Being the landscape

Stourhead, Wiltshire, in autumn, with the Temple of Apollo in the distance. ©NTPL/Ian Shaw

In the most recent issue of Views, the National Trust’s technical bulletin, I published an article about Chinese landscape painting and its relevance to English landscape gardens.

Interior of a later seventeenth-century Japanese lacquer cabinet at Penrhyn Castle, Gwynedd. ©NTPL/John Hammond

The English landscape garden was developing at a time when there was a strong presence of East Asian imagery in Britain, both through imported goods and in the form of chinoiserie.

Early spring, by Guo Xi (c. 1020- c. 1090)

Traditional Chinese landscape painting is conceived as an expression of the dynamic harmonies of the universe. Consequently painters can choose from three modes of perspective.

‘Deep distance’ (shen-yuan) shows a bird’s-eye-view over successive mountain ranges towards a distant horizon. This perspective is the one most frequently employed in Chinese painting.

Lofty Mt Lu, by Shen Zhou (1427-1509)

With ‘high distance’ (gao-yuan), mountains are seen from below. This perspective tends to be used in particular for vertical picture formats.

Huts in autumn rain, by Wang Hui (1632-1707)

‘Level distance’ (ping-yuan) constitutes a continuous recession to a relatively low horizon. This type of perspective is most akin to that of western painting.

In contrast to the fixed viewpoint of western perspective, the three Chinese modes of perspective invite the viewer to zoom through the landscape, like a bird in flight. This sense of oneness with the landscape then allows the viewer to directly experience its dynamic harmony.

Do we discern hints of deep and level distance at Stourhead? ©NTPL/Ian Shaw

These finer points of East Asian aesthetics do not seem to have been grasped in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. The English landscape style was mainly a reaction against and development out of the formal Baroque style. But the ubiquity of Asian objects may nevertheless have given it a little nudge in the same direction.

You can read more about this in the full article, on pp. 56-8 of issue 47 of Views.

7 Responses to “Being the landscape”

  1. Barbara Says:

    Excellent article Thanks, again.

  2. littleaugury Says:

    Emile, such a wonderful topic-I will read the article in full. It is always a complete joy to see what you are up to- you bring clarity, joy and nuance to topics that could otherwise be too textbook and staid for the likes of me. many thanks, Gaye

  3. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Barbara and Gaye, thank you. Yes it is fun to try to make connections between places, objects and ideas – a treasure hunt in more ways than one. I am glad you enjoy following the trail.

  4. Janet Says:

    I am looking forward to reading it. It is an intriguing topic. . . and certainly, how could English gardens not have been influenced? Yes, yes, yes. The whole concept of distances makes perfect sense. I would argue the same for Dutch gardens.

  5. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Janet, great that you like the idea; the problem is that it is very difficult to pinpoint the exact degree of influence/inspiration from east to west in the area of gardens and landscapes. But the possibility itself already makes one see the English landscape garden in a slightly different way.

    I am intrigued by your mention of Dutch gardens – are there particular aspects of Dutch gardens you think might show Asian inspiration?

  6. Janet Says:

    Well, as you say, it is difficult to pinpoint, but in regards to Dutch gardens, I certainly think the concept of distance and perspective, the creation of picturesque vistas (I am thinking Twickle for one). And of course the Dutch fascination with exotic flowers. And certainly, there is a correlation with Chinoiserie.

  7. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Fascinating – you should write an article exploring the Dutch/gardens/chinoiserie nexus: Twickel as the ‘locus Sinensis’ in Dutch garden history 🙂

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