Image: Engraving of William Shenstone receiving a crown of laurels from Apollo, the Greek and Roman God of Harmony, Order, Reason and Truth. Apollo was also the God of Music which the ancients believed was only heard where there was light and security.  He is depicted with his musical instrument the lyre. Shenstone is also shown playing the keyboards of an instrument. The engraving endows Shenstone with Apollo’s characteristics as a bringer of harmony, representing his influence on landscape design.  Frontispiece from The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq., Vol. II, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765).

The numbers of people, known or unknown to Shenstone, who visited the Leasowes can only be guessed at.   Among those who continued to be drawn there after his death, in 1763, were the Thrales, who visited with Samuel Johnson in 1777, around the time that Shenstone’s old house was demolished and rebuilt.   Hester Lynch Thrale wrote in her diary: ‘the Leasowes charmed me most as a Place’.   And ‘while Mr. Johnson & Mr. Thrale went up to have a nearer View of the Waterfall, [she] sat by the Root House, and wrote …Verses.’   These three verses include the following lines,

“To Shenstone in his Grot retired
My truest praise I’ll pay:…
From Kedlestone’s offensive Glare
From Chatsworth’s proud Cascade;
From Artful Hagley I repair
To thine and Nature’s Shade.”18

On 17th April, 1802, the day before he died, Erasmus Darwin, polymath and author of The

Botanic Garden, wrote to his friend Richard Lovell Edgeworth of a ‘pleasant valley somewhat like Shenstone’s’.19    This suggests that at some time both of these members of the Lunar Society had visited the Leasowes.   And as late as 1868, Elihu Burritt, then United States Consul to Birmingham, in his Walks in the Black Country, having visited the Leasowes, remembered how, as a boy, he had encountered in a school reading-book an admired speech describing a beauty spot on the Ohio River, which included the words ‘a shrubbery that Shenstone might have envied’.20    Today the Leasowes is part golf course and part a country park.

This article has told something of the life of one member of the eighteenth-century Midlands gentry.   Landscape gardener, designer, poet, sociable – although at times lonely and melancholy, he passed half his life embellishing his romantic little Arcadia.   That William Shenstone was significantly influential, both locally and nationally, particularly with regard to landscape gardening, is indisputable.

Written on a Ferme Ornee, near Birmingham

By the late Lady Luxborough.

‘Tis Nature here bids pleasing scenes arise,
And wisely gives them Cynthio* to revise:
To veil each blemish; brighten every grace;
Yet still preserve the lovely parent’s face.
How well the bard obeys, each valley tells;
These lucid streams, gay meads, and lonely cells;
Where modest art in silence lurks conceal’d,
While nature shines so gracefully reveal’d,
That She triumphant claims the total plan,
And, with fresh pride, adopts the work of man.

* Cynthio is a reference to Apollo who was born on Mount Cynthus.

Shenstone and the Locality

Image: A View of the Church at Halesowen in Shropshire. Shenstone was interested in the affairs of the parish and led the efforts to acquire four new bells for the church.  Shenstone was buried in the churchyard in 1763, where his gravestone remains.  From T R Nash, Collection for the History of Worcestershire, vol 1 (John Nichols et al, Oxford, London and Worcester, 1781), Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

Among Shenstone’s other interests was the theatre, whose purpose, he believed, should be to instil moral virtue through the medium of delight (e.g. Letters, p.566).   He sometimes attended summer season performances at the King Street Theatre in Birmingham, which his friend Thomas Hull sometimes managed.   In 1761, having seen a tragedy the previous evening, Shenstone wrote to Hull and detailed how the play could be improved (Letters, p.584).   Shenstone and Hull also collaborated on other literary projects.

