Potted Biography of Charles Bridgeman

Born - (Unknown) Died - 1738

An English landscape architect, active in the late 17th and early 18th centurys. He played a crucial role in the development of the English Landscape style, which lead to the freer designs of William Kent and Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. From 1728 to his death in 1738 he was Royal Gardener. Not much of his work survives, many gardens he designed were subsequently altered. Some of the gardens he was involved in are: Cliveden, Stowe Landscape Garden, Wimpole Hall, Chiswick House, Kensington Gardens, Rousham House, Claremont Landscape Garden and Hyde Park.

How important was Charles Bridgeman to the development of the informal landscape?

There is no single factor which could be declared the cause of the great revolution in garden design in the 18th century. The general movement is the rejection of the stiff, formal French and Dutch influenced gardens with their order, balance and symmetry. This was replaced by 'natural' gardens, landscaping replacing stilted formalism.

Background to informalism

Perhaps the main influence on this change was the dramatic change in taste for natural forms and landscape expressed in painting and poetry, for example Claude Lorraine and Nicolas Poussin's landscape paintings of the 1660's and 70's became extremely popular, and people wanted to mirror these 'stage-set' style landscapes on their own land. These landscape paintings were portraying an Arcadia, a pre-classical ideal of Greece and Rome of gentle landscape, where '…the genius of the place, and the Great Genius have at least prevailed' 1, advocating a return to the concept of the garden expressing Eden, or an earthly paradise. Less control over nature was wanted, the 'genius of the place' meaning there is beauty in nature itself, the informal style was to embellish natural beauty. The other ideal gardens aimed for was the Elysian Fields, the classical concept of heaven. The most important change is of strict formalism replaced by informality, the rejection of expensive parterre and terracing in favour of undulating grassland and copses of trees. The object was to create a living example of the paradise portrayed in landscape painting. Another supposed influence was the growing awareness of gardens from other cultures, most notably the Chinese tradition of natural beauty, harmony without symmetry and relation to the wider landscape. This was expressed as the concept of 'sharawagi', meaning the Oriental concept of beauty. Stories of Chinese non-geometrical designs had been heard in England in the 17th century, but it is difficult to relate traveler"s tales directly with actual landscape gardens, except for something like William Chambers' 'Chinese effects' at Kew, or deliberate styling of a garden.

Political Aspects

The political aspect of the switch in emphasis is that the British began to identify the lavish French styles of strictly formal garden layouts with the lavish expenditure of absolutist monarchs, so despised in England. The essayists Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Alexander Pope did much to turn opinion against the French style, though the first attack was against excesses in topiary.

'Our trees rise in cones, globes and pyramids. We see the mark of scissors upon every plant and bush … I would rather look upon a tree in all its luxuriancy and diffusion of boughs and branches.' 2

The problem we face now is that the gardens which Joseph Addison was attacking have all but disappeared, older style gardens were modified in the course of the landscaping revolution. What we have to go on now is contemporary engravings, such as Kip's and Knyff's views, and the conclusion that can be drawn is that there was much poor imitation of French and Italian design. Alexander Pope used the metaphor of rigid, formally controlled gardens representing the Absolutist systems and free growing 'natural' gardens representing the liberty of the English political system.

Use of trees

Another important aspect for the change of style in gardens is the need for timber. In the 18th century, timber was an important commodity for industry and war, especially for shipbuilding. The industrial use of the estate had to be thought about, timber was an important resource. John Evelyn was an early proponent of the need to grow more trees, through his book, Sylva, published in 1664. He was more concerned with the planting of large forest trees rather than garden design, but his ideas on forest cultivation were taken on board by the landscape architects of the 18th century. Trees were an important part of Bridgeman's designs, elm and beech for the grand avenues, as well as oak and fir to surround the Temples at Stowe. Many trees used in his designs must have been transplanted mature to achieve the look required for the garden, this is the only way the client could see results in his lifetime. Trees are also important for symbolism, political or otherwise. For example, Scots Pine was traditionally used to signify Jacobean sympathies.

Pope at Twickenham

Alexander Pope was the first theorist to put his ideas into practice at his villa gardens at Twickenham. This plan seemed to mix elements from both the formal and the informal style. For example, the garden has a central axis and geometric shapes, but also includes winding paths, grottoes and architectural elements. It exemplifies the transition between the European classic past and the romanticized, controlled nature of the English style.

Stowe and the Ha-Ha

The landmark change in approach was Bridgeman's redesign of the gardens at Stowe, begun in 1714. On the surface it seems to be another smaller copy of the Versailles tradition, with parterres, pools, fountains, canals and groves, as was the standard. But innovations are there. The whole garden is asymmetrical, the left side being larger than the right. The skewed cross axis is the remnant of a lane running from the Roman road to Stowe village, which lay south-east from the house.

