BOOK REVIEW / Old variations on park themes: Natasha Walter on a new book that examines the inescapable influence of picturesque art on the way we see now. 'Nature Pictorialised' - Gina Crandell: Johns Hopkins, 29 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
NATURE PICTORIALISED claims to be the first book to stress the importance of art and literature as forces that have shaped landscape architecture. But Gina Crandell makes pretty good use of all those writers who have discussed the subject before her, from essayists like William Gilpin and Sir Uvedale Price, who kicked off the 18th-century self-consciousness about the picturesque, to writers like Nikolas Pevsner, who re-stated it in 1968 when he said the landscape garden 'was conceived by philosophers, writers and virtuosi - not by architects and gardeners'.

Still, the story Crandell has to tell is endlessly fascinating, because it's not just about landscape architecture but about daily life, about something as apparently unthought and untaught as the way we see. Writing from the point of view of a landscape architect, Crandell tells us that it is generally accepted among her profession that the Greeks had no sense of landscape design whatsoever. This could cause a murmur of dissent among people who have experienced the superb and approachable effects of Greek buildings in their settings. But Crandell goes on to explain that the Greeks had sensual, not visual, feelings about the land as a repository of divine and natural forces, of which man was a participant, not a spectator. The Greeks strikingly lacked the seeing habits that are predicated on the viewer: elegantly framed views, receding perspectives, photogenic approaches.

This idea of using landscape in ways that do not rely on the distanced spectator is tantalising. We want to get our imaginations around it; but Crandell's treatment lacks conviction. She refuses to supply pictures of temple-settings that ignore our conventions of landscape design - or even ground-plans or aerial views. Perhaps more unfortunately, in view of the general direction of the book, which ends up in Europe and America, she does not make even a passing nod to Neolithic or Native American 'landscape architecture', which might provide further ways of challenging our conventions of living in our own land.

Crandell comes into her own when she traces that easy and elegant line to pictorialism, from the medieval artist through the Renaissance to the 17th- and 18th-century apotheosis of the picturesque. It is salient to be reminded that until the glowing pastorals of Claude Lorrain and the rugged wildernesses of Salvator Rosa, we did not do things as seemingly obvious as touring countries specifically to view landscapes or trying to make parks out of our own land. Those eminently artificial pictures that relied on framing devices, perspectival illusions and serpentine lines provided no direct route to nature, but certainly gave the momentum for Capability Brown's three-dimensional studies in landscape design, and viewing habits like those of William Gilpin, who was a snap-happy tourist before the camera existed: 'The whole view was pleasing,' he once wrote, 'but to make it particularly picturesque by gaining a good foreground, we were obliged to change our station backward and forward, till we had obtained a good one. Two large plane trees, which we met with, were of great assistance to us.'

Crandell tends to overstate the effects of the picturesque movement, whose detritus remains in our postcard industry, tourism and chocolate box design, but whose greatest cultural force was necessarily confined to the coolly enlightened 18th century. And when she gets to America she seems blinded by it. Here, she states, the attitude to the new continent, particularly the setting up of the Yellowstone National Park, was entirely moulded by this aristocratic, 18th-century view: 'The very notion of a 'new' world obviously presupposed the presence of an 'old world'. This old world did the defining, and provided a way of seeing which was then superimposed on the vast terrain of the United States.'

But in this Crandell simplifies. While the American painters she concentrates on were, admittedly, still searching out the picturesque, their works frame only part of the cultural landscape. In the works of American thinkers like Thoreau and Emerson, and painters throughout Europe, other movements were afoot. Romanticism is not mentioned in Crandell's index, and neither are artists as diverse as Turner, Caspar David Friedrich, or Constable, who said in 1822: 'A gentleman's park is my aversion. It is not beauty because it is not nature.' The conception of the wilderness, the desire to have nature unspoilt, not framed and replanted, began to permeate the cultural consciousness from the end of the 18th century, and was given a boost by the accessible American wilds. Crandell chooses to downplay that shift in cultural judgement, which may leave Gilpin recognisable to us, but has stripped him of his cultural resonance. How much more do we respond to Thoreau's: 'Shall I not have intelligence with the earth? Am I not partly leaves and vegetable mound myself?'

She also shows an odd insensitivity to the social, rather than simply cultural, forces that shape our attitudes to our land. In an aside she says that 'The celebration of landscape and the obsession with 'nature' in 19th-century America coincided, rather ironically, with the relentless destruction of the land.' Rather than coinciding with, this obsession undoubtedly sprang from that destruction; artists, writers, and ordinary people began to fetishise their relation to nature as it became more threatened. By choosing a narrow definition of the cultural sphere, Crandell forgets to look further outward and further inward.

And if the picturesque does still hold excessive sway over her profession, what hope is there for it? If Romanticism, Impressionism and Modernism have passed landscape architecture by, it is hard to see how the tricksy post-modern artists Crandell brings out of the gallery are going to help. We hear about the artist who puts a mirror where Mona Lisa's face is, in front of that detailed Italian landscape; and about the one who paints copies of Dutch landscapes and then covers them with layers of wax. Crandell does not, as she might have done, draw any links between this disintegrated perspective on landscapes and the ancient, pre-perspectival view of nature which still captures the imagination of New Agers and travellers, walkers and artists. She subscribes to a fashionable, but unconvincing, view, when she shows that she believes that nature has been talked out, that we have 'numbed environmental responses' and that the 'craggy mountain top' or 'wild park' 'is not the answer'.

Nor does she consider those contemporary artists that use much less tricksy and more impressively sensual ways of dealing with the strange glory of nature - from the stone circles and walks of Richard Long to the fences, wrappings and umbrellas of Christo. By arguing that the 18th-century vision is the big trick that must be discredited, Crandell has talked herself into a false dichotomy: the pastoral illusion or its flippant destruction: 'Should we fill the pleasant meadow with syringes to show that what exists outside its borders must eventually encroach upon it?'