The Augustan Reprint Society: A Dialogue Upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount Cobham at Stow in Buckinghamshire (1748) by
William Gilpin; introduction by John Dixon Hunt
PUBLICATION NUMBER 176
Notes to the Introduction
A Dialogue upon the Gardens of the Right Honourable the Lord Viscount COBHAM, etc.
Stowe is certainly the most documented of all English Augustan gardens, and William Gilpin’s Dialogue probably one of the most important accounts of it. He was at Stowe in 1747 and published his record of that visit anonymously the following year. The Dialogue reached a second edition, with some slight alterations in the text, in 1749 and a third in 1751, when the dialogue was transformed into narrative.
The Dialogue recommends itself both to the historian of the English landscape movement, in which Stowe was a prime exhibit, and to the student of the later vogue for the picturesque, in which Gilpin was a major participant. His account of Cobham’s gardens illuminates some of the connections between the cult of the picturesque that Gilpin fostered with his publications of the 1780s and the earlier eighteenth-century invocation of pictures in gardens.
Perhaps in no other art form were the tensions and transformations in the arts more conspicuous than in landscape gardening. Gilpin is especially rewarding in his instinctive attention to these shifting patterns; although the dialogue form is not very skillfully handled, it yet allows some play between the rival attitudes. Thus his characters attend to both the emblematic and the expressive garden; to both its celebration of public worth and its commendation of private virtue. While Gilpin seems sufficiently and indeed sharply aware of set-piece views in the gardens, the three-dimensional pictures contrived among the natural and architectural features, he also reveals himself as sensitive towards the more fluid psychological patterns, what one might term the kinema of landscape response. Above all, his obvious delight in the landscape garden and appreciation of it vie with an equally strong admiration for scenery outside gardens altogether.
At the time of Gilpin’s visit, Lord Cobham’s gardens were substantially as they are represented in the engravings published in 1739 by the widow of Charles Bridgeman, one of Stowe’s designers. In the year of Gilpin’s visit work had just started in the northeast part of the grounds upon the natural glade that came to be known as the Grecian Valley. Whether it is the work of Lancelot (“Capability”) Brown, who was then a gardener at Stowe, or only prophetic of it, the Grecian Valley was a hint of the less architectural, the more carefully “natural” gardens of the next decades. Although Gilpin would presumably have seen little of this most advanced example of gardening style, he would still have observed what were, in the terms customarily invoked, (continued).