When Nature Imitates Art

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It is said that above his drawing board, the great French landscape architect André Le Nôtre hung a sign on which was written ‘To improve nature and reveal true beauty, at the lowest possible cost.’ Today we would consider the Le Nôtre style of gardening so to interfere with nature that its true beauty is impossible to discern and at very considerable cost: the jardin à la française, exemplified by those created by Le Nôtre for Louis XIV at Versailles, is a thing of wondrous artifice.
While the taste for such gardens reigned across Europe for at least a century, as always a reaction against them emerged, inspired at least in part by philosophical speculation on the character of man’s interaction with nature. Thus in 1757, Edmund Burke published his treatise on aesthetics, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful which sought to explain our emotional and aesthetic responses to natural phenomenon such as mountain ranges. As proposed by Burke and his followers the sublime induces extreme passion, most notably terror. This differs from the simultaneously powerful but gentler feelings induced by another aesthetic experience which was first analysed in the 18th century and would have a profound effect on taste in gardening: that of the picturesque.
As the word implies, the picturesque is associated with painting (it derives from the Italian term ‘pittoresco’ meaning ‘in the manner of a painter’). It was thus used by a key figure in the evolution of the concept William Gilpin who in his 1768 Essay on Prints defined picturesque as being ‘expressive of that peculiar kind of beauty, which is agreeable in a picture.’ Essentially the picturesque as proposed by Gilpin and others offers an aesthetic experience between the extremes of the sublime (which induces an emotion akin to terror) and the beautiful which relies on symmetry and a calm-inducing order. The inspiration for landscapes that might be classified as picturesque came from artists of the previous century, most notably Claude Lorrain and Gaspard Poussin. In Ireland one of the most perfect expressions of this kind of landscape design can be found at Kilfane, County Kilkenny where theories of the picturesque were put into practice with enchanting results.

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The Cantwells were Lords of Kilfane until the 17th century when they were banished to Connaught. Then their lands passed into the hands of Colonel John Bushe who was granted Kilfane in 1670 and whose descendants remained there for the following century. In the late 1700s, a certain John Power came to live in the country at Ballynahinch and soon after married Harriet Bushe whose brother Henry Amias Bushe then lived at Kilfane. Eventually John Power took a lease in perpetuity on the property from his brother-in-law, and carried out many improvements on the estate, as we shall see.
John Power, known as Captain Power after he held that position in the local yeomanry during the 1798 Rebellion (he would be created a baronet in 1836) was the son of a County Tipperary landowner who had served with the British army in India where he had been aide-de-camp to Clive during the Battle of Plassey. It would appear at least one explanation for his move to County Kilkenny was because of his interest in hunting: he constructed kennels at Ballynahinch for his pack of hounds and in 1797 established the Kilkenny Hunt Club. It was said at the time that the land in this part of Ireland was so unenclosed that Captain could follow his hounds all the way to the bridge at Waterford without jumping a single fence. The first of its kind in Ireland, the Kilkenny Hunt Club would meet in the evenings in Kilkenny City at what had hitherto been called Rice’s Hotel (James Rice having been house steward to Captain Power) but soon became known as the Club House, as it is to this day
The Club House was also much frequented by participants and supporters of the amateur theatricals organised by members of local families, not least Captain Power’s brother Richard who was an ardent thespian. So ardent indeed that he was the driving force behind the founding in 1802 of a theatre in Kilkenny called The Athenaeum which thereafter hosted annual seasons of plays until 1819, in all of which Richard Power took a leading role.

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It will be apparent from the above that the Powers were an exceptionally enterprising family, and this is further demonstrated by the creation at Kilfane of a romantic private garden embodying the picturesque ideals of the period. As is so often the case in Ireland, we do not know the precise date for the site’s creation or indeed who was responsible for its design (perhaps the Powers themselves, since the main house contained a famed library and they were likely to be familiar with the theories of Gilpin, along with those of other proponents of the picturesque such as Sir Uvedale Price and Richard Payne Knight). In any case, Kilfane possessed certain natural advantages: on the edge of the estate there existed an area of woodland where the land dropped away to reveal a rock face thirty feet high descending to an open vale dramatically strewn with boulders. Imbued with potential this spot was greatly enhanced by the Powers’ intervention, not least a waterfall which was fed by a mile-long canal specially created for the purpose.
At the base of the cliff, the water drops into a pool before winding its way across a wide grassy lawn and from thence flowing along a stream that tumbles hither and thither beneath a dense blanket of trees and that can be crossed by a number of mossy stone bridges. The effect is picturesque in the extreme, and was greatly enhanced within the natural amphitheatre at the base of the waterfall by the construction of a thatched cottage orné. The building was essential for the success of the enterprise, not just because it gave a focus to the scene, and a destination for visitors, but also because advocates of the picturesque argued that such landscapes needed a humanising focus in the same way as did the paintings which had inspired them. There had to be a central point to which the eye was drawn, in this instance a charming cottage which might be ‘discovered’ and explored.

