A cruise along `blest Thames's shores'

Arcadia in Twickenham? The poet Alexander Pope was just one literary gardener who found his idyll down by the riverside Gay, Swift and Pope were a powerful trio, `the three Yahoos of Twickenham'
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The Independent Culture
Johann Zoffany's charming paintings of David Garrick's Thames- side villa garden reflect the lifestyle of the man who was perhaps the greatest of England's actors and theatre managers... Zoffany had experienced the Garricks' famous hospitality at first-hand when he stayed with them in 1762; he shows the actor relaxing, rehearsing his lines for the next Drury Lane production, or writing plays and occasional verses, playing with his nieces and dogs, watching his guests fishing from the bank and taking tea with his delightful wife, the dancer Eva Maria, on the lawn by his Shakespeare temple...

The focal point of Garrick's riverside garden was his Shakespeare temple (right), built in 1755, the year after he had bought the villa. Shakespeare was Garrick's idol and, as a theatre manager, he aimed to restore his plays to favour and to discredit the Restoration playwrights. Inside the temple he placed a life-size statue of the poet by Roubiliac, which is now in the British Museum. Wine flowed freely in the temple where visitors had to pay homage to Shakespeare and were encouraged to write verses in his honour...

Garrick, [Horace] Walpole and the writer Richard Owen Cambridge, who were friends and neighbours, were all in the throes of laying out their newly-acquired villa gardens when Hogarth's Analysis of Beauty was published, and serpentine walks in the line of beauty began to span the garden ground at Hampton, Strawberry Hill and Twickenham Meadows. Walpole's serpentine walk bordered by flowering shrubs was well advanced in the autumn of 1753 and in 1755 he was writing that he "had contracted a sort of intimacy with Garrick, who is my neighbour. He affects to study my taste"...

Garrick could not resist making fun of the seriousness of the zeal for landscape gardening... Garrick's most famous words on the serpentine line occur when Mr Sterling's improvements are discussed in The Clandestine Marriage, the play which took London by storm in 1766: "Ay, here's none of your strait lines here - but all taste - zigzag crinkum-crankum - in and out - right and left - to and again - twisting and turning like a worm, my Lord."...

Garrick's death in 1779, in Johnson's words, "eclipsed the gaiety of nations", and certainly there were no more scenes at Hampton House such as Zoffany had painted; but his wife lived on until 1822, maintaining the garden as she and her husband had known it and pointing out to visitors the trees they had planted themselves. She would doubtless have often recalled Dr Johnson's own praise of their beloved Thames-side retreat: "Ah David, it is the leaving of such places that makes a deathbed so terrible."

Horace Walpole, famous all over Europe for his Strawberry Hill gothic, an antiquarian, collector, romance writer, patron of poets and of the picturesque, was also a "gardenist" as he termed it...

Walpole believed that "the possessor, if he has any taste, must be the best designer of his own improvements". When a friend asked him if his garden was going to be gothic like his little castle, the author-to-be of the spine-chilling Castle of Otranto made it clear that he had no intention of emulating a gothic novel hero who sought out the "gloomiest shades as best suited to the pleasing melancholy that reigned in his mind", but, on the contrary, he wanted a garden for Strawberry Hill, which would be nothing but riant and the gaiety of nature".

Alexander Pope (1688-1744) created a life of classical retirement for himself at Twickenham, much as Horace Walpole was later to induce a medieval habit of mind into his reclusive life at neighbouring Strawberry Hill... Throughout his life Pope lived near the Thames... His only break was the occasional visit to friends' country houses, but for him there were "no scenes of paradise, no happy bowers, equal to those on the banks of the Thames". In his first pastoral, composed at the age of 16 and headed by an appropriate quotation from Virgil on the delights of a sylvan river valley, he wrote:

First in these fields I try the sylvan strains,

Nor blush to sport on Windsor's blissful plains:

Fair Thames, flow gently from this sacred spring.

While on thy banks Sicilian Muses sing...

Blest Thames's shores the brightest beauties yield

Feed here my lambs, I'll seek no distant field.

Twickenham soon became known as the classic village once Pope had settled there. "The Gods and fate have fix'd me on the borders of the Thames, in the Districts of Richmond and Twickenham," he wrote with satisfaction. He felt at one with Horace and Cicero, who associated their country retreats with contemplative study and poetic composition, and he frequently called his Twickenham retreat "my Tusculum", after Cicero's villa outside Rome.

All in all, the life and landscape of "Twickenhamshire", as Walpole called it, was pure Arcadia for Pope. The nymphs and shepherds were no imaginary swains of a golden age but recognisably of Queen Caroline's court at Richmond. At Marble Hill, Henrietta Howard, whom Pope called a "pastoral lady", the Chloe of his eclogues, entertained literati, including Jonathan Swift and John Gay, at one of Pope's most "happy bowers" along the Thames. Across the river, the Duchess of Queensberry, who had her portrait painted as a milkmaid and boasted that she could personally milk a cow, gave Gay a summerhouse by the Thames in which to write his poems. Gay, Swift and Pope were a powerful trio, "the three Yahoos of Twickenham", as Bolingbroke called them, and Pope relished Swift's satire worlds of Lilliput and Brobdingnag...

Pope contrived a number of "pleasing intricacies" in a small space: an arcade, a bowling green, a mount, a vineyard, quincunxes measured out by Lord Peterborough, and a theatre made by Bridgeman's labourers spared from Richmond by the Princess of Wales. He used the rules of painting he had learnt from the artist Charles Jervas and gave greater distance to his short alleys by darkening and narrowing the planting. He also worked out the psychology of literary and emotional associations in relation to visual effects, inducing melancholy or cheerful moods by various planting. After his mother's death in 1733, he erected an obelisk in her memory at the end of a solemn cypress walk. It much impressed Walpole.

Walpole said of Pope that "of all his works he was most proud of his garden", and that "it was a singular effort of art and taste to impress so much variety and scenery on a spot of five acres"... Lord Burlington's garden at Chiswick, which, unlike Pope's, can still be seen today, is a grander version of the poet's classical garden at Twickenham.

The principles that governed both gardens are revealed in Pope's Epistle to Lord Burlington of 1731:

Let not each beauty ev'ry where be spy'd,

Where half the skill is decently to hide.

He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds

Surprizes, varies and conceals the Bounds.

Taken from `Arcadian Thames', hardback £16.50 (Barn Elms Publishing)