When I was hawking the manuscript of The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman around different publishers I asked why I was being turned down. I was informed by one publisher that there was a problem: my cleavage had not been surgically enhanced; I was not married to a footballer; and my book was not about gardening. So I failed the three main criteria for publishing success….
Public interest in ladies displaying their ample wares is nothing new (think Nell Gwyn…) and the popularity of sportsmen is deep-rooted (although in the 18th Century the adulation was reserved not for footballers but for the giants of the ring, the pugilists like Jack Broughton, James Figg and Daniel Mendoza). But what of gardening? How did that fare in the Georgian era?
Many know of Capability Brown, some know of Humphry Repton, but one name largely overlooked is Batty Langley. Batty (sometimes used as a diminutive form of Bartholomew) was baptised at Twickenham on 14th September 1696, the son of Daniel and Elizabeth Langley. His father was a jobbing gardener who seems to have been working for a David Batty, so the name may have been given to the baby in tribute to this patron. Batty Langley grew up in his father’s footsteps, keen on gardening but determined to spread his wings rather than pottering around with a spade and pruning knife. (I nearly said “secateurs”, but they were not invented until the Marquis Bertrand de Moleville fled to England after the French Revolution).
At the age of 23 Batty married, but his wife Anne died after producing four children from seven years of marriage. He remarried and went on to sire another ten children, to whom he bequeathed such fanciful names as Euclid, Vitruvius and Archimedes. Shades of my grandfather, who had to be persuaded that ‘Vaseline’ was not a suitable name for one of his male offspring, nor ‘Alopecia’ or ‘Lanolin’ for a girl…
Batty Langley received a commission to do some design work for Thomas Vernon at Twickenham Park. There he encountered a large sandpit and managed to convert “this perfect nuisance” into “a very agreeable beautiful” spiral garden, using hornbeam hedges. It was the start of a fascination with shapes and serpentine mazes which led him in 1728 to publish his oeuvre “New Principles of Gardening; or The Laying out and Planting Parterres, Groves Wildernesses, Labyrinths, Avenues Parks etc”
The sub-title gave claim to the fact that the methods described in the book were more ‘Grand and Rural’ than anything before, listing “Experimental Directions for raising the several kinds of fruit trees, Forest Trees, Ever Greens and Flowering shrubs with which gardens are adorn’d.”
The book contained very little new, but the illustrations were influential in bringing to people’s attention the use of shapes and winding vistas – he wanted gardens to lead the visitor through the design, rather than have everything in full view. There should be surprises around each corner or, as he put in the introduction: ‘Nor is there any Thing more shocking than a stiff regular Garden; where after we have seen one quarter thereof, the very same is repeated in all the remaining Parts, so that we are tired, instead of being further entertain’d with something new as expected.’
In other words it marked a move away from the rigidly, geometrical knot gardens favoured by the Elizabethan and Stuart gardeners, even if the world was not yet ready for the picturesque gardens of Capability Brown. Batty loved mazes, but often introduced swirls and patterns far removed from the traditional honeycomb designs.
Langley’s design for the gardens at Orleans House, Richmond.
In some ways his ideas were right at the start of the rococo movement; the problem was that this self-publicist thought that he was now the arbiter of taste in all areas of everyday life. He brought out books on carpentry and furniture design, prompting Horace Walpole to utter “All that his books achieved, has been to teach carpenters to massacre that venerable species, and to give occasion to those who know nothing of the matter, and who mistake his clumsy efforts for real imitations, to censure the productions of our ancestors, whose bold and beautiful fabrics Sir Christopher Wren viewed and reviewed with astonishment, and never mentioned without esteem.”
He submitted a design for a new Mansion House in London in 1735, only to have it described in the ‘St. James’s Evening Post’ as ‘a curious grotesque temple, in a taste entirely new…’ Undeterred, he pursued his ideas of “arti-natural” gardens, linked with what is now termed “Batty Langley Gothic” architecture. He felt that his writhing shapes and flowing designs were ‘exceeding beautiful in building, as in ceilings, parquetting, painting, paving, &c.’.
He published numerous tomes on building techniques, and on architecture under such inspiring titles as ‘The Builders Compleat Assistant’ (1738); ‘The City and Country Builder’s and Workman’s Treasury of Designs’ (1740); ‘The Builder’s Jewel, or the Youth’s Instructor and Workman’s Remembrancer’ (1741); ‘Ancient Architecture, restored and improved, by a great variety of Grand and Useful Designs’ and in 1748 ‘A Survey of Westminster Bridge, as ’tis now Sinking into Ruin.’
In general though, he was ridiculed for his designs for buildings. But for his gardening book he deserves to be remembered. ‘Arti-natural’ may not have been revolutionary but at least Langley encouraged trees to have a natural form rather than being pollarded out of existence. Look at a serpentine shape or a paisley design, and remember Batty Langley with affection.
He died at his Soho home in London in 1751, but I post this today on the anniversary of his baptism 316 years ago….