Sanderson Miller and His Landscapes
Jennifer Meir, Sanderson Miller and His Landscapes (Chichester: Phillimore, 2006), xii + 260 pp., illus. in colour and black-and-white, £30.00 (hbk), ISBN 1-86077-387-7
Until recently Sanderson Miller has been seen as a minor figure in the eighteenth-century landscape scene, with his name usually eliciting the response, ‘oh, yes, ruined castles’. But there was much more to him than that, and study of the man and his works has been gathering momentum. William Hawkes, in the footsteps of his father Neville, has studied Miller for many years, culminating in the publication of Miller’s diaries covering part of the years 1749–50 and 1756–57. Michael Cousins has researched and written on a number of sites where Miller was involved, but until now no one has attempted to consider his oeuvre as a whole in relation to the landscapes or garden settings in which his buildings were positioned.
Miller was the spiritual descendant of John Vanbrugh in recognizing the impact of Gothic and medieval buildings in a landscape. Not that his architecture was confined to Gothic, but the buildings that dominate and characterize the estates, say, of Hagley, Worcestershire, and Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, are his mock castles. As indeed with Vanbrugh, the difficulty is to determine how far (if at all) Miller contributed to the planning of the landscape as well as the design, and possibly the placing, of various garden buildings. This is the task Jennifer Meir has courageously set herself, and the results are thought-provoking, if rather heavily reliant on speculation, which the author admits.
The book is divided into an introduction, a biography of Miller, a background of history and garden history, Miller’s approach to landscaping and his ‘stylistic signature’, consideration of the properties at which he made some contribution (more than thirty-five are identified), and his connections with Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. There are some unfortunate errors, such as stating that Venus’s Vale was at the Leasowes, Worcestershire (p.53), and that the Gothic Gateway and Museum at Enville, Staffordshire, were one and the same (p.104).
The account of Radway, Warwickshire, Miller’s own property, with analysis of the costly Act of Enclosure that was involved is detailed and convincing as to Miller’s ability to create landscape of a naturalistic kind at a time (slightly pre-Brown) when the landscape garden, especially in the shires, was in its infancy. Miller is rightly hailed as a pioneer.
The extent of Miller’s involvement in the landscaping of other estates is less certain, however, and has been challenged by Cousins on the grounds of a lack of archival evidence.* However, archives do not provide all the answers, and who is to know what transpired or evolved in the course of conversation between owners, Miller and others. The designer of a landscape in many cases (unless a professional consultant was brought in) would be the owner in concert with his friends. The words of Miller’s great-grandson on Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire, illustrate this perfectly: ‘In these works Mr Holbech [the owner] was assisted by the advice and taste of his friend and neighbour Sanderson Miller, of Radway’. This does not clinch the argument for Miller’s role: if anything, it suggests that Holbech was the main designer. Meir adds the timing and proximity of Radway to support the case for Miller designing the Farnborough landscape, but concedes that he was only in his early twenties, and the argument is by no means solid. It is generally accepted, however, that Miller designed most if not all of the garden buildings there (though, again, without documentary confirmation). So it is, too, with Wroxton, Oxfordshire, and Hagley, where Miller certainly designed buildings, but hard evidence of his input as a garden designer is lacking, though advice might well have been given.
The comparison of Brown’s landscaping with Miller’s is interesting, though if Miller was not primarily responsible, then what it shows is that Brown was to some extent following fashion (rather than Miller’s work) as well as creating it. The same problem attends discussion of Miller’s landscape ‘style’ — if he was not definitely the principal designer, can we speak of such a style? There is evidence that he was concerned with the placing of buildings, and the views obtainable from them, but that does not amount to a total landscape vision.
But even if the author’s case is not totally convincing, the book does a great service in bringing attention to the similarities and connections between a number of estates, especially in the western and southern Midlands, and to minor and vanished landscapes that are little known. It paints a vivid picture of garden making in the mid-eighteenth century, and records features, trends and design impulses prevalent at the time, with explanation of how and why these gardens evolved. In these respects it is a welcome contribution to the story of the eighteenth-century garden.
* Michael Cousins, ‘Book review’, Follies Magazine, 17/2 (no. 65) (2006), pp.15–16.
34:2 (Winter 2006)
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