Romantic Landscapes

The “Greek Revival” that runs as a thread through the story of Thomas Anson and Shugborough is more of a matter of ideas and attitudes than of art and architecture. A new interest in nature and landscape is as much part of it as a desire to build reproductions of Greek buildings. The landowner, like Lord Lyttelton, might build his temple as a place to sit and contemplate the beauty of his estate, whether wild or “improved”. The 1748 developments at Shugborough, though only a few years earlier, were in a different style – a fanciful mixture of exotic buildings. In a very short time this rococo mixture was becoming out of date as a taste for the romantic and natural became fashionable – a taste that was far closer to the spirit of the Greek Revival and its recovery of Arcadia.

Thomas Wright followed the new fashion in the 1750s and a priceless fragment reveals that Thomas Anson was eagerly exploring the latest romantic landscapes in 1757.

The last reference to Thomas Wright in the Carter/Talbot correspondence dates from August 12th 1752 when Elizabeth Carter wrote to Catherine Talbot looking back over their friendship, and perhaps trying to make up for a disagreement:

“I always think with gratitude of the obligation I owe Mr. Wright. It was he who first excited my curiosity about you, and kindly contributed all in his power to gratify it, All the expectations which he had raised fell below my own experience: and that realities may sometimes exceed our most lively imagination, is a useful and very pleasing truth on which you so civilly congratulate me, indeed I never have found, nor desire to find any such thing.”(1)

There is a vague sense that Mr Wright has become a figure from the past. Even in 1750 there is no mention of him in Carter’s own letters. Her last mention of Wright was in June 1748 when he had been explaining his theory of the Universe to her at her uncle’s house at Enfield.

This may be an illusion. Carter’s letters to Wright do not survive and neither do his to her, though they must have existed when Montague Pennington wrote his memoirs of his aunt in the early 1800s. He printed one letter from Wright to introduce the Carter and Talbot correspondence, but no others.

By 1750 Wright had moved his base to Stoke Park, north of Bristol, the home of Norborne Berkeley, MP for Gloucestershire and later Lord Bottetourt and cut himself off from his earlier friends. Wright may have met Berkeley in 1749, or during his mysterious lost year of 1748 when he seems to have worked at Shugborough. This was certainly a major changing point in his life. He had finished his “Original Theory”, published in 1750, and was turning his attentions to landscapes and architecture. How did he meet Berkeley? There may be a feint clue in the fact that Berkeley and his sister and brother-in-law, the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort, stayed with Sir George Lyttelton at Hagley in1753 and Berkeley visited William Shenstone’s garden “The Leasowes”. Perhaps Berkeley had been a visitor at Hagley during Wright’s time at Shugborough and Wright had met him through the Anson and Lyttelton connection. (2)

In July 1750, Wright and Berkeley were busy rebuilding the house at Stoke Park.

Berkeley’s godson George Barclay wrote to the Duke and Duchess of Beaufort describing Berkeley

“surrounded with Masons, Stone-cutters, Sculptors, Plasterers, Painters, Carpenters, Joiners, Smiths, Glaziers, and all the Implements of House-building. But as Pain, as well as Pleasure is checkered, he has got a most agreeable companion in Mr Wright, I truly think so, Mr Bacon (his Countryman) gives him a great Character.”(Lambert & Harding: Thomas Wright at Stoke Park) (3)

Soon after this exhausting work Wright and Berkeley went on an extraordinary horse-back holiday. Wright wrote a detailed account in a manuscript which has disappeared but it was printed in 1875 in The Reliquary, a quarterly archaeological journal. It was published as a “Tour through part of England with Narbon Berkeley, Esq., Prince, and late Lord Botetourt. By T. W” After 1750 there are just a few notes of other journeys. Wright spent most of his time in retirement at Byers Green, Durham.

Wright had a hand in the rebuilding of the house at Stoke Park but his most important contribution was his share in the laying out of the grounds. These became a showcase of a more romantic, picturesque, style of planting, featuring exotic shrubs from other parts of the world, including America. At the end of the eighteenth century it was this work for which Wright was known. George Mason described Stoke Park and praised Wright’s work there and elsewhere in his “Essay on Design in Gardening”.

