Today, England is a nation venerated around the world for its contribution to global culture and entertainment. From Shakespear to Monty Python, British influences have made their way into every corner of the globe. But there was once a time in not too recent centuries when England was considered with little more than contempt by most of Europe as well as outright loathing by the French. While not even two world wars can root out the natural tension in the Anglo-French relationship, many of the events in the last four hundred years changed the prominence of England on the world stage.
Part of this, of-course, was the legacy of the Empire when England and later Great Britain went on a jolly imperial adventure that involved invading all but 22 countries in the world at some time or another and bringing the light of civilization/untold misery to millions (depending on your point of view). However there were other, gentler ways in which English influence began to spread across Europe and one of these was quite literally up the garden path.
Enter William Kent, a Yorkshire born coach and sign painter who would go on to change the face of Europe in subtle ways. Encouraged by his patrons in England to travel to Rome he travelled Italy learning architecture, art and design and gaining a particular appreciation of the Palladian school of design for buildings. This theme was very much inspired by older Roman and Greek architectural styles with great columns supporting temple like structures and curved arches reminiscent of the triumphal arcs of ancient Rome.
His adventures on the continent brought Kent into contact with prominent men of the age, including the Earls of Leicester and Burlington, whose patronage William would find invaluable in securing the work that was to make his name on his return to England. Here he would work first as a painter, then later an architect and furniture designer, before becoming what he would become most famous for, a landscape designer.
Combining the Palladian styles he had been influenced by on his journeys to Rome with his own ideas, Kent brought forth a new style of landscape gardening for the homes of the nobility and wealthy land owners. Known as the English landscape garden, it was a style that attempted to replicate the ideal of perfect English countryside, with wide open rolling lawns, precisely positioned trees and plants and small features such, as miniature temples, to emulate an idealized view of nature as envisioned in paintings by Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.
His ideas would influence generations of landscape gardeners as nobles and landowners across Europe tried to emulate his style. From Prussia to Russia, the “English landscape garden” sprang up across the continent, displacing even the French style held in such high favour a few years before. William Kent’s work, and those inspired by it survive in many of the great parks across Europe to this day. From Chiswick House in Buckinghamshire to the Englisher Garten in Munich, one English man, a spade and a lot of digging changed the face of a continent forever.