The Representation of Nature in 18th century British Arts

Tintern Abbey

Tintern Abbey captured the attention of multiple artists in the eighteenth century. It is a ruined church which can be found on the bank of the river Wye in Monmouthshire. Wordsworth rendered Tintern Abbey famously in his poem, but the picturesque qualities of the Wye Valley also lead to paintings by Gilpin and Turner. Some centuries later, the abbey still manages to attract artists: the American poet Allen Ginsberg wrote his poem Wales Visitation at Tintern Abbey, after dropping some acid. The Wye Valley, and the pure, unspoiled nature in general, caused a great influence on artists. In different arts, going from poetry till the art of painting, nature is one of the most important themes in the eighteenth century. First of all, the role nature will be discussed, and more precisely that of the Wye Valley, in the writings of the Wordsworths. Following that, we will find out how nature is represented in some famous eighteenth century paintings, focusing on the painter John Constable.

 “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798”

William Wordsworth

 In his poem “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a tour, July 13, 1798” Wordsworth returns after five years with his sister, Dorothy, from a trip remembering his previous excursions to this area that meant so much to him. He reflects back on the emotional feelings he experienced during that first time and how he enjoyed the landscape. However, during this last visit, he realizes he has matured and cannot go back to that moment in the past. That is why he makes a mirror image of his younger sister Dorothy, as he teaches her how to look at nature the way he used to look at it. In doing so, he provides himself with those past joyous feelings as he fondly remembers them now, while thanking his sister for bringing him to his former place of residence and student years once more.

 Tintern Abbey is one of Wordsworth’s most famous poems. The poem can be seen as a record of the different stages in his poetic career. In the poem, the speaker sees Tintern Abbey and the surrounding valley from a hill. The reader is confronted with a sense of overview. The conception of nature and the composition of the landscape in it, can be compared with that of Constable, a contemporary painter, who will be discussed a bit further. In the poem, Wordsworth connects the human world with the divine world through the world of Nature. He finds the unity of the universe in the Wye valley. In this stage of Wordsworth’s life, he conceptualises nature as some sort of religion, and ‘the universal human malady in mind and heart could be cured only by Nature’s “holy plan”’. This higher power attributed to nature is clearly visible in the following lines (l. 107-110):

Of eye, and ear,–both what they half create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognise
In nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being.

 In the poem, there are only traces of people, but not people itself. That lack of figures is part of the motive of representing the landscape as wild, untouched and desolate. The traces (hedge-rows, farms, smoke) are visible in the next few lines (l. 11-19):

These plots of cottage-ground, these orchard-tufts,
Which at this season, with their unripe fruits,
Are clad in one green hue, and lose themselves
‘Mid groves and copses. Once again I see
These hedge-rows, hardly hedge-rows, little lines
Of sportive wood run wild: these pastoral farms,
Green to the very door; and wreaths of smoke
Sent up, in silence, from among the trees!

 Wordsworth also mentions the Hermit. The Hermit can be regarded as a symbol for solitude and the integration of the human presence in the landscape (l. 22-23):

Or of some Hermit’s cave, where by his fire
The Hermit sits alone.

Wordsworth’s influences

Wordsworth writings clearly reflect his love for nature and his relation with her. Most often his writings notify the beauty of nature as opposed to the horror of nature, in a few of his writings. The poet seems to have a particular affection towards nature and therefore presumable uses many adjectives to vividly describe all his perceptions of nature.

It is pleasurable to read Wordsworth’s poetry as the poet acquaints the reader with the beauty of nature. Wordsworth considered nature to be more than a collection of trees, bushes, hills, streams […] to him nature has personality, almost similar to humans with a power to poetically inspire those who love her. He considers nature as a friend, teacher and guide and claims that he could feel the presence of spirituality in nature like no other poet could.

