Description of the Idea and General-Plan for an English Park – written during the years 1811 and 1812 by Fredrik Magnus Piper

Posted on January 19th, 2010 by Charles Boot

Fredrik Magnus Piper, Description of the Idea and General-Plan for an English Park Written during the years 1811 and 1812 by Fredrik Magnus Piper, 2 vols, edited by Rebecka Millhagen, Magnus Olausson and John Harris (Stockholm: Byggförlaget
in collaboration with the Royal Swedish Academy of Fine Arts, 2004), 334 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £82.00
(hbk), ISBN 91-7988-259-5

Delayed by 192 years, Fredrik Magnus Piper’s ‘Beskrifning öfwer Idéen och General-Plan till en Ängelsk Lustpark’ has finally been published. This beautiful and, for garden historians, highly significant manuscript has until now been accessible only at the Academy of Fine Arts, Stockholm. The publication consists of a facsimile reprint of the manuscript note and sketchbook and a second volume with the transcribed text in both Swedish and English, as well as an introduction by John Harris and two essays by Magnus Olausson portraying Piper both in relation to his landscape design practice and to his theoretical efforts as they surface in his Description.

In Sweden, Piper (1746–1824), has long been considered ‘our’ eighteenth-century garden ‘hero’ – a remarkable landscape artist and designer responsible, in part, for the additions in the 1780s to the royal parks at Drottningholm and Haga, and he was a popular designer among many private patrons. However, Olausson’s research has shown that several gardens have been incorrectly attributed to Piper, which among other things reflects interestingly on how difficult it is in most landscape gardens to ascribe authorship to a single designer. The ‘heroes’ that popular history tends to construct rarely offer, if preserved in their heroic disguise, a useful source for more careful garden historical research. If very few documents are preserved from the time, and the only thing that exists are more than two hundred-year-old landscape formations and vegetation often in various states of maintenance, it is often very difficult to get beyond the popular creation of the heroes. This, however, is definitely not the case with Piper. On the contrary, a remarkably rich archive is left from his practice: not only his well-known beautiful drawings documenting Stourhead, Wiltshire, and Painshill, Surrey, but also many other plans and sketches, manuscripts (such as his ‘Descriptions’), notes taken on his travels, and some of the books from his library showing his annotations to Thomas Whately’s, William Chambers’s and Christian C. L. Hirschfeld’s garden treatises. It is very pleasing that such a significant detail of this rich material is now accessible to an international audience.

The publication of Description adds an important new perspective on Piper and his work for international garden history. In the manuscript we find an accomplished late eighteenth-century landscape designer, who had trained in England and France but practised in Sweden, and who in retrospect articulated his professional experience in the light of the theoretical works he had studied over the years (primarily those from Whately, Chambers, Jean-Marie Morel and Hirschfeld). He produced what might be referred to as a manual, or perhaps better a model, for the design of an English pleasure park (lustpark). In Piper’s words, the text aims ‘to give a clear and fairly complete idea of the main and most essential Rules which should be taken into account in the planning of a large Pleasure Garden or landscaped Park in the so-called English style’ (MS , p. 1; trans., p. 124). The point of departure is a General-Plan for an imaginary country seat that Piper exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1794. The main text describes this park and the most important decisions and reflections made in the course of its design. As important as the main text, however, is a second layer of text, represented in the footnotes. Carefully placed in the manuscript, written in smaller characters, Piper expands here sometimes on botanical and technical details of the design of the imaginary park, and at other times on remarks referring to his visits to other parks in England and France. The quality of the photographic reproduction of the manuscript pages is high enough to capture the traces of erased lead pencil lines, so anyone familiar with Swedish should of course take the opportunity to indulge in the text from these beautiful pages rather than follow the rather redundant transcription (the handwriting is remarkably easy to follow).

Piper’s international recognition in garden history depends largely on his very particular, beautiful and precise landscape plans and the careful documentation he accomplished during his travels in England and France. ‘Description’ was written more than thirty years after those study trips (which were undertaken in part on direct commission from King Gustav III). Trained as an engineer, particularly in mathematics and hydrostatics, before his academy studies, Piper had a particular interest in the conduct of water through gardens. He carefully studied the waterworks at Versailles as well as the hidden mechanisms for conducting ‘natural’ water to the grottoes of landscape gardens such as Stourhead and Painshill, and among his notes preserved at the Academy of Fine Arts one finds, for example, the detailed questions he had prepared to ask about the waterworks at the grotto at Stourhead to assure that he had correctly understood its workings. Piper’s engineering background might also explain the rare topographical precision of his landscape plans. Not only does he more carefully than in almost any other plans of the time shade the hills and slopes to articulate the degree, convexity or concavity of the landscape formations, but also in indicating the different sightlines as they travelled across the landscape, Piper articulates visually, in the limited two dimensions of the plan, the rhythm between lingering walks and reflective pauses as they are offered in closed scenes or at significant viewpoints drawing the landscape together.

The accompanying introduction and essays by Harris and Olausson are well written and place Piper and his manuscript in the proper garden historical context. In addition, Olausson performs a close reading of the manuscript and produces a critical commentary on the text in an essay entitled ‘A Practitioner becomes a Theorist’. With this title, Olausson frames precisely what may be the most interesting aspect for continued study in relation to Piper. Due to the wealth of archival sources, Piper offers rich pickings for the study of theory in relation to landscape garden design practice in the 1770s. This book provides a remarkable and intriguing source for learning more about a landscape designer’s decisive engagement in the intellectual discourse of the time. Therefore, this book is recommended as much to garden historians as to design practitioners in landscape, architecture and planning. It is an inspiring account of a highpoint of a culture, and of a designer, in which critical intellectual notions are provided with a natural place side by side to and in immediate conjunction with detailed botanical and technical design concerns. The smell of the soil befriends Edmund Burke (quoted anonymously by Piper).

Katja Grillner
School of Architecture, Royal Institute of Technology, SE-100 44 Stockholm, Sweden

32:2 (Winter 2004: The Swedish Issue)

Order this book through Amazon and earn some money for the Society

Search amazon.co.uk:

Search:
Keywords:
Amazon Logo

Search amazon.com:

Search:
Keywords:
Amazon Logo

Leave a comment