Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
By Sir Walter Scott (17711832)
THE TENDENCY of our national taste, indeed, has been changed, in almost every particular, from that which was meagre, formal, and poor, and has attained, comparatively speaking, a character of richness, variety, and solidity. An ordinary chair, in the most ordinary parlour, has now something of an antique cast; something of Grecian massiveness, at once, and elegance in its forms. That of twenty or thirty years since was mounted on four tapering and tottering legs, resembling four tobacco pipes; the present supporters of our stools have a curule air, curve outwards behind, and give a comfortable idea of stability to the weighty aristocrat or ponderous burgess who is about to occupy one of them. The same change in taste may be remarked out of doors, where, from the total absence of ornament, we are, perhaps, once more verging to its excess, and exhibiting such a tendency to ornament, in architecture and decoration, that the age may, we suspect, be nothing the worse for being reminded that, as naked poverty is not simplicity, so fantastic profusion of ornament is not good taste.
But in our landscape-gardening, as it has been rather unhappily called, although the best professors of the art have tacitly adopted the more enlarged and liberal views provided by the late Mr. Knight and Sir U. Price, these are not, perhaps, so generally received and practised as could be desired. We say the art has been unfortunately named. The idea of its being, after all, a variety of the gardening art, with which it has little or nothing to do, has given a mechanical turn to the whole profession, and certainly encouraged many persons to practise it, with no greater qualifications than ought to be found in a tolerably skilful gardener. This certainly, however intelligent and respectable the individuals may be, is not the sort of person, in point of taste and information, to whom we would wish to see the arrangement of great places intrusted. The degree of mechanical skill which they possess may render them adequate to the execution of plans arranged by men of more comprehensive abilities, better education, and a possession, as demanded by Price, of the knowledge connected with the higher branch of landscape-painting, and with the works of the first masters. Far from threatening the disposers of actual scenery with an abrogation of their profession, as was unjustly stated to be his object, Prices system went to demand from them a degree of scientific knowledge not previously required, and to elevate in proportion their rank and profession in general estimation.
The importance of this art, in its more elegant branches, ranks so high in our opinion, that we would willingly see its profession (and certainly it contains persons worthy of such honour) more closely united with the fine arts than it can now be esteemed. The improvers or layers-out of ground would, in that case, be entitled to demand from their employers a greater degree of fair-play than is, in many cases, allowed them at present. According to the common process, their time is estimated at a certain number of guineas per day, and the party consulting them is not unnaturally interested in getting as much out of the professor within as little time as can possibly be achieved. The landscape gardener is, therefore, trotted over the grounds, two, three or four times, and called upon to decide upon points which a proprietor himself would hesitate to determine, unless he were to visit the ground in different lights, and at different seasons, and various times of the day during the course of a year. This leads to a degree of precipitation on the part of the artist, who knows his remuneration will be grudged unless he makes some striking and notable alteration, yet has little or no time allowed him to judge what that alteration ought to be. Hence, men of taste and genius are reduced to act at random; hence an habitual disregard of the genius loci, and a proportional degree of confidence in a set of general rules, influencing their own practice, so that they do not receive from nature the impression of what the place ought to be, but impress on nature, at a venture, the stamp, manner, or character of their own practice, as a mechanic puts the same mark on all the goods which pass through his hands. Some practise the art, we are aware, upon a much more liberal footing;it is on that more liberal footing that we would wish to see the profession of the improver generally practised. We would have the higher professors of this noble art to be that for which nature has qualified some of them whom we have known, and, doubtless, many to whose characters we are strangerswe mean, to be physicians; liberally recompensed for their general advicenot apothecaries, to be paid in proportion to the drugs which they can contrive to make the patient swallow.
It may, perhaps, be thought that, by the change we propose, we would raise too high a standard for such artists as might attain great proficiency in their calling, and so limit the benefit of their efforts to the great and the wealthy. This would be a consequence far from answering our purpose, but we have no apprehension that it would follow. The rules of good taste, when once exemplified, are pretty sure to be followed. Let any one recollect the atrocious forms of our ordinary crockery and potters ware forty years since, when the shapes were as vilely deformed as that of the pipkin which cost Robinson Crusoe so much trouble; and observe the difference since the classical outlines of the Etruscan vases have been adopted as models for our Staffordshire ware. Every form before was detestable, whatever pains might have been bestowed in the ornamenting and finishing; whereas, since the models introduced by Messrs. Wedgwood, the most ordinary earthenware is rendered pleasing to the eye, however coarse its substance, and mean the purpose for which it is designed. It is thus with good taste in every department. It cannot be established by canons and dicta, but must be left to force its way gradually through example. A certain number of real landscapes, executed by men adequate to set the example of a new school, which shall reject the tame and pedantic rules of Kent and Browne, without affecting the grotesque or fantastic, who shall bring back more ornament into the garden, and introduce a bolder, wider, and more natural character into the park, will have the effect of awakening a general spirit of emulation. There are thousands of proprietors who have neither scenes capable of exhibiting the perfection of the art, nor revenues necessary to reimburse the most perfect of the artists, but who may catch the principle on which improvers ought to proceed, and render a place pretty though it cannot be grand, or comfortable though it cannot aspire to beauty.