A View of the House and Part of the Garden of Sir Francis Dashwood Bart. at West Wycomb in the County of Bucks.

Pleasure in pleasure gardens

During the 18th century, public and private gardens were designed as realms for entertainment, polite sociability and leisurely retreat. With reference to items in the King’s Topographical Collection, Stephen Bending explores how pleasure gardens were depicted in contemporary engravings – from the bustling commercial gardens of London to the landscaped parkland of a gentleman’s country estate.

When we talk of pleasure gardens in the 17th and 18th century we may tend to think of urban spaces such as Vauxhall and Ranelagh, with their emphasis on urban sociability, music, spectacle and the stylised pleasures of the masquerade. But the term was used much more widely throughout the period to denote any kind of garden dedicated to leisure rather than labour, to pleasure rather than productivity. Such gardens might be large or small, attached to town houses or spread across many acres in a country estate, but they held in common an ability to raise questions about the nature and purpose of pleasure, including the kinds of enjoyment one should (or should not) have in a place marked out for ‘pleasure’.

A view of the canal, Chinese Building, Rotundo, &c. in Ranelagh Gardens

View of the Rotunda in Ranelagh Pleasure Gardens, the building beyond the trees, a Chinese building to the foreground set into the canal with two bridges leading over to the pavilion, a boat on the water, ladies and gentlemen in masquerade costumes throughout the scene.

First opened in 1746, Ranelagh Gardens in Chelsea boasted acres of formal gardens and tree-lined promenades 

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Garden history traditionally emphasises what appears to be distinct between different national styles, something that topographical images are peculiarly suited to articulate. However, the interchange of ideas, artistic styles, and indeed artists in this period tends to muddy these neat distinctions, as does the inclusion of figures scattered across the landscape. These figures in garden scenes are often referred to as staffage, that is, as no more than conventional and essentially interchangeable gestures of human activity. Even in this, however, we might see them as hinting at shared responses to gardens which pay little attention to national character, and emphasising instead the various – and sometimes conflicting – pleasures a garden might offer. 

So while topographical scenes appear to emphasise difference and particularity, we might also read them in terms of shared human responses to that peculiar place that is the garden – that hybridisation of nature and culture in which humans must always make choices about what they do, what they see, and how they are seen by others.

One of the complications here is that for some 18th-century writers the term pleasure could only be defined in relation to its opposite – pain – and so, for the likes of Edmund Burke at least, it remains ‘incapable of definition’. Burke’s implication that pleasure is the absence of pain may seem rather stark, but the sense that pleasure might be understood as an opposition, even as an absence, is repeatedly found in the letters and diaries of those who visited gardens in the period. 

So too, however, is a rather different account of how it might be experienced, perhaps best summarised in the words of Bishop Berkeley, who argued that we should recognise three sorts of pleasure: ‘pleasure of reason, pleasure of imagination, and pleasure of sense’. For Berkeley, those three kinds of pleasure formed a clear hierarchy, with reason at the top, and the senses at the bottom. What makes pleasure gardens such exciting places in the period, however, is that they assume an interplay between reason, imagination and sense, but not always the kind of hierarchy on which Bishop Berkeley insists: the pleasures of the senses could sometimes outweigh the more lofty claims of reason. The interplay between all three could offer its own kinds of pleasure, of course, and some of the major pleasure gardens of the period made this their goal; but it also represented a challenge for the individual as they considered the use of their time, the nature of leisure, the sense of a moment set apart from their everyday experience of life, and thus considered also their sense of themself in the world.

Topographical representations help us to understand what might be at stake for those who chose to visit pleasure gardens, both because they tend to constrain the range of pleasures they admit to the pleasure garden and because, in doing so, they offer us a powerful sense of what might be expected of garden visitors, or, perhaps more importantly, what garden visitors might feel was expected of them. Equally, while topographical images appear to focus on the physicalities of the landscape they display, it is important to recognise that their concern is not only with the representation of objects, but also with acts of representation which assume that viewing and comprehending are forms of intellectual pleasure.

Comparse des quatre saisons

Israël Silvestre (1621-91), Comparse des Quatres Saisons

In1664 Louis XIV of France hosted a 7-day extravaganza at Versailles, which included a theatrical production of the Four Seasons

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We can see something of this in contemporary representations of two of the most visited and influential gardens of 17th-century France, Vaux-le-Vicomte and Versailles. Images of Versailles often emphasise the characteristic for which it was most well known during the reign of Louis XIV, that is, the orchestration of individuals and their pleasures as part of a larger vision of monarchy and of royal power. Israel Silvestre’s mid-17th-century engravings of the prodigiously lavish seven-day fête at Versailles, Les Plaisirs de l'Isle enchantée (1664), is characteristic in this respect. In his Comparse des quatre saisons … avec la Machine de Pan, et de Diane, Silvestre plays on the use of the garden as theatrical space for performance. In this example a seated audience views a carefully orchestrated spectacle of wild animals and mythical figures, but as contemporary sources suggest, visitors were also acutely aware of being themselves on display, often as part of an equally carefully orchestrated promenade in which personal pleasures were clearly subordinated to the King's pleasure.

