Enlightenment and Grand Estates

The start of the 18th century saw an explosion in country house building, fueled by rising prosperity but also a desire to escape the filthy towns and cities. But land management had been disrupted or mishandled since the break up of the huge monastery estates. No longer did farmers co-operate on irrigation schemes, and the idyllic notion of shared land within a village was fair, but immensely inefficient, and the cause of many local disputes to the extent that some of the enclosures acts were requested by locals in order to settle them. For this reason, many of the new landowning magnates were the only people with the means to farm efficiently, as a means of paying for their grand new mansions. The Palladian villas were working farms, so the estates that copied them also had to pay their way. Thomas Coke’s estate at Holkham which he designed with some help from William Kent was the result of a lot of research and planning by him, hence became famous for its agricultural improvements. This is Reed again:

“At Holkham many of those strands which go into the making of 18th century Britain are focused on one spot: the practical problems involved in farming and the contribution that the landlord could make by providing fixed capital and encouraging innovation in husbandry techniques are united with new directions i architecture and landscape gardening, in themselves facets of change in philosophical, literary and aesthetic values and concepts moulded and shaped by political opinion and experience.”

These all sound incredibly grand, but there was a huge price to be paid for them, both to British history, but also to the local people. For this reason, Reed calls them sterile.

“…their creators almost totally ignored the landscape which lay physically before their eyes, a landscape, the result of centuries of organic growth and slow change, its features created by the needs of generations of craftsmen and peasant farmers. Again and again, as these new gardens crept out over the countryside, villages and hamlets were swallowed up, their cottages leveled, their inhabitants dispossessed. At Stowe the village seems to have finally disappeared somewhere about 1730, although its church still stands [churches were picturesque, farmyards and peasants less so]. When Sir Gilbert Heathcote was building his great Palladian mansion at Normanton in Rutland early in the century, the village was in the way, and so it had to be demolished. The village of Edensor was moved to improve the view from Chatsworth and the village of Henderskelf now lies under he south front of Castle Howard. The passing of villages and hamlets in this was lamented by Goldsmith in his poem the Deserted Village, published in 1770. In regretting the depopulation of the countryside he inveighed against the increase of luxury, but the picture he drew of traditional English village life was no less idealised than the landscape of those who would demolish it.”

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