The Country House/Chapter 7
E come now to fix upon a part of the grounds that shall appear most healthy, neither too confined nor too exposed; commanding a good prospect, yet well sheltered. This is a very material point, and not indeed altogether free from difficulty; nevertheless, proper attention to the two circumstances just mentioned would perhaps, in the generality of cases, lead at once to the selection of the most favourable site for building upon; both as regards prospect from the house, and the view towards it; so that as regards the latter, it would display itself to the utmost advantage. With respect to the mode of combining buildings with the surrounding scenery, the following principles and directions are laid down by the ablest of our writers in the German language, on the subject of landscape gardening. "If due care be taken to distribute the masses of light and shade, so that they shall judiciously relieve and balance each other, satisfactory effect, as regards the general grouping and composition of the scenery, can hardly fail to be secured. Grass, water, and level lawns, which throw no shadow upon other objects, but merely receive those which the latter cast upon them, are to be considered as lights in landscape gardening, while trees, woods, buildings, and rocks, (should there be any) afford the artist his shadows and darker tints. In making use of these contrary elements, care must be taken lest breadth of effect be destroyed, and a disagreeable spottiness substituted for it; in consequence of there being too many separate and partial effects independent of each other; or else by there being too great a proportion of unbroken light. On the other hand an equal fault is committed, if a few dark masses of shadow are allowed so to predominate, as to overpower all besides; or again, if lawn and water exhibit naked unbroken surfaces of light too harshly defined; whereas they ought to be left partially to lose themselves in indistinctness, or the shadow of deep vegetation; or to detach themselves from a darker background as brilliant lights opposed to it. With respect to buildings, these ought never to stand perfectly isolated, because in that case they become spots, and look as if they had no business there, nor belonged to any of the rest. Besides, a partial concealment is always advantageous to every kind of beauty, and it is highly desirable that the imagination should be interested by there being something for it to exercise itself upon, and to divine. The eye frequently rests with more satisfaction upon a chimney peeping out in the distance, and emitting a gray volume of smoke from amidst the dense foliage of trees that embower and exclude from sight the building whose presence is so indicated, than it does upon a large formal mansion standing fully exposed to view, with no shelter or on any side, with nothing to break its outline, with nothing to render it an appropriate and consistent feature in the general scene." From the beginning of what I have here extracted, you perceive that this writer treats the subject in a masterly manner, taking a comprehensive view, and is guided by such sound theoretical principles, as to be able to determine beforehand, the results of his art with almost as much certainty as an architect can judge of an intended building from its ground plan.
Having determined upon the precise site, that which seems most recommended by considerations of healthiness, convenience, &c.; we have next to attend to what appertains exclusively to architectural treatment and character. The general idea of the building, as to its chief masses and parts, extent and arrangement, being sketched out, regard must be had to the greater or less space of the immediate site; to obtaining for it due effect of light and shade, and a background calculated to set it off, upon all which circumstances, it depends nearly as much as a work of sculpture does. In like manner as statues in general have only three sides from which they are calculated to be seen, so also have buildings; nor can I help being of opinion that much harm has been done of late years, both in architecture and sculpture by the attempt at equal display on all sides. The greater part of antique statues were evidently intended to have a wall or background behind them; nor is there, perhaps, any thing more at variance with the effect which statues ought to produce, than the present frequent practice of erecting them in the centre of large squares.
Nearly all productions of architecture, more especially structures adapted for habitation, offer one side stamped as the principal or front, and another, which is its reverse; in which respect they bear a greater analogy to living beings than to plants; the latter having no definite foreside, on the contrary, any part becoming the front, that is towards the spectator. Such being the case, the same rules that are to be observed for displaying a statue, or representation of a living figure to advantage, ought to be attended to in regard to the position of buildings. Agreeing with you that a sheltered situation is the most desirable for your intended villa, I will attempt to explain it upon the theory of the following general principles; namely, upon our beholding any building of the kind, it ought immediately to be evident wherefore it is so placed, and that by being placed precisely where it is, it is part and parcel of its immediate vicinity.