Veue en perspective du Parterre des Fleurs

Veue en Perspective du Parterre des Fleurs

This engraving shows one of the gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte, a château near Paris built for Louis XIV’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet 

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If we turn to Vaux – the precursor to Versailles, and also designed by André Le Nôtre – we can see here too the pleasures of the promenade, with its emphasis on looking and being looked at. But if we shift our attention from the promenading figures in the foreground to those other figures spread across the flower-filled parterre, they would seem to suggest pleasures beyond that of public spectacle. In the parterre, emphasis falls on the sights and smells of flowers, on intimate conversation (between pairs of women and pairs of men) but also on the pleasures of leisure, signalled not least by the appearance of gardeners who labour while others enjoy. In this respect, we might say that gardens offer their visitors a stage on which to see themselves; and, as the plethora of figures suggests – whether in families, in couples, or alone, whether idly doing nothing or busily pursuing pleasure while others work – the uncomfortable problem of what one ought to do and what one does do, is constantly to be faced. At both Versailles and Vaux, then, we are confronted not simply by pleasure but by pleasures which signal the need for choice.

That formulation – of pleasure signalling choice – of course returns us to Berkeley and his hierarchy of pleasure. If the parterre at Vaux suggests the pleasures of the sensual and the immediate – a concern with local pleasures of one kind or another – the larger image within which it is contained points to the greater pleasures of intellect and abstraction. More broadly, we might also think about these garden images in terms of how they engage with, and adjudicate between, the local view and the overview. Silvestre’s elaborate and highly politicised images of the fête at Versailles are a case in point: here, we might say that the focus of attention is on specific scenes and particular moments; but it is important to recognise that each image is also part of a series, part of the representation of a larger whole. The implication, then, is that while individuals and groups of characters appear only of local significance, and only see within the limits of their locale, the collection intimates the larger vision of a king whose pleasure garden marks his domination of the whole.

To explore the sense of what might be shared between nations despite the obvious instances of national difference, we can turn from the pleasure gardens of 17th-century France to those of 18th-century England, and in particular to Stowe and to West Wycombe – the one famous, the other infamous.

Perspective Views of the Buildings and Gardens at Stowe

View in the Elysian Fields from the Spring of Helicon

From 1712 Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (1675-1749), appointed Britain’s leading architects and garden designers to make over his grounds at Stowe.

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Some of the most detailed and elaborate images of Stowe were produced in the middle of the 18th century by George Bickham, junior. We can understand some of the conflicting agenda of the topographical print by setting the expensive set of engravings contained in Sixteen perspective Views, with a general Plan of the Buildings and Gardens at Stowe ... drawn on the spot by M. Chatelain, … engraved by G. Bickham alongside those found in Bickham’s popular guidebook to the gardens, The Beauties of Stow, or a Description of the most noble house, gardens and magnificent buildings therein ... With above thirty copper plates (1753).

By the middle of the 18th century Stowe had become famous for its wide range of, often politically inspired, garden architecture. Nowhere was this more evident than in that part of the garden known as the Elysian Fields. Here, a temple of British Worthies (with busts of great figures from Britain’s past) was set opposite a ruined (and now absent) temple of modern virtue and a (still present) temple of Ancient Virtue. Visitors were effectively being extolled to join with the garden’s owner, Lord Temple, in the celebration of Britain’s cultural and political progress, a progress put in danger (so the iconography of the garden claimed) by the corruption of the government. 

In Bickham’s guidebook to Stowe, all of this is made plain in a series of rather rough engravings and detailed transcriptions of the garden’s many inscriptions. In the Sixteen Perspective Views, however, figures in the foreground are used to underplay this quite insistent iconography of the garden scenes. In the case of the Elysian Fields there is little sign of the famous political satire, and instead, we see a loosely draped figure by the river apparently taking a meditative walk, while in the foreground we find what may be a courting couple engaged with their own concerns and with their backs to the major features of the garden.

Similarly when representing the notorious temple of Venus with its paintings of naked women and tales of seduction by satyrs, the striking and elegantly posed figures fishing in the foreground invite the viewer to engage in rather more innocent pleasures. In Bickham’s guidebook to Stowe the lascivious imagery and poetry is all carefully recorded; but here such pleasures fall from view. What is important, however, is not that our fishermen are in any way prescriptive – indeed they might be replaced with any of the conventional activities and groupings we find scattered throughout the Sixteen Views – rather, they signal that the choice of pleasures in a garden is ever present and that those pleasures remain in tension.