Bridgeman's most innovative feature at Stowe was the introduction of the ha-ha into garden planning. The concept of the ha-ha had evolved from military fortifications, and some remnants of military planning can be seen in Bridgeman's plan for Stowe, such as protrusions in the ha-ha wall especially by the rotunda which look very much like bastions. This seems to be Bridgeman's main technical contribution to landscape design, adapting a conventional military design to garden use. On the other hand, there is evidence to suggest that the first sighting of the ha-ha concept in England was in John James's Theory and Practice of Gardening of 1712, where he shows how military fortification ideas can be used to keep animals out. But was Bridgeman the first to use it in a garden? Horace Walpole seems to think so:

'But the capital stroke, the leading step to all that has followed, was (I believe the first thought was Bridgeman's) the destruction of walls for boundaries, and the invention of fosses … an attempt then deemed so astonishing, that the common people called them Ha! Ha's! to express their surprise at finding a sudden and unperceived check to their walk.' 3
But Walpole goes on to say that William Kent 'was the first to leap the fence and show that the whole of nature was a garden'. But it is unclear whether he refers to Kent's use of the ha-ha or to his general opening-up of the wider landscape with his system of planned vistas.

The practical use of the ha-ha was to keep cattle out of the garden with a barrier unseen from the main vistas. An observer could look out without seeing any physical barrier, and so breaking down the barrier between the garden and the rest of the estate. This device was perfect for the new trend in formless, natural landscapes and has been used constantly ever since. Bridgeman's use of the ha-ha at Stowe seems to be experimental, the ha-ha in the plan seems to just surround the Home Park and Elysian Fields providing uninterrupted views into the parks but not it seems into the wider landscape. Bridgeman integrates the garden and the parks but not the landscape as well, which later landscape architects mastered.

True Informality?

Bridgeman exemplified this transitional stage in garden design, his plans encompass formal, transitional and progressive elements. He is still attached to the formal methods, with his geometrically shaped lakes, kitchen gardens and parterres, as well as straight, unifying avenues cutting through plans and terminated by architectural elements. He manages to adopt and adapt readily, producing his transitional ideas, for example the amphitheatres, grass banking and cabinets set in woodland. He seems most progressive when using garden buildings and the ha-ha, beginning to link landscapes and vistas together, practices continued by Kent and Brown. There are two general characteristics to Bridgeman's work, a concern for the 'genus loci' or genius of the place, that the landscaping should reflect and increase the natural beauty of the site. Also, his liking for large features, his 'extravagant way of thinking', which Stephen Switzer criticises him for:

'…this Notion has been in many Places carried so far, that no Parterre or Lawn that was not less than 50 or 60 Acres, some of them 80, 90, or 100, were by him esteemed capacious enough, though it sometimes took up the whole Area of Ground, and made the Building or Mansion-house in the middle look very small, and by no means proportionable to it.' 4
Such criticism is understandable from on of Bridgeman's contemporaries, someone who he is fighting for commissions with, and Switzer offers no specific example, so comments like this are probably partially unfounded. Bridgeman never really expressed complete informality in the style of 'Capability' Brown or Humphrey Repton in his gardens; there are always geometric shapes to be found.


Bridgeman's contribution to the development of the informal style was essentially transitional, he was one of the first to break with the entirely formal tradition, but he still included formal elements in his gardens. Later landscapers improved on his informal ideas, such as Kent's clumps of trees, interlocking vistas and use of architectural elements. The main contribution for which Bridgeman is remembered is the use of the ha-ha in the landscape, an important element of all informal landscapes, enabling a link to the wider landscape. The ha-ha is considered to be first used by Bridgeman, but his contribution is much wider, he was one of the first to implement a recognizably informal style of garden, a style which was much developed by later landscapers.

  1. Anthony Cooper, Earl Shaftesbury, The Moralists Book III Section II, 1709.
  2. Addison, J, The Spectator no. 414 June 25, 1712
  3. Walpole, Horace, History of the Modern Taste in Gardening, 1780
  4. Switzer, Stephen, Ichnographia Rustica, 1718


N. T. Newton, Design on the Land, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1974
S. Switzer, ‘Ichnographia Rustica’, in M. Charlesworth, ed., The English Garden: Literary Sources & Documents Vol. 1, Robertsbridge, 1993, pp.353 – 384
L. Fleming & A. Gore, The English Garden, London, 1979
B. Colvin, Land and Landscape: Evolution, Design, and Control, London, 1970
G. B. Tobey, A History of Landscape Architecture, New York, 1973
P. Willis, Charles Bridgeman and the English Landscape Garden, London, 1977

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