 P.B. Shelley, in his poem To Wordsworth, calls Wordsworth ‘Poet of Nature,’ as William Hazlitt calls him poet of the mountains, and both these appellations are very appropriate for Wordsworth, because Wordsworth both got his poetic inspiration and materials for his poems from nature. Right from the poems which he wrote in his early years, we find that his poems are suffused with the beauty and descriptions of nature, as if nature followed him like a shadow. (Sarker, 2003: 300)

However, as William spent most of his life living with his sister, Dorothy, it might be reasonable to acknowledge she might have had a considerable influence on his life and writings. Her love and passion for nature is similarly reflected in her writings and as Coleridge puts a strain on her as “her eye watchful in minutest observation of nature”. Both Wordsworth family members seem to find peace and understanding in nature as Dorothy mentions “It was a sight that I could call to mind at any time it was so distinct.” referring to nature in which she could be herself. As William Wordsworth took nature to be his truest friend, so did Dorothy too.

 Nature in Constable’s paintings

 As Wordsworth describes and admires nature in all its glory and aspects in his poem, so has it also been done in the art of painting. John Constable (1776-1837) was one of the first English painters who started painting in the countryside, always trying to capture the landscape of his native region in that one moment. He was not very successful in his own country, but in France he had some following. One of his most known paintings The Hay Wain has had quite an influence on French artists. It has inspired painters such as Eugène Delacroix. Together with William Turner (1775-1851), Constable is acknowledged for his innovation in painting landscapes.

Branch Hill Pond – 1825

Constable is particularly known for his depiction of clouds that symbolize the sublime in his paintings. Wordsworth connects to the divine world through his verbal descriptions of nature, while Constable does this by painting the clouds and pastoral nature that surrounds him. Such as in Branch Hill Pond he presents an everyday image of the Hampstead Heath in which the landscape looks rustic and picturesque. The human entities such as the farm and the cart with the labourers are nestled into the landscape. There is a symbiotic relationship present between nature and humanity. Later on he focused more and more on the ever-changing weather, shown in his extensive collection of cloud studies and landscapes.In Chain Pier for example, Constable makes the weather more dynamic and expressive. It is as if it is possible to feel the wind and rain coming out of the painting. Often there are humans present in Constable’s paintings, or at least traces of human existence, yet nature and landscape are always the biggest entity in the paintings. The humans presence adds to the landscape but never overpowers/controls it.

The Chain Pier – 1827

Dedham Vale – 1828


Wordsworth’s poetry reflects the thematic characteristics of the Romantic period perfectly. Following Rousseau’s conviction that in nature ‘the essential passions of the heart’ could be found in their purest form, his poems show the same interest in nature and escaping to it. However, his poetry is more than just describing nature. He places himself in the landscapes he describes and talks about his own observations and emotions. His poetry is both spontaneous and controlled, comparable with nature itself. Wordsworth believed that the naturalistic state of a person is tranquility and should not be overwhelmed by society. Therefore, nature could be an escape for him.


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Constable, John. Dedham Vale. 1828. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
Constable John. The Chain Pier. 1827. Artstore Slide Gallery. Web. 15 November 2012.
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Heughebaert, H., et al. Artistieke Opvoeding. Wommelgem: Uitgeverij Den Gulden Engel, 1988. Print.
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Alexander Pope and the eighteenth-century garden

The Citadelpark, Ghent’s most well-known public garden, is a perfect combination of ‘natural’ and cultural elements. On a stroll through, you can find statues, Roman-inspired buildings, columns, and a kiosk, but also waterfalls, a lake, trees, ancient ruins and a grotto. The latter may seem natural, but are in fact carefully designed, artificially made, with a watchful eye for detail and variety. The park is a great nineteenth century example of the popular English garden that has its origins in the eighteenth century. However, where the Citadelpark today mostly provides a pleasurable stroll, the gardens in the eighteenth century were much more than that.

Citadelpark, Ghent (

The eighteenth-century garden

At that time, Great Britain was already one of the world’s most influential powers. Most of its revenue came from the colonies with materials such as mining resources, cotton and gold. In the eighteenth century, the British aristocracy started to invest in trading, and consequently gained more money. With these profits they felt an urge to rebuild their estates. To reflect Britain’s new role as a powerful empire, they looked back to ancient Rome and Greece, therefore implying that Britain was the new Rome (Beulens and Claes, 2012). The English garden became true landscapes, with breathtaking open vistas with triumphal arches and winding roads with pleasant shades and small rivers.