But to confine myself to our particular instance. I think I shall be able to provide an exceedingly agreeable site for your residence, as I learn that a supply of water may be obtained in the grounds, capable of floating superficies of about fifty thousand square feet, and depth in proportion. Accordingly I propose, after the manner shewn in the accompanying ground sketch, (Plate I.) to avail myself of this circumstance, in order to give animation to the now comparatively tame and lifeless character of the place. The reservoir on the upper terrace would keep the basin constantly filled to the level of the lower terrace, before the water escapes into the valley below. By this means, a sheet of water may be provided almost in the centre of the grounds, and my plan suggests, that the house itself should be erected immediately on the north shore of this artificial lake. On the spot where I have placed it, the ground floor would be about fifty feet above the level of the brook itself, and that part of the grounds through which it runs, consequently would not be exposed to any injurious exhalations from the lower grounds.
I need hardly point out to you the unusual agreeableness and even piquant effect of a residence so situated; and when I send my plans for the house itself, you will see what are the apartments that will occupy this side of the building, and what a charming prospect they will command of the lake immediately below, and the grounds on its opposite banks. At present I will only remark as regards the increased effect thus to be gained, that a building immediately on the edge of a piece of water appears more considerable than in any other situation; and that the reflected image of the architecture will form a brilliant contrast to the darker reflections of trees and foliage. Besides which, the most favourable point of distance for viewing the building itself on this side, would thus become fixed—being that from the opposite bank of the lake.
A very cursory examination of the plan of the ground will convince you, that the whole of the buildings you require are massed together in one group. Such an arrangement certainly contributes to convenience; and I agree with you by shewing the various offices, instead of attempting to mask or screen them, the house itself may be made to possess greater importance and apparent extent; that is, you will get a large looking country house at a small cost. It may be further remarked, that by adopting such treatment of the plan, some kind of architectural foreground is introduced into the prospects seen from the house itself, together with much contrast and variety, and that too without incurring unnecessary or extra expense, since the same accommodation must be provided. Another advantage is, that the subordinate buildings of this kind attached to the main structure, may be made use of as a kind of connecting link between the more artificial and studied regularity of the latter, and the natural objects in its immediate vicinity; without which sort of intermediate transition, a house is apt to have the appearance of a mushroom structure that has over night started up out of the ground.From the north east angle of the house, the stables extend northwards, while the conservatories run in an eastern direction from the same point. By this means an open avenue is left before the north side of the house: and on the east side a flower garden, which is screened towards the north. The piece of ground enclosed on two sides by the stables and hothouses or conservatories, and therefore not exposed to view from the house itself, would be occupied as the stable-yards, &c. Further on, towards the upper terrace, is the fruit and kitchen garden, stretching out more eastward. At the end of the conservatories is the gardener's lodge, the upper part of which forms a small dovecot.
I have not yet said any thing of the west side of the house, although it forms one of the principal elevations of the external designs, the carriage entrance porch being placed there; the approach to which latter is over a bridge, and by the road which runs to the south-west towards the village. You therefore perceive that, before they actually arrive, visitors will obtain a distinct view, across the lake, of the entire range of the buildings from east to west; from the gardener's lodge and tower along the line of south front and terrace, to the bridge itself; of which group of architecture, the greater part, would be reflected in the water, from which it appears immediately to rise up.
You will observe, I have not carried the approach to the house in a curved or serpentine direction line, as is generally done, whereby the object to which the visitor is hastening, is now seen and now again suddenly lost sight of; but in a straight line, so that the building displays itself more and more plainly to the eye at every step.
From the high road, the approach is on the north-east; and of the portico lodge and gate at that entrance into the grounds, the sketch prefixed to this letter will afford you an idea. The direction of the drives and paths, the arrangement of the plantations and groups of trees, wherein I have taken care that the greater part of the fine elms shall remain untouched.
The source of the stream and the weir, from which the superfluous water finds its way into the lower valley, would almost of course suggest the propriety of erecting seats at those points of the grounds.
A more detailed description of the house follows by next post, with the plans and elevations.
- * Prince Puchler Muskau. Audenkungen über Landshaftgärtnerei. Stuttgart, 1834.
- Plate I. shews the ground plan, &c.