“The pieces of woodland in that domain are neither remarkable for extent in themselves, nor for the size of their timber; yet the management of them gave me, more than any thing I had seen, an idea of what might be done by the internal arrangement of a wood.”(4)

Berkeley had already begun redesigning the gardens before Wright arrived. Did Wright learn the specialist skills and knowledge required for the elaborate planting from Berkeley or had he studied the subject before? There seems to be no precedent in his earlier work except at Shugborough where exotic plants were one of the central interests of Thomas Anson from his early travelling days to his friendships with botanists Benjamin Stillingfleet and Thomas Pennant.

Thomas Anson and Lady Anson, the Admiral’s wife, visited Stoke Park, while they were staying at Bath while the Admiral was engaged in naval work. Lady Anson’s letter to Jemima Grey, on the 25th November 1755, is an important source for Stoke Park and the only time when Wright’s name is mentioned in any of the Anson correspondence, either in the Grey papers at the Bedfordshire Record Office or the Anson papers In Stafford.

Lady Anson writes that she:

“dined in an Octagon Room with four windows (built by your Mr Wright) just at the angle of the House at the centre of the Prospect.”(5)

It is interesting that Lady Anson refers to him as “your Mr Wright.” She clearly associated Wright with Jemima at Wrest Park. Did she not know that Wright had been responsible for the Shugborough work? As far as can be gleaned from Wright’s notes he had worked at Wrest before Lady Anson’s brother Philip Yorke had married Jemima. He had been invited in 1745 but he seems to have had previous engagements. This was the year in which Goupy was at Wrest as drawing master instead of him and the ladies were studying Dante. Shortly after the Shugborough developments he was at Wrest building (amongst other things) a Mithraic Altar (with its own cryptic inscription) and a RootHouse and reconstructing canals

The “Octagon Room” at Stoke Park was one of the corner rooms of the South Front. Lady Anson goes on to describe the effect of the grounds:

“I need not add that the paths about the Ground, and the variety of foreground the Trees give to different parts of the Landscape, as one changes ones situation in walking about must be delightful, when the weather will permit one to enjoy them. Our Curiosity was by this time so excited that we determined to employ all the day-light we could get in seeing and get home in the dark”

The “we” is Thomas Anson and Lady Anson. Wright mentions no journeys away from Stoke Park during 1755 in his Early Journal Journal so it is possible that he was there when they visited.

One of the two letters in Thomas Anson’s handwriting that has survived by accident in the Staffordshire Records Office because it was enclosed in one of Lady Anson’s letters reveals that he returned to Stoke Park about eighteen months later. The date must be in the Spring or Summer of 1757 as he refers to Lord Lyttelton under that title. Sir George Lyttelton had been created Baron Lyttelton of Frankley on 18 November 1756.

“I shall take my final leave tomorrow morning. Capt Parker who desires the honour of being remembered to you, goes with me as far as Mr Berkeley’s , who I hear is at Stoke, so I shall aquit myself of a promise made him that if he would permit me to see his place in December I would certainly revisit it in a better season. God’s country, as Lord Littleton calls Brecknockshire, I shall not reach. Going up and down mountains takes a deal of time and is too tedious when one is alone. Mr Allen says that Monmouthshire, which I shall see thoroughly is a fine part of Wales. We dined yesterday at Prior Park.”(6)

This is a wonderful and precious fragment of Thomas Anson’s own tone of voice. The “too tedious when one is alone” may sound effete, but Thomas was sixty two years old by this time and his taste for adventurous and dangerous travel had probably dimmed. He was at the forefront of fashion, though, visiting these new landscapes, and a surprisingly large part of his life as a man of taste still lay ahead.

Mr Allen, Ralph Allen, was the rich promoter of Bath and Prior Park his own spectacular house and garden at Bath.

Thomas is going on to Monmouthshire. It is a very reasonable guess that he is crossing over to Chepstow by the ferry (only a few miles beyond Stoke Gifford, following the route now taken by the Severn Bridge) and that he is on his way to Piercefield.

