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Charles Bridgeman and the English Landscape Garden

Charles Bridgeman and the English Landscape Garden
Peter Willis
Elysium Press
Publication Date: 

cloth, 505 p., $225.00

First published in 1974 by A. Zwemmer Ltd., this revised book provides additional details about Charles Bridgeman, an 18th-century figure who played an important role in the development of the English school of landscape design and, in particular, on the gardens at Stowe in Buckinghamshire (U.K). Distinguished author Peter Willis, an English architect and architecture historian who has had a variety of academic appointments in universities in Britain and the U.S., has a long acquaintance with his subject, which was the basis of his Ph.D. thesis at Cambridge. In addition to that monograph, in 1975 Willis also edited The Genius of the Place: The English Landscape Garden, 1620-1820, a collection of literary works that seriously affected the changes that took place in design mostly during the 18th century. In this current, heavily annotated edition, the author has included supplementary plates and a catalogue of additional documents, drawings and attributions, creating the most definitive biographical work so far on Charles Bridgeman.

Willis credits Bridgeman as the "unsung pioneer in the establishment of le jardin anglais, that remarkable English invention which was to sweep eighteenth-century Europe." To prove this, he traces Bridgeman’s background, his royal appointments, his circle of friends, fellow artists and the literati who praised his work. Included, too, are descriptions and illustrations of his various works, as well as his dealings with clients. It was through both good fortune and merit that Bridgeman achieved the key role in the transition from the geometric layouts of the early 1700s to the freer designs of later works by Lancelot (Capability) Brown.

The author identifies the different phases of landscape development at Stowe from initiation, consolidation and maturity to expansion. Soon after his dismissal from the army in 1713, Lord Cobham, Stowe’s owner, decided to convert "what was regarded as a rather mean estate [his inheritance] into one of the most admired landscapes in England." From the start, Cobham wished to express his ideologies through emblematic and expressive landscaping. Bridgeman began his work in 1714, and Willis takes the reader through the evolution of the design process in the following years. Horace Walpole credited Bridgeman with a crucial innovation, the "ha–ha," or sunken fence. Based on the French fosse, a ditch or moat, this design element was a capital stroke, for it led to the destruction of boundary walls and opened up vistas of borrowed scenery.

Through exhaustive research, Willis brings to life an elusive figure whose works continue to influence landscape architecture. Bridgeman was highly respected by both his peers and clients for his professional dedication. Popular with his contemporaries, he led an active life in artistic society — so much so that he left his widow with many debts when he died in 1738. However, these difficulties proved fortunate for readers: to pay his creditors, his widow Sarah published the series of engravings of Stowe, executed by the French artist Jacque Rigaud. These are included among the beautiful drawings that bring the period landscape to life.

— Marilyn K. Alaimo, garden writer and volunteer, Chicago Botanic Garden