to a hermit.2 Equally telling is the midcentury love letter excerpted above.3 Written circa 1760 by Thomas Hull, a friend of Shenstone, it employed the landscape of the Leasowes as a site on which he played out the course of an intimate encounter with the woman to whom the letter was addressed. Shepherding his love from one point to another along the circuit walk, assisting her over ostensibly treacherous ground, displaying a masterful knowledge of literature, history, and art, addressing her in language that predicated intimacy through baby talk, and ultimately proposing a suggestively private rest in a cozy bower, Hull's epistolary persona openly exploited the landscape as a means for engaging and exciting deep-seated passions. Heely, Graves, and Hull all expressed confidence in a new instrumentality for landscape: its capacity to serve as a site for private engagement with matters of personal and intimate concern.

The Leasowes has achieved comparable renown among modern historians of landscape, though a propensity to focus on matters of iconography, style, and typology-cued in part by Shenstone's own reference to a ferme ornee-has left a host of other considerations comparatively neglected. One such concern is anticipated in Shenstone's first words above. The matter of his landscape garden is introduced by a pointed anxiety over his own happiness, the attainment of which is cast in terms of pursuing a "road" to and through a variety of landscape types. As the discussion below unfolds, it will become evident that Shenstone's epistolary uses here of road and garden, tying AND IDENTITY | 145


notions of life-journey to the experience of landscape, bespeak a nascent strategy for getting out of his "pitiful" state of "amusement."

Indeed, the focus of the letter, tying questions of personal happiness and private activity to landscape design, implies an expectation that the material environment, appropriately shaped and fashioned, has the potential to address and engage such problematics of the self. By laying out his estate architecturally and horticulturally as a series of objects and stations concatenated in a linear sequence along a circuit path, each designed to cue certain ideas, memories, or feelings, Shenstone afforded himself a ready itinerary replete with orchestrated opportunities for intellectual, emotional, and physical engagement. Over forty of these points of engagement are shown on a contemporary plan, including the ruins of a former priory, a bower bearing an inscription of Virgilian verse, a seat bearing an inscription dedicated to a

–  –  –

friend, a Gothic alcove, and well-framed vistas of distant and historic promontories such as the Wrekin. Each afforded pointed and poignant opportunities to dwell on concerns such as heritage, friendship, and happiness, and to do so from a private and solitary perspective.

Such a physical orchestration of the Leasowes according to an explicit set of pathways, leading through a variety of distinct landscape settings and past numerous architectural, sculptural, and literary compositions, was central to the new instrumentality of landscape that Heely, Graves, and Hull all soon recognized. Such an arrangement necessitated the simultaneous engagement of the visitor's physical, intellectual, and emotional faculties while touring the garden. For example, the physical exhilaration felt upon emerging into an open meadow after a steep climb through a dark wood was met by statuary whose mythological associations would complement, confirm, and enhance that exhilaration. Responses would be all the more pointed as Shenstone plied the itinerary himself, encountering objects and inscriptions that bore an explicit connection to his personal life. Touring the landscape, in other words, entailed exercise that engaged mind and body together in addressing from an individual perspective such personal matters as happiness, friendship, desire, mortality, and heritage.

To raise such matters was nothing new; Alexander Pope's garden at Twickenham, for example, was well known in Shenstone's time.4 But doing so via a series of solitary encounters, sequenced in a linear circuit-walk landscape, was original. The evolution of new and often challenging notions of identity, self, and autonomy in Enlightenment political discourse and capitalist economics had set the stage for the accelerated growth of England's industrial and mercantile economy in the first half of the eighteenth century, as well as the rapid growth of a flourishing bourgeoisie. By the same token, such factors also posed an increasingly complex problematic for those bourgeois individuals as they sought suitable terms in which to articulate and realize this emerging, distinctly modern form of personhood. In this context, Shenstone's private circuit walk at the Leasowes-along with the handful of circuit-walk landscapes undertaken from the early 1740s to the early 1760s by other English bourgeois gentlemen-can be seen as more than just another stage in the evolution of landscape taste and fashion. Rather, in this examination of Shenstone's LANDSCAPEAND IDENTITY | 147 work at the Leasowes, I am focusing on one figure who, engaged with the challenges and opportunities posed by bourgeois selfhood and autonomy, employed the domestic landscape as an instrumental medium in which to explore them.

As the essay unfolds below, I will be exploring ways in which the innovative qualities of this landscape and the ways in which it was used both embrace and refract some of the most dynamic currents in eighteenth-century British culture. These range from evolving notions of privacy, property, gender, and domesticity to complex shifts in understanding the production of the self. In larger terms, I am also interested in the general question of how built space-architecture, landscape, urban space, and so on-serves not only to define and police existing social relations, but also in times of change serves as an exploratory and experimental genre for addressing new problems and challenges; this is the light in which I am approaching the work of one bourgeois gentleman in his landscape at the Leasowes.


It has long been recognized that eighteenth-century England was a principal stage for the development of modern social, economic, and political structures-articulated in considerable measure through emerging notions of private property, of labor as property of the individual, and of economic prosperity as the realization of individuals' self-interest. Implications of this growing emphasis on the private individual extended in profound ways to all spheres of society.5 Capitalism, for example, required the devaluation of systems of social hierarchy and state authority in favor of understanding society as comprised of individuals fully sovereign over themselves, who were at liberty (indeed, increasingly obligated)to articulate their own identities in terms of class, gender, education, taste, occupation, nationality, and other socially variable criteria. Property, in turn-newly defined as that which one could individually "possess" by virtue of one's labor-became an essential instrument for this exercise of personal liberty.6 Implicit, and sometimes explicit, in these structural shifts were profound changes and challenges to one's personal understanding of self and identity.

148 | JOHNARCHER Western thought has wrestled with the political and existential implications of such personal autonomy ever since, but I want to remain focused on initial, eighteenth-century responses that were executed in a material form. Specifically, I am interested in examining the means by which landscape-part of the material environment in which we physically exist, and which we shape in order to articulate and regulate our existence-became instrumental to the fabrication of solutions to the shifting problematics of personal identity. In particular, I am exploring here the rise of a discrete type of private landscape garden in mid-eighteenth-century England, the circuit-walk garden, as a response to that problematics.

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