What is a Georgian Era Garden?

A late-17th to early-18th century panoramic view of Chatsworth House and Park, with mares and foals in the foreground. Painting by Peter Tillemans (1684-1734).

Elizabeth, as they drove along, watched for the first appearance of Pemberley Woods with some perturbation; and when at length they turned in at the lodge, her spirits were in a high flutter. The park was very large, and contained great variety of ground. They entered it in one of its lowest points, and drove for some time through a beautiful wood stretching over a wide extent.

Elizabeth’s mind was too full for conversation, but she saw and admired every remarkable spot and point of view. They gradually ascended for half a mile, and then found themselves at the top of a considerable eminence, where the wood ceased, and the eye was instantly caught by Pemberley House, situated on the opposite side of a valley, into which the road with some abruptness wound. It was a large, handsome stone building, standing well on rising ground, and backed by a ridge of high woody hills; and in front a stream of some natural importance was swelled into greater, but without any artificial appearance. Its banks were neither formal nor falsely adorned. Elizabeth was delighted. She had never seen a place for which nature had done more, or where natural beauty had been so little counteracted by an awkward taste.  ~Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

The English did not invent the elaborate gardening landscape ideal but they brought their own style and techniques to the endeavor. In no other era was this truer than the Georgian. Classically imbued elegance and refined style: the earmarks and lasting accomplishments of the decades encompassing the shorter Regency. As in fashion, trends evolved and were inspired by other cultures, mainly European. In particular, French landscaping influences led to the formalized, highly symmetrical gardens popular during the 17th and 18th centuries.

However, as the century turned and the war with France instilled stronger sensations of patriotism, wealthy Englishmen rejected anything remotely French. Thus, the straight lines and sharp angles of geometric gardens were replaced (in parts) with the natural flow of curved pathways, rounded ponds, and freely growing vegetation. Suddenly, the plethora of young men returning from their Grand Tour of Europe could allow their creativity to burst forth. They were inspired by the untamed, extreme, and bold terrains prevalent in Europe, as well as the varying garden and architectural styles of countries other than France. As a result, the majority of the great estates during the Regency displayed a beautiful meshing of the two gardening styles that was unique from anywhere in the world.

Compare the drawings of two different English country estates below, the top from 1707 and the bottom from 1835.

Wrest Park Gardens, spread over 150 acres near Silsoe, Bedfordshire. 1707 drawing of gardens designed by George London and Henry Wise for Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Kent. Later modified by Capability Brown in a more informal landscape style.
Blenheim Palace, home of the Dukes of Marlborough, redesigned by Capability Brown in 1763 to create parkland appearing natural but “contrived to pleasing effect.” Drawing from 1835. (click for larger view)

The glory of gardening: hands in the dirt, head in the sun, heart with nature.
To nurture a garden is to feed not just on the body, but the soul.
Share the 
botanical bliss of gardeners through the ages,
who have cultivated philosophies 
to apply to their own – and our own – lives.
Show me your garden and I shall tell you what you are.
~ Alfred Austin, The Garden That I Love, 1894

As is seen in the passage from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice quoted above, landscape design commonly mandated that travelers coming to visit approached the main house via a circuitous route amid winding avenues planned so as to view the grounds advantageously. Passing through wooded areas, open fields with free roaming sheep or cattle or deer, rivers and lakes graced with elaborate fountains, until finally arriving at the house which was, of course, adorned with colorful flowers, lush bushes and trees, and precisely trimmed hedges. All aimed to give hints of the superb hospitality, luxurious accommodations, and unparalleled entertainment to come.

The goal was to create a stunning feast for the eyes, a relaxing park to stroll upon, prime woods and wild areas to hunt in, one-of-a-kind fountains and intriguing adornments to explore, numerous ponds and rivers, and a vast array of outdoors entertainment options. And of course, Lord Smith’s grounds must be superior to Lord Jones’!

Waddesdon Manor, Buckinghamshire
Levens Hall, Cumbria

Typical elements in Georgian landscape style–

  • Informal layout designed as a classical Arcadia
  • Lakes created to reflect the landscape as well as for recreation
  • Cascades add drama and animation to the scene
  • Temples, grottos and follies doubled up as tea rooms, and viewing towers
  • Clumps and shelterbelts to provide shelter and privacy to the park
  • Shrubberies planted with the newly introduced exotics from abroad
  • The Ha-ha, an invisible boundary to keep livestock away from the house
  • Circuit walks taking you on a tour around the park

Not too surprisingly, landscape architects and master gardeners were in high demand, esteemed, and very well paid. Quite a number attained a level of popularity akin to today’s celebrity status. Men such as William Kent, Charles Bridgeman, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and Humphry Repton, to name but a few, were revolutionary geniuses in landscape design.

Trained through apprenticeships and decades of experience at multiple places, their knowledge would be comprehensive. A thorough understanding of indigenous and exotic plants, pruning, pest control, soil types, seasonal care, weed abatement, and the like was only the beginning. They also needed a firm grasp on the science and technology behind fountains and hot houses, for instance. They were educated on the historical precedence, cultural inspiration, and art of landscape beautification, such as follies, mazes, statues, ha-has, and so on. Landscape design was a pure art form, and the men who rose in the field were artists on par with a master painter or musician.

Further References:

Royal Gardeners by Alan Titchmarch – The House of Hanover excerpt

The National Trust, Georgian Gardens: 1714-1830

Parks & Gardens UK



Sharon Lathan

Sharon Lathan is the best-selling author of The Darcy Saga, a ten-volume sequel series to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice.

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