Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Tired of Pemberly's extensive but predictable grounds? Spice things up with a hired hermit!

The idea of a house having a view is quite a modern one, well, if you think the 18th Century is modern. It was always the house that was the view. I am, of course, talking about grand estates, not houses for normal people. It was more important to the well-to-do that they maintain their image than that they enjoy their life. And so, their houses were show-pieces from the outside as well as the inside, possibly more so since not everyone would get to see the inside. Therefore, it mattered more that the house ornamented its surroundings than that the people inside had anything to look out at through the glass.
One famous landscape architect you may have heard of was called Capability Brown. His name wasn't actually Capability, but that's what everyone called him because he could do anything. He really changed English gardens forever. He re-ordered hills and lakes and all sorts to make it look like the house was perfectly situated without any human interference. He created rolling hills, vast lawns and asymmetric shrubberies, and did away entirely with the ornamental gardens that had previously prevailed. They continued to be the done thing in France, a la Versaille et al. But in England, things were going another way entirely.
One individual who was an unwitting and accidental but undeniable influence on landscape architecture was actually a sketching artist. In the 18th Century, for reasons I don't understand, travel became easier, and there started to develop a tourist industry of sorts among the upper classes. Why this happened, I don't know. They didn't have steam boats. They didn't have railways. They didn't have paved roads. They didn't even have suspension in their carriages. So what made it easier to travel? Was it political conditions? I don't know, but apparently it was. Consequently, society ladies started going on holidays, and they liked to do drawing. One Mr. Gilpin wrote a few books about drawing, particularly drawing exotic landscapes, and suggesting good spots to draw in popular tourist areas like Italy and the Highlands of Scotland. He invented the word, and the concept, "picturesque." This has now come to mean that something is merely pretty, but it had a more specific meaning when he used it. He meant it to describe subjects that would make good pictures, for specific compositional reasons. There had to be something framing the foreground, some interesting subject matter in the middle ground, and some dynamic background. Items must be grouped in odd numbers, like cows in a field or people in a crowd, and, most importantly, the main subject matter should have lots of craggy lines, like a ruined castle or a rock face. Straight lines, new buildings, these were not picturesque.
This last principle started to be taken up in landscape design, and people started doing things like building follies, which were false ruins, on their properties. They wanted interesting things to look at out of their windows, to see pictures where they looked instead of just being the picture. I don't know that Mr. Gilpin is solely responsible for this, but he was part of a growing fascination with rugged and ragged things, like the French Pyrenees and secret coves. Therefore, some of the follies they built were hermitages, little hidden hovels that suggested a bit of excitement. And there were some who even went so far as to hire a hermit. possibly a poet, to live in their folly hermitage. Therefore, it became a sort of adventure for the rich to go for walks and chance an encounter with a real hermit. 
What lengths the bored and wealthy will not go to for a little diversion.

(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Sharing always welcome and encouraged. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast and on facebook..) 

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