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A description of the waterfall and glen at Kilfane in their original state has come down to us in a letter written in 1819 by the botanist and antiquarian Louisa Beaufort to Sophy Edgeworth (whose father Richard Lovell Edgeworth had married Louisa’s sister as his fourth wife) in which she reported, ‘Wednesday Mr. B, Pa Ma and I in the inside jaunting car and Richard on horseback all went to Kilfayne, Mr. Power’s, a very pretty place…All the beginning of the walk very ugly, latter part very pretty by a stream …rushing over large beds of rocks, the beeches high and well planted and the ground blue with harebells the cottage is prettyish, somewhat of a has-been but stands in a tiny lawn near the stream and opposite to a cataract which rushes down the opposite rock…’
So it continued to look for some time thereafter, but later generations of the Power family lost interest in maintaining the site, or perhaps did not have the funds to do so. Gradually the whole place fell into decay, the cottage becoming a ruin, the grassy lawn and surrounding paths overgrown, the woodlands surrendered to laurel and rhododendron (with consequent loss of more delicate ground cover) and the waterfall dried up as the canal was breached and broken. Such might have remained the case to the present but for the discovery and rescue of this delightful spot by its present owners who more than twenty years ago embarked on a complete restoration of the place. Thanks to their admirable diligence the grounds today look much as they did when first created over two centuries ago.
Reverting to Le Nôtre’s maxim – ‘To improve nature and reveal true beauty, at the lowest possible cost’ – one can see how applicable are those words to the glen and waterfall at Kilfane. Here is a landscape every bit as artificial as any designed by the Frenchman. In this instance, however, thanks to theories on the picturesque artifice has been concealed and nature encouraged to imitate art rather than the other way around.

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For more information on the Kilfane Glen and Waterfall, see: http://www.kilfane.com

12 comments on “When Nature Imitates Art

  1. Susan Mosse says:

    Greetings Robert! And thank you for a wonderful, beautifully written entrance into a Monday! One little thing to add: in the Royal Society of Antiquaries photos, the drawings specifically refer to MRS POWER, and I believe she must be included as the gardening force in Kilfane. She is known to have helped various others in their gardens (Grattan, et al). Mrs Clarke and her stand of magnificent trees at the big house would agree I think. So let’s hear it for the ladies, well this one Mrs Power lady at any rate.

    • Dear Susan,
      Thank you for writing and I am so glad you enjoyed the piece today. Of course you are right and Mrs Power deserves due recognition too (altho’ please note that I made a point of regularly referring to the Powers!). More of Kilfane – and it’s magnificent stand of trees – another time I hope…

    • Charles L. Kerr says:

      The images shown are simple, but nature is usually most beautiful when simple. Natural beauty means to me that it at least looks like it developed by itself. That fact instills a real magical aura to it. Like an amazing, beauty that can’t be explained, just experienced.

  2. Jardin says:

    Lovely images … though I remain a fan of Le Notre’s landscapes, particularly Vaux-le-Vicomte.
    Will make a note to visit Kilfane; thank you for sharing.

    • Oh, I assure you that I am likewise a great admirer of French formal gardens, so please do not interpret my comments as being disparaging of them. Thank you also for your contribution.

      • John Kirwan says:

        Robert,

        Just read the blurp on Kilfane and particularly that about the renovations of mid century and they specify 1855 or so but I disagree with this date because there is a contemporary source for these renovations which was ten years earlier : Viscount Stopford and his wife visited Lady Louisa TIghe at Woodstock in September 1846 and stayed for quite a time; I think about ten days before returning to Courtown. During the stay at Woodstock he went to visit Kilfane and found the owner amidst rebuilding and gives some detail including the fact that the dining room was out of use as the builders were in there. This diary survives in a public collection and should really be used here.

        Hope all is well,

        JOHN Kirwan.,

  3. Wow, this looks like a very peaceful place!

  4. Lawrie Weed says:

    this is truly a fairy tale location Had dinner there in the thatched cottage and walked back carrying torches. A lifetime memory. Pls. add me to the blog list. I got lost!

  5. marie-odile beauvais says:

    “To improve nature and reveal true beauty, at the lowest possible cost”. Isn’it irish irony?Le Nôtre was a liar. His gardens were also munificents than expensiv. “Every day, flowers in jars were changed. To day the flowers of the “parterre” are white, yesterday they were rose” wrote the princesse Palatine. Millions tons of soil were moved by thousands of people.
    I LOVE your blog.
    Thank you

    • Chere Mme Beauvais,
      Merci pour votre gentilesse, et vous avez raison quand vous dites ça du Notre.
      J’ai lu que vous avez ecrit un livre au sujet de Proust, mon ecrivain français preferé de tout (sauf peut-être Mme de la Fayette).
      Très cordialement
      Robert O’Byrne

      • marie-odile beauvais says:

        I was yesterday in Versailles where I saw a temporary Le Nôtre exhibtion. Of course, I thought to your blog. So I’m happy you love Proust and Mme de La Fayette (he wrote long, she wrote short).
        Regards
        mob

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