Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Walking The "Wright" Path

2011 is the tercentenary of remarkable eighteenth century English polymath Thomas Wright of Durham(1711 – 1786).  As astronomer, mathematician, instrument-maker and natural philosopher, he was first to describe the reason for the appearance of the Milky Way, first to speculate that faint nebulae were in fact distant galaxies, and is also credited with the inclusion of Saturn on the Grand orrery.

Could this also be Wright?  A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery  by Joseph Wright of Derby (exhibited 1766)

 As an architect and garden designer his influence is no less impressive, witnessed by a creative outpouring that figures widely across our nation's landscape. At Shugborough Hall, the extension wings to the original house and the first phase of garden buildings in the influential eclectic landscape are attributed to him, including work on the fascinating memento mori "The Shepherds Monument". Here, the rustic design of the internal arch comes straight from the pages of Wright's two volume architectural pattern book 'Arbours and Grottoes' and combines with the work of James "Athenian" Stuart to frame the marble relief by Peter Scheemakers that gives the monument its name.  

 To celebrate Wright's anniversary and his many achievements, I decided the planting around the Shepherds Monument should be replanted to reflect 18th century practice and follow more closely  the period's available historic descriptions, with an end result that more suitably, and hopefully more subtly, frames this triumvirate's striking composition. The scheme will increase the presence of native plants and enhance the potential for increased bio-diversity, an integral part of the current scheme of landscape strategy at Shugborough.  Harvard academic Mark Laird, (The Flowering of the English Landscape 1720-1800), English Landscape expert David Jacques,(Georgian Gardens - The Reign of Nature) and eminent architectural historians and Wright biographers, John and Eileen Harris, have all agreed to support this initiative with their undeniable intellectual weight. 

The Shepherd's monument in its claustrophobic and unsympathetic present. Hybrid rhododendrons suffocate the scene with a distraction that detracts from the monuments significance, and as  the estates monuments grant Shugborough it's rare Grade-1 listed landscape status, this surely means it is time for change.  With no period planting plans extant, we are fortunate to find Wright's architectural pattern books also specify plant combinations, another realm in which he was no mere amateur. George Mason extolling his endeavours deemed him as the only landscape designer of genius to have come between William Kent and Capability Brown.

 For the replant to have a more immediate effect, mature plants will need to be sourced for the area, and this significantly increases expense.  in the current economic climate and already working within the constraints of a very meagre budget, the project seemed unaffordable, a non-starter. So, in order that this celebratory replanting scheme can continue I decided to undertake a sponsored walk to raise money for the project and publicise, not only Wright's work, but the arts and philosophies that influenced the English landscape of the 18th century, drawing parallels on route from these historic precedents to today's landscape, whilst raising awareness of the importance of landscape in peoples lives in a broader context. 

 So, on September the 27th, this years "holiday" begins. Two weeks vacation and a week of accrued lieu time allowing me to follow a planned route  beginning just north of  Durham, at the luxurious Lumley Castle Hotel (Lord Scarbrough's residence when Wright's patron) and passing through twenty-one exclusively 18th century landscapes eventually reaching Shugborough Hall, and home, some 280 miles and three weeks later.  Each night, where possible, I will be sleeping  in a temple or garden building (with permission!) on a journey that is a celebration of both Wright's architecture and the 18th century language of built structure in landscape.

 Now, where's that Indian summer?