When he attended the theatre, Shenstone sometimes stayed overnight with a cousin in Birmingham.   While he obviously much preferred his rural idyll and communications and visits with his genteel and literary friends, he did have some dealings with the town.  In the way of business, for example, in 1744 he arranges to purchase ‘an elegant pair of pistols from Birmingham’ (Letters, p.86).   In 1748 he ‘requested a very ingenious Builder from Birmingham’ to call upon him (Letters, p.170).   In 1752 he buys ‘toys’ from the town (Letters, p.330).   Sometimes letters and parcels, particularly to and from Luxborough, are left with ‘Mr. Williams, painter in New Street’, who had done painting work for both her and Shenstone.   And among friends and acquaintances in the town are John Baskerville and

Matthew Boulton.   There are aspects of Birmingham Shenstone dislikes:

“…the vulgar are more struck with arms than any thing…there were near two hundred people gathered round Lady Luxborough’s landeau at Birmingham, and declaring her arms to be very noble…I do not…chuse to employ a vulgar mind about this matter…” (Letters, p.365)

Nor are the ‘common’ people all he dislikes of the town’s streets.  In 1750 he complains of ‘the tediousness of riding two or three Miles on Pebbles thro’ ye Town’ (Letters, p.278).

In contrast, with regard to roads, and other matters, in 1753 he is pleased to inform Graves:

“We are going to add two new bells to our present set of six; to have a turnpike road from Hagley to Birmingham, through Hales[owen]; and to emerge a little from our obscurity.” (Letters, p.356)

The last comment recognises the importance he attributed to a well-made road for a rural community. The reference to bells is to those of Halesowen parish church. Shenstone had been instrumental in persuading people in the area to contribute to the bells fund.

Bells, ‘my four bells’, also feature in several letters of 1758 from the poet to the entrepreneurial Matthew Boulton, at this time still ‘on Snow-hill, Birmingham’.   In these same few letters there are several references to pineapple ‘corner Ornaments’ which Shenstone commissioned for his post-chaise.   Shenstone seems to have designed these ornaments:

“Mr. Green did not shew me ye Pattern before Monday last, when I found it expedient to alter ye delicacy of my first draught…Mr. Boulton will see my Intention” (Letters, p.489)

Shenstone asks to see the cast ornaments prior to them being gilded.   Subsequently, he is to ‘bespeak a sett for Mr. Knight’ but proposes that Boulton make the ‘Leaves or lower part of the Fruit…a little fuller & more plain’ (Letters, p.493).  On 30th September, 1758, Shenstone asks that Boulton send him ‘two or three pair of shoes and knee-buckles, for Choice’.   At this point in the century, shoe and knee-buckles were still very fashionable and their production provided employment for large numbers of people in the town.   Among non-business matters in these same letters, Boulton is offered ‘a Pair of Guinea-fowl’, of a breed different from those he already has, from among the many types of bird kept by Shenstone for decoration and for the table.   And Boulton is invited to the Leasowes.

Shenstone’s Influence

Image: Engraving of William Shenstone unrolling a scroll ‘Hints towards the Elements of

Taste’, held at the top by Athene, the Greek Goddess of Wisdom, known to the Romans as Minerva. They are presented in an idealised landscape with examples of classical architecture in the background. In the foreground, Shenstone is sitting under a tree. The engraving presents Shenstone as an arbiter of good taste.  From The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq., Vol. II, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765), p 3.

While, as has been shown, Henrietta, Lady Luxborough frequently acted on detailed advice from Shenstone with regard to her house and grounds, there is some evidence that he contributed in greater or lesser degree to the designs of the properties of others of his local friends.   Stamford was one of these.   Graves notes, ‘the Earls of Stamford and Plymouth…did Mr. Shenstone the honour to consult him in the laying out their environs at Enville and Hewel-Grange’ (Graves, Recollection, pp.144-145).   Shenstone’s involvement in the improvements at Hewel Grange, at Tardebigge, is confirmed in letters between him and Luxborough during November, 1753.   Passing comments scattered through Shenstone’s Letters indicate that the benefits of his knowledge and taste are sought by, and given to, numbers of local friends.   For example: ‘Mr. Thomas Hall knew of my contrivance for the embellishment of Mr. Hardy’s house’ (1748, p.161);  ‘Mr. Davenport…is laying out his environs, and I am by appointment to go over’ (1753, p.366).  In 1757 he advises J.S. Hylton, a near neighbour, on a particular type of shrub: ‘Laurustinus is ye most desireable, on account of the Figure it makes in Winter’ (p.472).   In May, 1759, Shenstone wrote to one young friend, Edward Knight of Wolverley, near Kidderminster:

“I purpose … to take an ampler view of your late Improvements at Wolverley, yn my Leisure, when I was last there, permitted me to do. Mean while, I would have you correct ye Path … at ye upper Part of yr Pine Valley.   What think you of selecting a spot for a simple cottage or Menagerie?   And what think you of making a Place for Gold-fishes, somewhere in ye stream yt runs beside your Lower-walk.”

And Shenstone is happy to advise on subjects other than how to improve grounds and houses.  In 1760 he tells Knight,

“I really think it is in your power to make a considerable Figure in the Province of Architecture:  I would therefore wish you to pursue the study of it; whether as an agreeable Amusement, an ornamental accomplishment, or an useful Part of Knowledge.” 17

An instance of Shenstone’s interest in architecture was a ‘folly’ he had built in his grounds, his ‘ruinated Priory’, about which, however, he wrote that it: ‘makes a tenant’s house, that pays me tolerable poundage’ (Letters, p.483).

“Beauty and Simplicity”: Descriptions of the Leasowes

Image: Engraving of Virgil’s Grove at the Leasowes. There is a view of one of the cascades to the left and tumbling waterfalls to the right and a canopy of trees; Arthur Young described the fine “intermixture of wood and water” at the Leasowes.  Visitors walk through the landscape observing its beauties. By the 1750s, the Leasowes was already a tourist attraction. Several travellers published accounts of their visits. This image can be compared to the romantic portrayal of a similar scene in Section 6 above: Shenstone and the Creation of the Natural Landscape. From R W Boodle, Worcestershire Scrap Book, vol. II (1903), held in Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

A publication which shows that the Leasowes merited visiting is Four Topographical Letters, 

Written in July 1755, Upon a Journey, From a Gentleman of London. The author, ‘R.P.’, and his companion, having seen the Peak District, travel south to Birmingham.  In Letter IV we are given a brief description of Birmingham, of the travellers’ accommodation, and their social and ‘tourist’ activities while here.   From the minute detail in which they are reported, the author seems to have been most interested in processes observed in a slitting-mill and an iron forge in the town.   However, on the Tuesday, the author, with a party of friends, went to see the Leasowes and Hagley.   He is much impressed by the ‘most delightful’ Hagley, but seems more affected by the smaller Leasowes:

“Two Cascades are here remarkable for their Beauty and Simplicity; exceeding many Things of more costly Workmanship, having the Advantage of unaffected Nature on their Side, and are indeed so elegantly rude, so rural and romantic, as must inspire the Beholder with a Notion, that the poetic Descriptions of Arcadia and Fairyland are not altogether Fictions. 13

Shenstone continued embellishing his farm until his death in 1763.   Over the following few years it passed through several pairs of hands, some more careful, some less so.   But because of Shenstone’s reputation, it continued to attract visitors.

In 1771, Arthur Young, the observant and prolific Secretary to the Board of Agriculture, published A Six Months Tour Through the North of England.  This tour included visits to the Leasowes and Hagley.   Young gives a long and knowledgeable report on the house and its contents at the ‘excellent’ Hagley and its grounds, which have been ‘disposed with the utmost taste’.   The much-travelled Secretary of Agriculture’s words on the Leasowes include:

“…as the late Mr. Dodsley gave a particular account of these grounds in so popular a book as Shenstone’s Works, I shall only minute a few circumstances…The cascade, viewed from the root house, inscribed to the Earl of Stamford, is astonishingly romantic;…the trees…form a thick canopy of shade, which sets off most gloriously the sheets of water…This intermixture of wood and water is amazingly fine…The view from Thomson’s seat is exquisite and inimitable; sweetly varied; the water admirably managed:  In a word, it is a little scene of enchantment.” 14

Like R.P.’s, Young’s writing indicates that he found the Leasowes aesthetically superlative.

