Headlong Hall Posted on December 16, 2009

Is there a difference between a glimpse and a glance? Or between a view and a vista? It is the sort of question I would have liked to put to the amiable philosophers who assembled for Christmas in 1814 or thereabouts at Headlong Hall in Wales. If Thomas Love Peacock was not part of your education, and if you have a taste for argument and a weakness for Wodehouse, or if you have just forgotten how he made you laugh, take Headlong Hall to bed with you.

The chapter that gardeners remember best begins thus: ‘I perceive’, said Mr Milestone, after they had walked a few paces, ‘these grounds have never been touched by the finger of taste’.

They begin to discuss the difference between the picturesque and the beautiful, Mr Milestone being an eminent landscaper of the picturesque persuasion. Mr Gall, the literary critic, joins in. ‘I distinguish’, says Mr Gall, ‘the picturesque and the beautiful, and I add to them, in the laying out of grounds, a third and distinct character, which I call unexpectedness’.

‘Pray, sir’, says Mr Milestone, ‘by what name do you distinguish this character, when a person walks round the grounds for the second time?’

Can you repeat a surprise? The question is central to the way we look at gardens. There is a difference between a glimpse and a glance – and it lies in the brain of the looker as much as the design of the gardener. A glimpse is a view frustrated; the inference is that you would have liked to have seen more; a glance says that curiosity is readily satisfied; the view is worth no more than a fleeting attention. What other units of looking are there? Examination (or scrutiny) is perhaps the most intense. A peep is faintly illicit – and all the more fun for it. An outlook is limited in scope. A view is the scene full-on and a vista or a prospect a long wide-ranging view. A panorama is the view from a height.

These may be a designer’s building blocks, but they don’t constitute a design. Where the designer’s intentions become clear is in the passage from one to another – the state of transition. Surprise is clearly one transitional idea; the most striking, perhaps, and certainly most obvious. But there are others, that might be expressed in such words as ‘consequently’ or ‘furthermore’, or ‘nevertheless’, or even ‘besides’. There is a nevertheless moment at Sissinghurst, and a consequently one at Hidcote, to name only two familiar transitions. Mr Gall might have had much to say on the subject, had not the Picturesque and the Beautiful, those unprofitable abstractions, monopolized the conversation.

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