Richard Owen Cambridge, a friend of the Ansons (one of Thomas Anson’s mourning ring recipients) and of James Harris, had failed to buy the spectacular estate above the River Wye in 1748 but he did help its owner Valentine Morris lay out its walks and views over the Wye Valley. It became one of the most spectacular and admired of the picturesque landscapes.

Wright visited “Bersfield” on his summer jaunt with Norborne Berkeley in 1750:

“Betwixt this and Chepstow on the same side of the River is a noble situation, with woods and lawns, above the rocks, which are there most romantic, with a very extensive prospect of the Severn, Wye, and Glucester shire &c. belonging to Mr Morris, the place is called Bersfield but much in want of a suitable mansion house.” (7)

The “suitable mansion house” was not built until 1785 and is now a ruin. The prospect of the River Wye became a locus classicus for the new picturesque taste.


Richard Owen Cambridge, a satirist and writer on landscape, may have known Thomas Anson since the 1740s as both were members of the Divan Club. Cambridge remained a close friend until Thomas’s death when he was one of the recipients of a memorial ring.

Lady Anson mentions Cambridge as a gossip (“Mr Cambridge has just stepped in with news of new government appointments” she wrote in June 1757) and Horace Walpole called him “The Cambridge Mail”.

Cambridge was an influential writer on garden and landscape in “The Word” a magazine from 1753-1756 edited by Edward Moore, a protégée of Lord Lyttelton

Lady Anson visited Cambridge’s own garden at Twickenham in April 1750 – “Mr Cambridge will make his place very pretty; he has charming view of the river now he has opened it.”(8)

In 1754 Cambridge wrote in The World:

“I remember the good time when the price of a haunch of venison with a country friend was only half an hour’s walk upon a hot terrace; a descent to the two square fish ponds overgrown with frog spawn: a peep into the hog stye or a visit to the pigeon house. How reasonable was this when compared with the attention now expected from you to the number of temples, pagodas, pyramids, grottos, bridges, hermitages, caves, towers hot houses etc etc”(9)

This could almost be a dig at Shugborough. The Shugborough pagoda had been built only two years before, in 1752.

The new fashion was for improving nature and working with the Spirit of the Place, producing landscapes which would be reminiscent of the paintings of Poussin, and Claude Lorrain. The enthusiasm for natural rather than artificial or geometric gardens is part of the new way of looking at the world of which the Greek Revival, in ideas or architecture, is a symptom.

The Greek Revival in architecture is generally considered to have begun in around 1758 with Lord Lyttelton’s Doric temple as its first famous example. This temple was a place in which to sit and look out at a natural landscape, which Lyttelton called his “ Vale of Tempe”. The new interest in Greek style brought with it the desire for ideal wildernesses, Arcadia found in Britain. The romantic quest for nature and the Greek revival go hand in hand.

Part of this same movement was the fashion for the sublime. Edmund Burke wrote of the aesthetic effect of dramatic and even terrifying landscapes in his “ Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful “in 1757.

Burke’s book was certainly appreciated in Mrs Montagu’s social circle:

Mrs Montagu wrote to Elizabeth Carter:

“Here I was interrupted by a visit from my friend Mr. Burke. It is a noble privilege in
a London life that one can never be too long in the same temper; whether
willingly or unwillingly, one must steer “from grave to gay, from lively to severe”. I
am very glad you liked Mr. Burke’s book, he is as good and worthy as he is ingenious.”(10)

Thomas Anson’s friend Benjamin Stillingfleet had been one of the first to write of the dramatic effect of the Alps, and Lord Lyttelton had been one of the first to write in picturesque terms of landscapes of Wales. His “Account of a Journey into Wales” was written in 1756, though published in 1774, and is a very early “romantic” description of wild landscapes. Thomas Anson may well have known this work before he set off on his own journey across the Severn in 1757 – prompting his reference to Lord Lyttelton’s view of Brecknockshire as “God’s Own Country.”