As the century progressed, the numbers of people interested and able to make long tours or shorter trips to see centres of industrial ingenuity and production, grand houses (even if only the outside), and places of natural or cultivated beauty, increased.   William Hutton, in his 1781 An History of Birmingham, observed: ‘Party excursion is held in considerable esteem; in which are included Enville…Hagley,…and the Leasowes.’ 15    One guidebook, A Companion to the Leasowes, Hagley and Enville, published in 1789, was sold for two shillings in both Birmingham and London.   In this, Hagley is described as ‘truly classical ground’.   The Leasowes is: ‘this delightful epitome of rural elegance…[where] the Hand of Art…guided by the most glowing imagination, and refined taste…[of] Mr. Shenstone, the celebrated designer…’.   The section on Enville notes that its chapel, ‘from its situation commanding views correspondent to those we meet with in the Leasowes, has been, with much propriety, dedicated to the late William Shenstone, Esquire’.16    Enville, perhaps eight miles west of the Leasowes, was the seat of Lord Stamford, a friend of Shenstone.

A “delightful Paradise”: The Leasowes Cult

Image: Title page from vol. I of James Dodsley’s 1765 edition of Shenstone’s works. His brother, Robert Dodsley (1703-1764), was instrumental in creating the cult of Shenstone.  He was responsible for selecting and introducing what became a three-volume work devoted to Shenstone’s writings and the landscape he created at the Leasowes. From The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq., Vol. I, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765).

From 1754 Dodsley spent several weeks of several summers staying with Shenstone.   This was partly for pleasure and partly for collaborative literary work.   In 1758 Dodsley introduced his friend Joseph Spence to Shenstone.   This Spence was he who had (like Dodsley) been a friend of Pope, and practised and wrote on gardening.   Following his first visit to the Leasowes, Spence wrote to Shenstone:

“…thank you…for all the Pleasure…[at] your delightful Paradise…If…you would favour me with the natural History, how, and why, and in what Order, you laid out every Part of your Gardens, it would…be…of particular Use to me, as a Guide and Assistant in many Things, and particularly in those two great Articles of Vistos and Cascades.  I would beg…a more lively Account of a Place, that is so much every Body’s Favourite.

P.S.  Could you send me a Receipt how to build a Root House?  In my wild Abbey-Grounds, I have a Place…for one…but we have neither any Gentleman or Artist here, who understands any Thing of that Stile of Architecture. (Select Letters Between, pp.239-242)

Spence had a house at Byfleet in Surrey, where he gardened, but here he is referring to

Durham, to where he would retire.   Perhaps the furthest recorded memorial to Shenstone and the Leasowes was that at Ermonville, thirty miles north of Paris, on which the then-owner, having seen the Leasowes, praised its ‘exquisite simplicity’. (Graves, Recollection, p.190)

Appreciating the Landscape: Robert Dodsley and the Leasowes

Image: Map from ‘A Description of the Leasowes, the Seat of the late William Shenstone, Esq’,

by R. Dodsley in The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq., Vol. I, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765), facing page 287.