Views of West Wycombe Park, home of Sir Francis Dashwood

A View of the House and Part of the Garden of Sir Francis Dashwood Bart. at West Wycomb in the County of Bucks.

These engravings after William Hannan show West Wycombe Park, the estate of the notorious politician, dilettante, and founder of the Hell Fire Club, Sir Francis Dashwood

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This sense that the topographical print might at once acknowledge and suppress conflicting accounts of pleasure is evident also in the four views of West Wycombe engraved by William Woollett in 1757. The home of Sir Francis Dashwood, the notorious rake, and a founder of the Hellfire Club, West Wycombe had become closely associated with the infamy of its owner. Little of this, however, is directly on display in Woollett’s images. In each of the four images, Woollett offers the usual combination of work and leisure which marks out the garden as a scene of pleasure for the well to do and of labour for servants and gardeners. 

In A View of the House and Part of the Garden, groups of figures point to the pleasures of architecture or engage in the pleasures of al fresco tea drinking and conversation. But the kinds of pleasure on display here are also characteristically gendered. Both men and women are set in elegant poses, and both engage in conversation – a traditionally safe pleasure – but the women are mostly aligned with domestic pleasures, while it is the men who point to architectural features and, in doing so, point also to their own good taste and intellectual abilities. 

Placed prominently in the foreground, however, is a mixed group of two women and one man, perhaps a courtship group, perhaps – with one of the women looking into what appears to be a mirror – a gesture towards female vanity. That hint of other kinds of pleasure, of pleasures which should not be seen, becomes the central concern of another image in the series, the View of the Walton Bridge, Venus’ Temple, &c. Here, just as in Bickham’s Sixteen Views, the temple of Venus is carefully distanced and – set behind the bridge – partially obscured. Certainly the traditional figure of Venus is on display in the rotunda atop the mount, but the structure’s more risqué features – including the distinctly anatomical gestures of the grotto beneath (designed to suggest the open legs of a woman) – are carefully hidden from view. One implication for the couple standing directly in front of the temple and the bridge, then, is that they must choose between the responsibilities of family life exemplified by the group to the left of the foreground, or the pleasures of sexual desire made explicit by the temple of Venus.

Once again, pleasure becomes a matter of choice and, while we can register the conventionality of the figures, we might see them also as insisting that pleasure gardens raise questions about pleasure, and that the choices of pleasure are inevitably an account of those who make them. Pleasure, then, is never quite as easy as it seems: the lure of the senses and the retreat into leisure always confronts the individual with their sense of themself in the world, of what they value, of how they will be judged by others. And, while the most immediate effect of topographical images of gardens may indeed be to confirm differences of national style, what holds together these images both of English gardens and of those produced a century earlier in France, is that same fascination with the immediacy of the sensual world and the knowledge of more complex forms of intellectual engagement. 

The Place for Thinking

Thomas Bowles (about 1695-1767) after Matteo Ripa (1682-1746), A Place for Thinking. A Pleasure House in View of a Very Pretty Little Island, published London, Thomas Bowles, John Bowles (1701-79), Henry Overton (active 1751-64), Robert Sayer (1725-94), 1753

This plate, published in London after designs by Matteo Ripa, depicts the Qing Emperor’s summer palace at Jehol (Chengde)

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This article began with a view of Ranelagh which includes a prominently displayed ‘Chinese’ pleasure house. We need only set this alongside Matteo Ripa’s collection of garden views in The Emperor of China’s Palace at Pekin, and his Principal Gardens to see how the fantasy structures of an English pleasure garden depart from their Chinese origins. But we can also see how both kinds of view must once again confront the nature of pleasure itself. 

At Ranelagh we are offered a reimagining of Chinese gardens in the context of city pleasures and a garden which emphasises the sociable pleasures of masquerade; in Ripa’s careful delineation of The Place for Thinking. A Pleasure House in View of a very pretty little Island, emphasis falls instead on intellectual pleasures, on beauty and meditation, on nature perhaps as a route to transcendence. Both kinds of responses to the garden are always possible. Topographical images of gardens must inevitably engage with these conflicting accounts of pleasures at once sensual and intellectual. And, while landforms and architectural details may appear to dominate and determine the meaning of topographical views, the figures that people these scenes insist that the complex pleasures of pleasure gardens will always be powerfully present when the senses confront the physical and intellectual landscape.

  • Stephen Bending
  • Stephen Bending is a Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Southampton. He is the author of Green Retreats: Women, Gardens and Eighteenth-Century Culture (Cambridge, 2013), editor of the Enlightenment volume of the Bloomsbury Cultural History of Gardens (2013), and is currently working on the problems of pleasure in English, French and American gardens of the 18th century.