The first to successfully mix the Roman style with the contemporary tastes was Andrea Palladio, an Italian architect. He based his work on the Vitruvian principle that architecture should be solid, useful and beautiful. His design is characterized by classical elements such as frontons, columns, symmetry, and friezes, with emphasis on simplicity and geometrical patterns. This type of architecture became known as the Palladian style and was dominant in Europe for the next two centuries. Inigo Jones was the pioneer in England to use Palladio’s design in his architecture and stage designs. The same principles were used to rebuild several cities such as Edinburgh and the City of London (designed by Christopher Wren when the City burned down in 1666).

Villa Foscari La Malcontenta, design by Andrea Palladio (

Stowe Garden, Vista (

Stowe Garden, Palladian Bridge (

Harewood House, Garden Terrace, Leeds (

When the British aristocracy started to redesign their estates, they were also inspired by the Palladian style.  Many of them were friends of Alexander Pope, who was not only a poet but also a source of inspiration for landscape designers, being a fervent gardener himself.  Pope, being a Catholic, was not allowed to own property in London, so he bought an estate, Twickenham, just outside the city along the river Thames. His garden was famous and greatly admired. Many people asked him for advice and wanted to contribute to his garden by sending in stones, fossils and minerals from all over Britain. After his death, these things were often stolen by visitors and were kept as souvenirs. Hence, not much of the actual splendour of the garden remains; the only thing left is the Grotto, which is also a pale image of what it used to be.

Pope’s Grotto (

Pope’s opinion on gardening

Pope is the perfect representative of Augustan poetry, and he uses the same principles when it comes to landscape gardening. The Augustan style takes its inspiration from ancient Rome and Greece, emphasizing elegance, harmony, balance, formal strictness, simplicity and being capable of using Sense (thinking rationally and keeping your emotions under control) (Beulens and Claes, 2012). In his poem Epistle to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, he explains these principles to describe what a perfect garden should be like. He illustrates this by contrasting it with a bad example: the garden of Timon.

“At Timon’s Villa let us pass a day,
Where all cry out, ‘What sums are thrown away!’
So proud, so grand, of that stupendous air,
Soft and Agreeable come never there.” (l. 99-102)

There are three main things that bother Pope about his garden. First of all, a garden should be balanced, which means that people should treat a garden like a “modest fair, nor over-dress, nor leave her wholly bare” (l. 51-52). This means that there should be an equal amount of the ‘natural’ and the cultural. However, the natural is mostly artificial since it is manipulated to make it seem as if it was not man-made. A good designer respects the materials he is working with, and his goal is to improve what is already there. Secondly, a garden needs variety; behind every corner you should find something new that keeps you stimulated. Too much of the same can overwhelm or  bore you:

“On ev’ry side you look, behold the Wall!
No pleasing Intricacies intervene,
No artful wilderness to perplex the scene;
Grove nods at grove, each Alley has a brother,
And half the platform just reflects the other.” (l. 114-118)

Thirdly, a walk through the garden should be a pleasant experience, something which Timon did not achieve, due to a lack of variety. There are, for example, too many slopes, too few places to rest, too little shade, too many open vistas, and too many Roman ornaments:

“The suff’ring eye inverted Nature sees,
Trees cut to Statues, Statues thick as trees,
With here a Fountain, never to be play’d,
And there a Summer-house, that knows no shade.” (l. 119-122)

In short, Timon failed to respect the original natural scenery. His garden is dominated by cultural objects, and too many of the same patterns and decorations. In all of this, he has forgotten to include the natural, which results in a pompous and ostentatious impression.

Function of the garden

As mentioned in the introduction, the garden in the 18th century was aesthetic, but also functional. A walk in a garden was more than just a walk; it was a true experience. Visitors actively participated in the garden, smelling, touching, hearing and watching the scenery change as they walked along the paths. People read poetry to each other, music was played, and fruits or vegetables were cultivated (Bell 1990).

In Windsor Forest, Pope describes another important aspect of garden design. The garden reflects the abilities of its owner; if it is well-proportioned, it means that the owner is capable of Sense. This person knows how to take the golden middle-path: he is rational and balanced in his designs. Windsor Forest is a royal estate and therefore the king or queen should be as balanced and reasonable as his garden. A good land owner makes a good governor.