1.  Great road from Birmingham to Bewdley
2.  Ruinated wall with a small gate within an arch
3.  The house
4.  Small gate at the bottom of a “fine swelling lawn”
5.  The Priory Gate
6.  Seat “beneath a ruinated wall”
7.  Small seat near “a sloping grove”
8.  Water feature at the bottom of a valley filled by “a brawling rivulet”
9.  The Priory, the folly which Shenstone created within the estate
10. A common bench “which affords a retiring place”
11. Seat “beneath a prodigiously fine canopy of spreading oak”
12. The cascade “where the eye is presented with a fairy vision”
13. A “natural bower of almost circular oaks”
14. Statue of “the piping faun”
15. Striking view of the Priory
16. Path leading “by an easy ascent to a small bench”
17. Small bench “where the circumjacent country begins to open”
18. Octagonal seat “overarched…by firs”
19. Small thicket
20. Gothic alcove
21. Entrance to “a new theatre of wild shaggy precipices”
22. Seat “under a spreading birch”
23. Small bench “near a scene of hanging woods and shaggy wild declivities”
24. Seat which commands a view of “the town and spire of Hales”
25. Seat in “the center (sic) of a noble clump of stately beeches”
26. The Lover’s Walk
27. The Assignation Seat “beneath a spreading beech”
28. Ornamented urn inscribed to Miss Dolman
29. Steep ascent with “a rough scene of broken and furzy ground”
30. Lofty Gothic seat with a view of Clent Hill
31. A rustic building known as the “Temple of Pan”
32. Seat on a “high natural terrace” with a view of all previous scenes
33. View of Frankley Beeches, next to Hagley Hall, the seat of the Lytteltons
34. Gothic screen “backed with a clump of firs”
35. Seat which “presents a beautiful view up a valley”
36. Down hill with a view of a cottage on very high ground
37. Seat with a view of the valley with gliding water
38. Descent to Virgil’s Grove
39. Ascent and entrance to the shrubbery surrounding the house
40. Seat inscribed to Richard Jago, one of Shenstone’s friends

Although the London-based Robert Dodsley had published earlier works by Shenstone, it was not until 1754 that the publisher visited the Leasowes.   This occurred when Dodsley, in Birmingham for matters of business and pleasure with his friend John Baskerville, the type-founder and printer, was taken by Baskerville to meet Shenstone.   The resultant poem, ‘Verses by Mr Dodsley’, on his first arrival at the Leasowes, 1754, begins, ‘How shall I fix my wandering eye?  Where find / The source of this enchantment?’   This poem and Luxborough’s ‘Written at a Ferme Ornee, near Birmingham; August 7th, 1749’ are among the few poems on Shenstone and his place reprinted in Volume II of Shenstone’s Works in Verse and Prose.   But both during his lifetime and after his death very many poems were written in praise of Shenstone’s Arcadia.

In the same volume as Dodsley’s Verses is ‘A Description of the Leasowes’.   This, usually credited to Robert Dodsley, runs to thirty-five pages.   On the accompanying plan are marked forty points at which to stop in order to admire or consider the immediate scene or some near object or inscription, or a more distant vista or prospect.   Here a few lines from this Description must serve,

‘…now…into a part of the valley…tall trees, high irregular ground, and rugged scars.  The right presents you with, perhaps, the most natural…of the many cascades here found: the left with a sloping grove of oaks; and the center, with a pretty circular landskip appearing through the trees, of which Hales Owen steeple, and other objects … form an interesting part.  The seat beneath the ruinated wall has these lines of Virgil inscribed,’ (Works in Verse and Prose, Vol. II, p.290)

The recommended route winds around and through the ferme ornee, with point 40 being near to the house, in the centre.   Natural advantages of the site include: hills, valleys, woods, rocky outcrops, natural springs, streams, and pleasant distant views.  From Shenstone’s writings and Dodsley’s Description, it is clear that, ideally, each individual spot is to be appreciated by each walker for its (‘improved’) natural beauty and any outlook, and also that each person should realize they stop at different points in the ‘landscape’ – but also that they progress, move through, that landscape.  It is intended as an aesthetic, philosophical, moral journey.