1757 is also the publication year of Thomas Gray’s “The Bard”, a poem about the destruction of the druids by Edward 1st, an early example of a poem creating a romantic and storm-tossed view of Wales.

A few years earlier in 1754, Lady Anson, travelling with Thomas, had explored Dovedale and the equally romantic landscape of Staffordshire and Derbyshire, but she was unimpressed.

The Spa at Buxton, which she was presumably visiting for her health, was a very unpleasant experience. She dated this letter to her husband “Purgatory September 22nd

Scarborough with all its evils was a Palace of delights to this place. Constant stinks all over the House, an absolute destruction of Breakfast from the badness of Butter, with the like, are among the trifling inconveniences. But the two capital grievances, & whch I do not think I shall ever be able to endure, are the bathing, & the noise. The first unites all the inconveniences of hot & cold bathing as it is necessary to tip over head, & feels very cold while one is in the water, where one is obliged to stay several minutes, tho I could not bear it the prescribed eight minutes this morning, & then one comes out with the chillness of warm bathing instead of the glow wch makes one pleasant instant in coming out of cold water. But if this could be re-submitted to, the other I doubt will really have any bad effects. I mean the almost Eternity of Noise. I lost one nights sleep in Ashbourne, & yet the Inn there was the Cave of Quiet compared with this, last night I could not get to sleep ‘till One o’clock, & then rather because I was tired down than because there was any cessation of walking over my head, talking of each side, rumbling chairs& tables all round, all which waked my a half hour after five this morning and continues still & I have now the Headache, & am quite stunned & unable to understand anything I attempt to read, wch is yet the only amusement I can propose, as there can be no such thing as walking without the Temptation of a Prospect or the Shelter of Trees, in both of which respects Stilton & Newmarket have the advantage of this place, and as any partys from it are impossible from the distances & nature of the Country etc” (11)

Only the presence of Thomas Anson (nearly thirty years her senior by the way) makes this visit to desolate Buxton bearable:

“I own obligation to Mr Anson beyond all power of return, for exchanging his own Elysium for this worst of Purgatorys, yet I am concerned he ever came; for my own sake as much as his & could wish he would leave me, & forget he has ever seen me here. Miss Anson who was so good to intend coming was prevented by a cold.”

She adds a PS:

“Mr Anson allows the description of the place to be strictly just…”

On the way to Buxton they had made some visits, including one to Staffordshire’s own romantic landscape:

“…we dined at Mr Vernon’s on Wednesday, saw Dovedale & Mr Okeover’s Raphael yesterday which is by far the finest Picture I have seen.”

Lady Anson did not feel enthusiastic about such wildernesses. On the 28th of September she wrote a lengthy paragraph to her husband in praise of her brother-in-law’s virtues:

“Indeed, I find, wch I thought impossible, my Love & Regard for your Brother rise higher every instant: it is not possible to owe more to a friend than I do for him, he bears with me when I am unreasonable, sometimes pitys me kindly, sometimes chides me gently, advises me with friendship & judgement, reproves me with Sense & Knowledge, forms me with his Politeness, & amuses me with all the art of the elegant badinage.”

But she did not share his taste for wild landscapes:

“…every day’s experience tending to convince me how much better it is to live among Knowls than Hills, in a beautiful inhabited cultivated country, rather than what is called romantic Country.”

Though Shugborough is a gentler landscape Anson did plant pines on Cannock Chase to give an Alpine impression. He and his immediate circle were at the forefront of this new taste for the picturesque and wild nature. This foretaste of the romantic period is significant. Before the 1750s it seems as if no-one took any notice of mountains, rivers, forests, or of nature in its wilder forms, at all – especially not close to home, as distinct from foreign travels.

In fact the term “picturesque” was coined by William Gilpin in his Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales , etc. relative chiefly to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770, not published until 1782. To Gilpin “picturesque” meant a view that would look good in a picture, and nature, in his eyes, needed to be adjusted to make a satisfactory composition. This and his following books popularized the idea of sketching holidays in a period when travel became easier and, presumably, local inns in these faraway places became hotels that would be comfortable enough for the new tourists. Gilpin’s first book covers just the area of Piercefield and its views of the Wye. The word “romantic” to describe these views was in use several years before this. Wright uses it in his account of his trip to the Wye in 1750, and a few years earlier Elizabeth Carter had referred to plans for a “romantic trip to the Goodwin Sands” with him.

