Two scholars, Jay Appleton and Oliver Rackham, have independently found similarities between English parkland and savannah.
One explained this as an innate hunter-gatherer instinct to find beauty and comfort both in defensible places of shelter (pleasure ground) and in open prospect which would deny cover to marauding enemies (parkland). The other might have seen it as some atavism of the psyche that drove men to make parks that represented the terrain of the Stone Age.
Both scholars were trying to explain what it is that we find so appealing in the landscape design of Capability Brown.
Dr J of Stafford has been in touch to ask me where I stand on these theories, while the bard of Finsbury Park, Mr R, has just suggested, and not for the first time, that Brown’s landscapes are meaningless.
I am tempted, as so often in these circumstances, to take up a position that will, as it were, set all three theorists – Rackham, Appleton and Mr R – in a single line, so as to bowl ‘em over with a single fusillade.
Here then is one proposition, of the historico-political tendency: if in consciously trying to reproduce what it regarded as the ancient countryside of England, the 18th century stripped all the indications of human interference out of the view (fences and hedges, arable land, foreign trees), the result would be open ground studded by such native trees as had been growing in the hedges but still had a natural habit – that is to say, parkland, or savannah.
Here is a second, leaning more to the philosophico-political: Brown’s design was very much tied up with a liberal political philosophy. Any strong iconography (for example a landscape like Stowe’s that had a clear political message attached to its buildings and layout) would have been at odds with that freedom of the individual and tolerance for the beliefs of others that his design was trying to promote. On the other hand, if you strip the iconography out of a landscape, that does not make it meaningless.
Here is a third, politico-psychological in tone: there must be a psychological value in landscape – Rackham and Appleton both thought so, and so did John Claudius Loudon when he proposed that parks were essential to the well-being of people living in cities. Indeed this was an idea that Frederick Law Olmsted, the designer of Central Park, New York, took up a couple of generations later, in the 1860s. If certain components of landscape bring peace of mind – gently rolling topography, serenity and ease from anxiety; trees, a connection with other forms of organic life; quietly moving water, stillness and calm – then landscape can provide man with the freedom to veer to the verge, vent the mind of diurnal care, and relax upon the grass. By so doing it gives expression to a political principle.
Although this is no answer to your question Dr J, if you will permit me, than I would like to conclude that it is not possible to have either a good theory of politics or a good landscape that is not also beneficial in its effect on the psyche.