The Reputation of the Leasowes

Image: Engraving of Hagley Hall, Worcestershire, the residence of the Lyttletons, which was designed by Sanderson Miller in the 1750. Shenstone was a frequent visitor to Hagley Hall, only a few miles from his residence at the Leasowes. George, First Lord Lyttleton was secretary to the Prince of Wales and served in the government as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Shenstone and Lyttleton were both poets and shared an interest in landscape design. Through Lyttleton, Shenstone met members of the aristocracy and gentry, contacts which helped to enhance his reputation. The date and provenance of the engraving are unknown. From R W Boodle, Worcestershire Scrap Book, vol. II (1903) held in Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

While Lady Luxborough lived nearly twenty miles from Shenstone, in Warwickshire, and they paid only occasional visits to each other, the powerful Lytteltons lived only three miles from him, at Hagley.   Soon after Shenstone moved to his farm he, and his walks, began to be visited by various Lytteltons and members of their extended family, which included the Pitts and the Grenvilles.   Shenstone sometimes visited and dined at Hagley.   William Pitt the Elder (later First Minister) ‘was particularly charmed’ by the Leasowes, and:

“…as he saw several possible improvements which Mr. S— could not afford, … gave him an hint, by means of Mr. Miller of Radway, that, with his permission, Mr. Pitt would please himself by laying out two hundred pounds at the Leasowes.” (Graves, Recollection, p.82)

Shenstone declined Pitt’s offer.  ‘Mr. Miller of Radway’ was Sanderson Miller, who designed the replacement Hagley Hall, built in the 1750s, and also helped design its park.   Initially there were differences of opinion over taste and design between Miller and Shenstone, but by 1754 the former visited the Leasowes.

As the reputation of the Leasowes spread, it attracted ever more visitors, local and national; some for a pleasant stroll, some to appreciate the beauty of the place, and others, perhaps, seeking ideas to copy.   Shenstone delights in reporting, particularly to Luxborough, the names of eminent people who have visited his estate.   In his poem ‘A Pastoral Ode’ he writes of the Leasowes and various admired, titled people he has welcomed there.   For many years he allowed the general public access.   A letter of 1749 to Jago notes:  ‘It is now Sunday evening, and I have been exhibiting myself in my walks to no less than a hundred and fifty people’ (Letters, p.204).   Even allowing for exaggeration here, it is apparent from other sources that the Leasowes was much-visited.

However, during the late 1740s general access was for a time restricted.   This was because of vandalism.   One result of this was that James Woodhouse, a struggling shoemaker and poet of Rowley, near Halesowen, wrote a poem to Shenstone.   Because of this, Shenstone acted as patron, adviser and editor to Woodhouse.   The latter’s subsequent Poems on Sundry Occasions includes several elegies in which Woodhouse eulogizes Shenstone and the Leasowes.11

Among other minor local poets whom Shenstone assisted were Mary Whateley of Walsall, and Joseph Giles, resident for a time in Birmingham, both of whose works included poems in praise of Shenstone and the Leasowes.   Shenstone not infrequently altered poems by his proteges and his friends.   In 1755, John Pixell, the young vicar of Edgbaston, wrote to Robert Dodsley: ‘… my verses designed for my Garden-Seat, which Mr Shenstone has made me alter 3 times…’12

Shenstone’s Embellishments to the Leasowes

Image: Engraving of a classical urn set amongst trees accompanying ‘Elegies, written on many different Occasions’ by William Shenstone in The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq., Vol. I, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765) p 11.