The 1767 anonymous poem describing the estate ends with a romantic view of Thomas Anson’s domain. By then large areas of Cannock Chase had been planted with firs to give a backdrop to the park. He was doing what he could to bring a touch of the picturesque to his generally rather flat landscape:

“Along the sunny ridge that overhangs
Eastward thy fair demesnes, & wide commands….
Westward, with near approach, & bolder swell,
The wavy hills rise mountainous, befringed
With gloomy groves of never-changing leaf,
Cedar, or pine, or fir: plantations vast,
And venerable! …
…Oft let me wander, when the morning ray
First gilds thy groves & streams, & glittering towers,
And meditate my uncouth DORIC lay…”

It is so easy to see the history of the arts in neat periods. Romantic is often thought to follow classical. In fact this fashion for landscape and adventurous trips to wild places appears at exactly the same moment as the classical style emerges in music and art. At the same time as Lyttelton and Anson are exploring Wales James Stuart is beginning his career as a Greek Revival neo-classical architect. The two things are opposite sides of the same coin.

The distinction, though, between this early interest in the “romantic” and the full fledged Romantic period is that the later fashion was dominated more by individual feeling, the individual experiencing emotion and nature and giving value to their own outlook, whereas the classical mind would be less personal. This is not, though, a hard and fast difference. The individualist viewpoint began to emerge not long after with Rousseau’s “Confessions”, a whole book devoted to the author’s intimate feelings, which was written in the 1760s, partly when Rousseau was in exile in Staffordshire, but not published until 1782.

Though Thomas Wright has no further part to play in the story of Shugborough it is worth saying something of his retirement. He left a large amount of unpublished manuscripts, most of which are in Newcastle Public Library. These cover scientific and mythological subjects, some alarmingly ambitious, and they include several accomplished poems. Though he writes in his Journal that he retired to Byers Green to “prosicute” his studies these projects must have been begun during the 12 years or so that he was based at Stoke Park. He travelled north from Stoke Park on several occasions to work on his house.

His cosmology was still the continuing theme. At some point he wrote his “Second Thoughts” on his Theory of the Universe. This is, at first sight, bizarrely primitive compared to the original book. The strangeness confirms the idea that Wright was a visionary who could not find the language that would express his vision. From the 1730s he had struggled with the idea of multiple universes that must share a common, divine, centre. In “Second Thoughts” they are inside each other, like Russian dolls, and the stars are volcanoes on the inside of the shell. (12)

Today he could simply call these universes “dimensions” and any science fiction fan would know what he meant.

He was a man out of his time, crackpot on the surface, but with something of a visionary.

Wright’s only publications after this were his designs for Arbours and Grottoes – also a financial failure.

There is a completely unknown and unpublished work which unites all Wright’s obsessions.. It may have been a product of his years at Stoke Park or of his retirement at Byers Green. It is a fragmentary sketch, over 100 pages, of a vision of Wright’s own Utopia. “The Fortunate Isles or a Discovery of the New World” brings together his interest in Druids, Cosmology, Architecture, Landscape Design and almost everything else under the sun.

It was a massive project, madly ambitious according to its optimistic table of contents.

The opening letter sets a fictional background for the book, which is imagined as a manuscript on plates of lead in the Erse tongue found “enclosed in a stone chest or case amongst the ruins of Herculaneum.”

The introduction rings in most of the knowledge of the Druids which Wright would have learned from classical writers, including a story from Lucian that Hercules Ogmios (Hercules as an old man) led people by golden chains attached to their mouths to Britain. Wright includes a drawing of this. The chains represent language and knowledge. “Ogmios” was later interpreted as a reference to ancient celtic “Ogham script.”
The fragments that survive are from Book 1 and describe a City called Heliopolis. This is clearly intended to be in the centre of an idealised ancient Britain. Wright, wonderfully, mixes Druid theories from Stukeley, classical sources including Plato’s legend of Atlantis, with his own cosmology:
“In the centre of the sacred island upon a spacious hill, sheltered from the south by green mountains rising above each other like a natural theatre and overlooking all the rest of the island is the City of Heliopolis to which a double serpentine approach leads through the woods and over the neighbouring mountains.” (13)

The “serpentine approach” is taken from Stukeley’s plans of Avebury.

