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A History of Gobions
Chapter Three - Charles Bridgeman and the English Landscape Garden

by Richard Bisgrove

The eighteenth century English Landscape Garden, Britain’s greatest contribution to the world of art, is inextricably linked with the careers of three landscape gardeners, Charles Bridgeman, William Kent and Lancelot "Capability" Brown. Surprisingly the first of these - and in some ways the most important - remains little known and little understood despite the survival of many of his plans.

Charles Bridgeman was born c.1690. His father was a gardener and may have worked for the Earl of Oxford at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire, but nothing else is known of the younger Bridgeman’s personal life until his marriage to Sarah Mist in 1717. The first evidence of his work is a signed plan of Blenheim dated 1709 and this early association with Blenheim is highly significant in two respects.

Firstly it establishes Bridgemans link with a distinguished series of gardeners extending in direct line back to the creator of Louis XIV’s great formal gardens, Andre le Notre. Le Notre was a pupil of Claude Mollet at the Tuileries; John Rose, royal gardener at St James’ Park, was a pupil of Le Notre at Versaillies before working at St James’s where he succeeded three of Mollet’s sons in 1666. George London was apprenticed to Rose at St James’s and, on Rose’s death in 1677, became deputy to William Bentinck, 1st Earl of Portland, in charge of the royal gardens for William and Mary.

In 1681, London and three other eminent head gardeners established the Brompton Park Nursery and in 1687, when the other three partners had died or retired, George London took Henry Wise into partnership. Under London and Wise, Brompton Park became the foremost nursery in the land, and the two men between them played a major part in the construction of most of the great formal gardens of the period.

On the death of William III in 1702 Bentinck was dismissed and with him, George London, but as Queen Anne then appointed Henry Wise as master gardener, Brompton retained its pre-eminence. When Anne gave Woodstock Manor to the Duke of Marlborough in gratitude for his victory against the French at Blenheim, it was inevitable that Brompton Park would be involved in stocking the gardens. Charles Bridgeman’s apprenticeship to Henry Wise at Blenheim thus ensured that his career would be founded on a long tradition of horticultural excellence, and that career culminated with his own appointment as royal gardener to George II and Queen Caroline.

The second connection concerns the architect at Blenheim, Sir John Vanbrugh. Vanbrugh, a soldier and dramatist turned architect, had many ideas far in advance of his contemporaries and had already experimented with the dramatic potential of buildings in the landscape at Castle Howard in Yorkshire. At Blenheim he advised the Duchess of Marlborough to keep old Woodstock Manor as a picturesque feature of the new landscape, and urged her to call in a landscape painter to exploit the full pictorial qualities of the park. Vanbrugh’s relationship with the duchess was rarely anything but stormy so it is hardly surprising that she ignored the advice: Woodstock Manor was pulled down to provide building materials for the bridge and the park was laid out on traditional strictly regular lines. Blenheim, though, marks the beginning of a long association between Vanbrugh and Bridgeman, an association which must have influenced Bridgeman’s artistic sensibilities.

The extent of Bridgeman’s involvement at Blenheim is uncertain. In 1709, the date of his first known plan, he was about twenty, much too young to have been entrusted with the design of so important a garden. Wise records having to employ "one man constantly for making surveys and draughts of Her Majesty’s palaces, gardens…" so it seems probable that Bridgeman arrived at Blenheim under Henry Wise’s wing, possibly following an apprenticeship at Brompton Park, as surveyor/draughtsman then, finding a like mind in Vanbrugh, developed an informal association in which the older man designed the buildings while Bridgeman laid out the general lines of the gardens.

In 1713 Bridgeman was working at Stowe, several years before Vanbrugh was called in, and when the garden was greatly enlarged in 1720, it was Bridgeman who sited the Rotunda at a pivotal point in the garden, pulling the scattered fragments of the older garden into a single composition. The angle of his bird’s eye view of Stowe, c. 1720, seems deliberately chosen to reduce the dominance of the central axis and to emphasis instead the complex network of walks and vistas that laced the garden together, making Stowe the talking point of Europe.

In 1718 Vanbrugh prepared plans for a house almost on the scale of Blenheim for George Dodington (a cousin of Viscount Cobham at Stowe) at Eastbury, Dorset. Bridgeman provided plans for the gardens, marshalling trees with all the forcefulness of a military parade. Dodington died in that same year and work was not recommenced by his son, George Bubb Dodington, until 1724.

In 1721 came Bridgemans plans for Rousham in Oxfordshire for Lt. Gen. James Dormer. It was here that his ability to "consult the genius of the place in all", the central principle of the English Landscape Garden penned by Alexander Pope, became apparent. The house at Rousham occupies a position above the river Cherwell and standing back from it. The garden is an irregular tongue of high ground, sandwiched between the road and the river, falling sharply to include a narrow strip along the river bank. With great skill Bridgeman seized on the irregularities of the site. A spring-fed hollow provided the situation for two large square ponds and a fountain: a long vista from the lowest level of the hollow penetrated the full length of the garden, terminating at a small temple near Heybridge, and various winding walks connected these and other elements into a varied but unified scheme

Charles Bridgemans work at Stowe and Rousham, especially, exemplify his great contribution to landscape gardening: the freeing of the English garden from the rigid geometry inherited from the French and the Dutch. Prolonged wars with France fostered a distaste for the autocracy symbolised in Le Notres vast parterres, dismissed by Lord Shaftesbury as "the formal mockery of princely gardens". Ironically those same wars might be seen as providing the means for liberation. Lord Cobham was one of Marlborough’s generals at Blenheim and, on retirement to Stowe, adapted the military "fosse" or ditch to garden use allowing the eye to roam beyond the garden to the wider landscape.