The poem celebrates the beauty of Windsor Forest, which is a reflection of the golden reign of Queen Anne. With each new king or queen, the garden changed according to his or her political abilities. In times of political disturbance, the garden was imbalanced and chaotic. Queen Anne’s reign, however, was peaceful, balanced, moderate and prosperous.

“Rich Industry sits smiling on the plains,
and Peace and Plenty tell a STUART Reigns. “ (l. 41-42)

Because Queen Anne is moderate and balanced, Windsor Forest has all the qualities of the perfect garden as Pope describes it. Moderation is key to running things the right way, not only in the garden but also in the nation.

“Here earth and water seem to strive again,
Not chaos like together crushed and bruised,
But as the world, harmoniously confused:
Where order in variety we see,
And where, though all things differ, all agree.” (l. 12-16)

Hunting was an important activity in Windsor Forest, which was exclusively practiced by the royal family. This might be interpreted as a reflection of British colonialism, as Pope cautiously suggests in lines 105-110:

“Thus (if small things we may with great compare)
When Albion sends her eager sons to war,
Some thoughtless town, with ease and plenty blessed,
Near, and more near, the closing lines invest;
Sudden they seize th’amazed, defenseless prize
And high in air Britannia’s standard flies” (l. 105-110)

Colonialism was associated with bringing civilization and improvement to the world. Being able to improve your garden is transferred to improving an entire country. However, the colonizer is associated with a hunter here, and there is a certain aspect of violence in Pope’s description of the hunt. Pope may have questioned colonial violence, but we cannot be completely sure of this.

“See! From the brake the whirring pheasant springs,
And mounts exulting on triumphant wings;
Short is his joy! He feels the fiery wound,
Flutters in blood, and panting beats the ground.” (l. 111-114)

In this quote, it does seem like Pope makes a strong association between the native Americans, the victims of the British colonization, and the pheasant, the victim of the hunt, by mentioning the colourful feathers and even moving to the metallic colour of gold, which was mined in Peru for example.

“Ah! What avail his glossy, varying dyes,
His purple crest, and scarlet-circled eyes,
The vivid green his shining plumes unfold;
His painted wings, and breast that flames with gold?” (l. 115-118)

However, this could also mean that he actually approves of the colonization. The native Americans have a lot of luxurious things, but do not seem to make use of them. According to Pope, a good land owner makes full use of the land’s resources.

In short, the poem describes how a good monarch should try to improve his or her nation, like he or she improves his garden. Queen Anne is a good land owner and therefore a good ruler. However, the hunting extract does raise some interesting questions about Pope’s opinion on colonialism.


We can conclude that, in the eighteenth century, gardening involved much more than just the aesthetic aspect, since the structure of the garden was interpreted as a direct reflection of the owner’s morality. On a larger scale, however, the new garden-structures represented the politics of that time. The renewed balance and harmony between nature and culture in the garden illustrated the restored peace and the glorious reign of Queen Anne after a long period of war and chaos. Alexander Pope was one of the leading figures to express this renewed peace and harmony, not only through his poems, but also literally through the structure of his garden and his ideas about garden landscaping.


Bell, Susan Groag. “Women Create Gardens in Male Landscapes: A Revisionist Approach to Eighteenth-Century English Garden History.” Feminist Studies 16.3 (1990): 471-491. Print.

Buelens, Gert and Claes, Koenraad. English Literature II Historical Survey: more recent period. Gent:  Academia Press, 2012. Print.

Citadelpark, Gent. Youropi. Web. 8 November 2012 (

Harewood House, Garden Terrace, Leeds. The Guardian. Web. 8 November 2012. (

Palladian Bridge. Grafting Landscapes / Inspirations: Stowe Garden. Web. 8 November 2012. (

Palladio, Andrea. Villa Foscari La Malcontenta. Wikipedia. Web. 11 November 2012. (http://www.

Pope, Alexander. “Epistle IV to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington. Argument of the Use of Riches.” 1731.

Pope, Alexander. “Windsor Forest.” 1713.

Pope’s Grotto. Thelondonphile. Web. 8 November 2012. (

Stowe House. Grafting Landscapes / Inspirations: Stowe Garden. Web. 8 November 2012. (