Sunday, 30 August 2009

Redefining the Landscape

With nothing much sorted for the bank holiday weekend, my partner suggested a trip out to Halesowen, near Dudley in the West Midlands, to see an area of parkland known as The Leasowes. This rather wild landscape of woodland, lakes and streams (now bordered by a golf club) was first laid out by the poet William Shenstone (pictured left) between 1743 and 1763, and is a very important piece of land in terms of the its influence on 18th-century landscape gardening.

Shenstone inherited The Leasowes (pronounced 'lezzoes') in the early 1740s; it had previously been a small grazing farm, but Shenstone admitted to being a poor farmer, and instead set about turning it into an artfully sculpted 'natural' landscape - something he called 'ferme ornée' (ornamented farm). Before Shenstone, the fashion was for formal garden designs, but driven by a combination of literary imagination and lack of money, Shenstone abandoned formality and set about introducing pools and cascades, constructing temples, ruins and seats, and planting trees and shrubbery. The locals were a bit confused to see shrubs on a farm, and many - believing them to have special qualities - dug them up repeatedly!

The Leasowes was a destination that attracted much interest during Shenstone's lifetime and was hugely influential on garden design in general. When you consider our recent tour of the Shugborough Estate with its park ornaments, you can see how ahead of his time Shenstone was with his essentially romantic conception of a picturesque landscape (later in the century you see this develop through works such as Edmund Burke's Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful).

After his death - partly thanks to Robert Dodsley, who published a kind of tourist guide to the circuit path called A Description of The Leasowes - Shenstone's ferme ornée became one of Europe's celebrated destinations, with visitors such as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, John Wesley and Samuel Johnson. Today The Leasowes is Grade I listed and on English Heritage's Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England.

We didn't have Dodsley's guide, but we did manage to get Dudley Council's leaflet (downloadable as a pdf from this page), which contained a decent map of the area and a bit of historic background. We entered the park via the golf course and emerged near to Priory Pool (pictured at the top of the page).

Thanks to the existence of engravings, maps, written descriptions produced by 19th-century visitors to The Leasowes and William Shenstone's own paintings, there's quite a bit of information about what structures Shenstone erected around the park; for example, it's known that beside Priory Pool he built an ornamental ruined Priory (possibly with stone from Halesowen Abbey), part of which served as a modest dwelling for his gardener. Elsewhere was a temple to Pan, whose entrance was marked by holly bushes (holly has run wild across the whole area but you can still see the thick growth which suggests the entrance to the temple).

As Shenstone wrote in a letter in 1743: 'My favourite scheme is a poem, in blank verse, upon Rural Elegance, including cascades, temples, grottos, hermitages, greenhouses... The next, running upon planting, & c. will end with a vista terminated by an old abbey.'

The picture above is taken in the most famous part of the park, Virgil's Grove, which in Shenstone's day was a grassy vale in a wooded valley containing a stream surrounded by yew trees and an obelisk dedicated to Virgil. Prominent visitors included the Lytteltons of Hagley, William Pitt and James Thomson; it was intended to be gloomy and melancholic (locals still wryly call this part of the walk ‘the dark half-hour’) and what you can see peeping through the trees is the cascade and stone grotto. The grotto has been the subject of some recent restoration and there's also work underway to help return the woodland to its original 1740s layout.

Above is the chalybeate spring, which has a bright orange colour thanks to the iron-rich rocks. Shenstone encouraged visitors to drink from it, though when he developed ill health people were quick to blame the spring (this was nonsense; chemical analysis has shown the water to be completely harmless). Finally, we passed a dam and Beechwater (see both pictures below) and entered the grassy glade known as Lovers' Walk, which originally contained an urn dedicated to Shenstone's cousin who died of smallpox at the age of 21.

We ended our walk on Shenstone's High Terrace, which affords a fantastic view over the whole area (below).

While Shenstone has clearly 'managed' the landscape, it still feels as if nature has been preserved rather than bounded by formality. Following a visit to The Leasowes with the Thrales in 1777, even Dr Johnson (who had been critical of Shenstone in his Lives of the Poets) had to admit that: 'with such judgment and such fancy [Shenstone has] made his little domain the envy of the great, and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers'.

Colour photographs © Memoirs of the Celebrated Mrs Woffington.
Shenstone portrait: Wikimedia Commons

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