The centre of the city is a Temple of the Sun, the Solarium, which is surrounded by a circle of temples. The Emperor “alternately inhabits” these “according to the sign of the zodiac or month of the year.” The temples, with a circumference of three miles, are linked by “rich triumphal arches” in which “all the productions of nature are represented”. On the outside of this is a terrace overlooking the city, with 360 statues, “dedicated to the phases of the year.”

“Below them, on the declivity of the hill, are many winding walks, little lawns and grottos, with several promontorial projections on which are erected elegant temples of various constructions peculiar to the most distinguished attributes of the Deity.”

“Below all these and circumscribing the whole hill is a circular river of limpid water, which rises out of an alabaster rock at about three eighths of the ascent, and from thence in a spiral manner and forming many and various cascades it leaves the imperial garden and enters the city at a great cataract…I forgot to say that the spring head rushes out of a golden urn at the upper end of a natural grotto or cave, richly adorned with shells, 100 feet long and above fifty feet wide, in which are many compartments of exquisite design and invention, with the river genius in a reclining posture resting upon the urn which is supported on a bed of amethyst…..”

The general scheme of the Druidic solar city is oddly prophetic of the writings of John Michell in the 1960s and 70s, such as “The View over Atlantis” and “The Dimensions of Paradise”. The city at the sacred centre of the island reflects Wright’s cosmology in “An Original Theory”. The city is a microcosm of the universe.

His own retirement home, where he lived with his natural daughter Elizabeth and her mother, was a miniature “ Heliopolis”, as is the Menagerie at Horton with its ceiling image of Time and the zodiac. His description of the Byers Green house was published posthumously in “The Gentleman’s Magazine” in 1793. Describing the ceiling design of his own home he writes:

“That of the sofa part is the Sedes Beatorum, or supreme heaven, with the hours and times disposed around it.”

His interest in puzzles and mysteries is reflected in the motto over the dining-room door which is “transposed in Greek characters to make it more difficult to read:


“Give me no more years than those to which I am due.”

George Allen of Darlington wrote, in 1793:

“There was something flighty and eccentric in his notions….”


1) A Series of Letters Between Mrs. Elizabeth Carter and Miss Catherine Talbot vol. 1 (Rivington, 1809) Available on Google Books

2) William Shenstone: The Letters of William Shenstone (Basil Blackwell, 1939)

3) David Lambert; Stewart Harding: Thomas Wright at Stoke Park. (Garden History, Vol. 17. No. 1, Spring, 1989) pp. 68-82

4) George Mason: An Essay on Design in Gardening, Benjamin and John White, 1795.

5) Quoted in: Mark Laird: The Flowering of the Landscape Garden (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999)

6) Staffordshire Records Office D615/P/S/1/117B

7) “Tour Through Part of England in the year 1750, with Narbon Berkeley, Esq., Prince, and Late Lord Bottetourt. By T. W.” (The Reliquary, Quarterly Archaeological Journal and Review 15 (60) pp. 216-220, 1875). Copy from Durham University Library, Palace Green, Durham

8) Staffordshire Records Office. Anson Papers. D615/P/S/1/1/17B

9) David Jacques: Georgian Gardens (Batsford, 1983)

10) The Letters of Mrs Elizabeth Montagu with some of the letters of her correspondents, vol. 3 (Boston, 1825) Available on Google Books.

11) Staffs Record Office D615 P (S) 1/1/37 9 (and following letters)

12) Thomas Wright of Durham: Second or Singular Thoughts upon the Theory of the Universe, edited M A Hoskin (Dawsons of Pall Mall, 1968)

13) Mss volumes in Newcastle Public Library