by Timothy Mowl

Publisher: Stroud: Sutton (2000)
ISBN 0 7509 2342 5



In his introduction, Dr Mowl states that ‘Gentlemen  & Players ‘ should be read ‘as an attempt to do horticultural justice to the English upper classes’, by evaluating the relative contributions of the patrons and the professional gardeners (respectively the ‘gentlemen’ and ‘players’ of the title) to the shaping of English Arcadian garden-parks.

Dr Mowl submits, in alternate chapters, that the stimulus for change – from the early 18th-century layout of parterres and terraces to the informality of classical elements in an idealised, picturesque, but artfully ‘natural’ landscape – is to be attributed to cultivated amateurs like John Evelyn, the Temple family at Stowe, Alexander Pope, Lord Burlington, William Shenstone and Richard Payne Knight.  (This reviewer believes that Thomas Pitt, created first Baron Camelford in 1784, belongs to this pantheon. Among other projects, his work for his second cousin Richard, Lord Temple, included the Corinthian and Doric arches in the landscape garden at Stowe, and for Pitt’s own estate in Cornwall, an obelisk and carriage drives around the landscape features at Boconnoc.)

In between the chapters on ‘gentlemen’, Dr Mowl has inserted others to the professional ‘players’: Inigo Jones, William Kent, George London, Henry Wise, ‘Capability’ Brown and Humphrey Repton. Here he perhaps overstates his case in contending that the latter were ‘blinkered conformists’, whose contributions were mainly confined to importing foreign styles. He does soften his stance in the introduction, where he concedes that ‘there was an interchange between the patrons and the paid, a productive uncertainty and a pulling in two directions’. ‘Gentlemen & Players’ does not purport to be an even-handed, or a complete account of the history of English garden design of the period.  It is, on the other hand, an entertainingly well-written and thoughtfully argued case (with excellent illustrations and a good bibliography) for re-examining our preconceptions.

Tim Mowl unquestionably scores in articulating his enthusiasm for the people and gardens he describes. He points out that in learning about a garden ‘there is still no substitute for the ‘green wellie’ approach, for walking the grounds, not once but often and in every revealing season’. The garden walks in each chapter are both a substitute for real experience and an inducement to tempt readers into repeating them.

Mowl is co-director of the MA programme in garden history in the Department of Art History at Bristol University. He acknowledges Tom Williamson (see the report on the Hengrave Study Day, page 13) and Williamson’s Polite Landscapes (Stroud 1995) as a prime reference in writing his book.  In future this reader will consult Gentlemen & Players and Pevsner before visiting, recording, photographing or otherwise enjoying, a landscape garden of the Georgian period.

Pamela Dodds