This annual “Inspiring Garden Design” series is going to have an international flavor in 2020, starting with the Cotswolds. There are many reasons that I traveled to England in December, the most important one prompting a first stop at Blenheim Palace…to view the 2,000 landscaped acres of this parkland masterpiece.
Created by Lancelot “Capability” Brown over an eleven year period beginning in 1763, Blenheim was one of the 170 completed landscapes that resulted in the prolific Brown earning the moniker of “the world’s most famous landscape designer.” That picturesque image we all carry in our minds of grand English estates…with the mansion at the center of carefully contoured grand pastures, dotted with specimen trees, serpentine lakes and sweeping lawns framed by woodlands…was owed to Brown’s esteemed talents.
At Hampton Court, Highclere (“Downton Abbey”) and Chatsworth, to name just a few, he tamed nature to create idealized visions that made him the darling of 18th century aristocrats and royalty. His nickname, “Capability,” came from his selling skills in convincing clients of the capability of improvements on their acreage (the results of which could not be fully appreciated for decades, if not a century). So persuasive was he that the Dukes of Marlborough have maintained this landscape exactly as Brown planned it over 260 years ago, a testimony to the respect of his patrons. The image below prompted King george III in 1786 to announce this “the finest view in England” (across the manmade lake, with the Palace at the far left and the stone bridge at the far right).
The immense scale of his projects is compellingly on view at Blenheim Palace. And yet, his three principles of design style–comfort, economy and elegance—create such a naturalistic view that one can never feel put off by the scale. Not one to hesitate at adding structures, he was, however, blessed with an elaborate Cotswold stone bridge that already existed at Blenheim. He needed “only” to build two dams to turn a trickling river into a breathtaking, forty-acre lake that embraces this magisterial Palace.
I treasured the opportunity I had early one misty morning when I left my little inn in Woodstock and walked through one of his two ornate stone gates. Proceeding along the drive and paths that wind throughout the park, I was able to fully appreciate one of his guiding dictates…carefully planned “glimpses” of the house (rather than a full view). The result of this thoughtfully conceived artifice is both enchanting and enticing. Here again, seemingly so simple, but what a difference it makes in the grand scheme!
In the 1920s, the ninth Duke of Marlborough employed French landscape architect, Achille Duchêne, to create two formal gardens close to the Palace that are a contrast to Brown’s parklands. Both were funded by the very large dowry that his then-divorced wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt of Newport, had brought to the marriage in 1895 (given English law, the funds remained in his possession). The new formal gardens included the Water Terraces on the west side of the Palace;
as well as the Italian Gardens on the east side. Both can easily be enjoyed from two sides of the main building’s wings, embracing this historic and magnificent English country estate.
The third addition to the new Formal Gardens was the romanticized rose circle, which affords a wonderfully nuanced view of the river.
Blenheim Palace became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, in recognition of this exceptional architecture by John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor and landscaping by “Capability” Brown. It is is one of the finest examples of Brown’s skill and vision in creating a seemingly natural and sublimely beautiful landscape. That he also strived to create a landscape with hidden elements creating a different image from every angle from which it was viewed puts him at the top of my most revered garden maker’s list.
All images courtesy of © Blenheim Palace.