Horace Walpole credits Bridgeman with this crucial development: "But the capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe the first thought was Bridgeman’s) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses - an attempt then deemed so astonishing that the common people called them Hal Ha’s! to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk".

At Stowe the ha-ha spanned the broad main vista beyond the octagonal basin, allowing the eye to sweep without interruption down from the house to the water and up to the Corinthian Arch on the skyline. At Rousham the garden proper was separated from the paddock right next to the house by a ha-ha so that grazing cattle appeared to enter the very heart of the garden. When Walpole went on to nominate Bridgeman’s successor, William Kent, as the man who "leapt the fence, and found all nature was a garden" it was not forgotten that Bridgeman first lowered the fence into a fosse, making it easier for Kent’s portly figure to make that historic leap.

Walpole commented further on the increasing freedom of Bridgeman’s designs "…though he still adhered much to strait walks with high clipped hedges, they were his only great lines; the rest he diversified by wildernesses and with loose groves of oak, though still within surrounding hedges … in the royal garden at Richmond (he) dared to introduce cultivated fields, and even morsels of a forest appearance". And at Gubbins in Hertfordshire he observed "many detached thoughts, that strongly indicate the dawn of modern taste".

Other commissions followed in rapid succession. Claremont in Surrey, sold to Thomas Pelham-Holles, later 1st Duke of Newcastle, by Vanburgh included a vast amphitheatre overlooking a round pound. Boughton, Northamptonshire, for John, second Duke of Montagu (nicknamed "John the Planter), the son-in-law of Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, was noted for its canals and for its miles of avenue. At Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, Bridgeman worked for Edward Harley, second Earl of Oxford, whose marriage to the Duke of Newcastle’s daughter, Henrietta Cavendish Holles in 1713, allied him to one of the richest families in the land. Harley spent much of his (and his wife’s) fortune on his garden and his library (to which Bridgeman was noted as being a frequent visitor), but he also developed the prestigious Marylebone estate which came to him on his marriage. Charles Bridgeman prepared designs for Cavendish Square, the heart of the estate, and soon after planned the layout of St James’s Square, the most aristocratic square in London. He also contemplated moving to Marylebone, taking a lease on a house designed by James Gibb in 1725. However, in 1726 Henry Wise’s partner in the royal gardens died and Bridgeman was appointed in his place, thereby acquiring official residences at Hampton Court and Kensington in addition to his own house in Westminster. When Wise himself died in 1728, Charles Bridgeman became sole royal garden to George II and Queen Caroline. This royal appointment could hardly have been unexpected: Bridgeman had already worked for the then Prince of Wales and Princess Caroline at Marble Hill as well as for the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole.

Queen Caroline, in particular, took a great interest in gardening and Bridgeman was frequently engaged in modernising the royal parks and gardens, introducing the fields and morsels of forest at Richmond as well as attending to the more mundane duties prescribed for his post: digging and cropping and vegetable gardens, tying up fruit trees, rolling the walks, weeding and sweeping. He was even required to procure the dung for the gardens and to provide his own equipment - including a large trolley for the moving of orange trees.

Bridgemans appointment as royal gardener in 1726 was followed by his election to St Luke’s Club of Artists, a small and highly respected club for men "of the highest Character in Art & Gentlemen Lovers of Art". His election signified his true place in landscape gardening, not as a mere practitioner with clients but as a member of a close circle of virtuosi, men of outstanding discernment and collectors of art. Bridgeman came as often to comment on, improve or correct the garden plans development by his patrons as to submit his own plans, and he came as a member of the extended household, enjoying the use of the library at Wimpole for example and joining the social and intellectual activities of the assembled company of patrons and other artists.

Walpole aptly summarises the essence of Bridgeman’s mature designs, a backbone of bold, straight vistas skillfully exploiting the lie of the land and connecting the main features of the garden - canals, bowling greens, amphitheatres, temple - but interlaced with meandering walks through a wilderness of forest groves and extending into the surrounding countryside by use of the ha ha to conceal the boundaries of the garden. In many, estates it was Bridgeman who provided the structure to the landscapes subsequently modified by Kent and Brown.

Bridgeman died of dropsy in 1738 aged about fifty. Sadly his ingenuity at organising the landscape and uniting often disparate architectural elements into a coherent whole seems not to have extended to his domestic affairs. His life as a member of St Luke’s and as an active participant in the social and cultural company of artists and aristocratic connoiseurs was expensive. Sarah Bridgeman found herself impoverished and it is ironic that much of what we now know of Bridgeman’s methods of working comes from details in his widow’s innumerable law-suits as she struggled strenuously, until her own death five years later, to obtain the money supposedly owed to her husband.

Perhaps the last comment on Charles Bridgeman should go to the other Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, the subject of one of Mrs. Bridgemans most heated suits. After her disagreements with Vanburgh and the dismissal of a whole string of other artists the Duchess engaged Bridgeman to develop and maintain the garden in 1728 and he was actively involved there until his death. The Duchess, never one to mince her words, described Bridgeman as a man who was "honest and meant to do justly in everything".

Index - A History of Gobions
Chapter 1 - A History of Gobions - Peter Kingsford
Chapter 2 - The Present: Gobions Woodland Trust - Linda Jonas
Chapter 3 - Charles Bridgeman & The English Landscape Garden - Richard Bisgrove
Chapter 4 - The Garden at Gubbins Today - Linda Jonas
Photographs - Assorted prints from the book
Appendix - Appendices I, II, III - Three sections rolled into one including the Roll of Known Owners;   Welham Green Connections; North Mymms Parish Valuation List 1838

All material reproduced on this site thanks to the co-operation of the Gobions Woodland Trust. The Trust has its own page on this site.

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