Forestry Commission logo

Westonbirt's Picturesque landscape style

Westonbirt Arboretum's creator, Robert Holford, left little in the way of letters, maps or planting records which might have explained the exact ‘how and why’ the planting of Westonbirt Arboretum took place as it did.

Hickory in glorious autumn colour. Broad drive Silk Wood Westonbirt Arboretum GloucestershireThere are however, notebooks of Robert Holford's which include dates of planting and details of routes taken through the arboretum.

It is also possible to gain a picture of Holford's plans from an article that appeared in the magazine The Garden in February 1886. The article, entitled ‘Westonbirt’, is a detailed account of a visit to the estate by William Goldring, one the magazine’s regular contributors. 

This article provides an excellent insight into Holford’s original aims and objectives and the principles behind his plantings. Goldring informed his readers that Holford's aim was: “to create variety without confusion, [to create] informality and picturesqueness.”

William S. Gilpin

Gilpin, a watercolour artist turned landscape gardener, was much sought after for his landscape advice during the 1820s and 1830s. Gilpin had set out his ideas on landscape gardening in a book entitled Practical Hints upon Landscape Gardening (1832; second edition 1835). 

In his book, Gilpin strongly promoted the ideas of Sir Uvedale Price (1747-1829). Price suggested that the best way to improve a landscape was to apply the principles of painting to the art of landscape gardening. This gave rise to the term 'Picturesque improvement'. 

The principles of a picturesque landscape

According to WS Gilpin, the principles of a Picturesque landscape are: 

Variety was to be found in the outline of plantations (i.e. recesses and projections); in the shape and colour of adjacent trees; in the contrast between dense and open plantings, between light and shaded walks. 

Intricacy was the inability to see a whole scene or area, thus leaving the observer guessing at its extent and direction. This was achieved by the actual positioning of groups of trees and shrubs in such a way that certain areas were hidden from view.

Connection between the different elements in a landscape was important, in order to achieve a ‘harmonious whole’. Rather than having sudden transitions from one element to another, there should be links between them, to make the transitions gradual.

Following the style

These Picturesque principles are all recurring elements in the Holford’s original style of planting. Today, Westonbirt Arboretum's team plan new planting and landscape development to fit in with this original style.

One significant aim of the arboretum's development plan, the Westonbirt Project, is to restore the historic Downs landscape, situated in the centre of the arboretum and, until recently, used as our car park.

The project will replant lost trees, remove inappropriate shrub planting and restore the species-rich grassland habitat. Find out more on the Westonbirt Project website.

Last updated: 10th July 2017

England's Woods and Forests are cared for by Forest Enterprise England, an agency of the Forestry Commission.