8. Shenstone’s Embellishments to the Leasowes

Embellishments to the Leasowes are frequently reported to friends. The following few examples, from his Letters, are mostly to Lady Luxborough, and written between 1747 and 1749,

“I’ve made a great Improvement in Virgil’s Grove…& have finished a new Path from it to ye House.” (p.114)

“I send you ye Plans…for a Hermit’s Seat on a Bank above my Hermitage.” (p.197)

“My Gothick Building is now completed…The Ground about it is turfed;…a new Path is made to it…by…this Path is a little rock with a tree, yt I think is picturesque. The Floor of it is pav’d…with black and white Pebbles; & considering how hastily I collected & dispos’d them, has a pretty good Effect.” (p.207)

“I have made two little Islands in ye stream that runs thro Virgil’s Grove; The stream appears considerably larger, and the ground is mended.” (p.233)

“…also an Urn…And…small as it is, It has…a charming Effect, from ye situation I have given it…The Inscription I design for it.” (p.240)

Lady Luxborough is also informed of the conversion in Shenstone’s old house of a kitchen into a parlour. After giving structural details, including precise measurements, Shenstone writes:

“the other…Room…As you enter into this last, the Point of Clent-Hill appears visto-Fashion thro’ ye Door & one of ye windows. The same will be reflected in a Peer-glass at ye End of the former Room.” (p.179)

A ‘visto’ or ‘vista’ was a narrow, distant view (while a ‘prospect’ was a wide, extensive view). Attention to such minutiae can be seen as part of that most discriminating taste for which Shenstone was admired, and because of which the Leasowes came to be so much visited.

In the extant correspondence, Shenstone frequently advises Luxborough, in great detail, and often at her request, on improvements to her grounds and house; she, very occasionally, offers him advice. The following extracts are selected from letters to Shenstone from Luxborough between 1748 and 1750. 10 She writes,

“I beg the favour of you to send me the height and thickness of your wall that has arches sunk in it; and the depth, breadth and height of these arches; and let me know whether they are plaistered on the inside, and if any ornament is on the top, or only a coping: it is to build in summer a bit of wall (as you advised) to skreen me from the cottage that is contiguous to my garden…” (p.15)

“Mr. Williams, Painter…has finished my chimney-piece, which he hopes will not be disapproved by you, Sir, to whom I owe the idea of it.”

“…thank you for your little sketch of alterations in my Shrubbery. In order to follow it, I have begun by taking down the styles” (p.95)

“I long for your contriving the entrance into my grotto.” (p.111)

“I have pursued your scheme of joining my kitchen-garden to my Coppice…” (p.220)


10 Letters written by the late Right Honourable Lady Luxborough to William Shenstone, Esq. (London, J.Dodsley, 1775).

Shenstone, Landscape and Farming

Image: This engraving of the remodelled Leasowes reveals the combination of the practical activity of farming, in this case, raising sheep, with landscape design. The house itself is artfully located on a hill and amongst trees whilst the sheep graze in the foreground. Engraving on the inside back cover of The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq., Vol. I, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765).

7. Shenstone, Landscape and Farming

Among reasons for Shenstone being interested in landscape gardening were that it was becoming fashionable among people of ‘taste’, and that he had the opportunity himself to be creative. But at the time he began to ‘embellish’ the Leasowes, there were very few (if any) other places, even small ones, being so ‘naturally’ and meticulously designed, yet with such minimal detectable interference. Graves notes that Shenstone’s interest was initially aroused at Mickleton, whose owner had begun to attempt a few of the things being done by Philip Southcote. And also,

“Something of the same kind…had…been begun at Hagley also…but on so large a scale, and in so magnificent a style, as not to raise in Mr. Shenstone the least idea of imitation.” (Recollection, pp.48-50)

Joseph Spence, who for many years helped his friend Alexander Pope in his Twickenham garden, was one of those who in the eighteenth century wrote on gardening. (And, significantly, later visited the Leasowes and asked detailed advice of Shenstone.) The 1966 editor of Spence’s Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Menwrites that, ‘Philip Southcote (1699-1758)…was renowned for introducing the ferme ornee style at Woburn Farm, near Weybridge, Surrey.’ Also, that this style, ‘consisted of combining the practical activities of farming, raising cattle and sheep, with the beautification of the borders, paths, and non-functional areas’. 8 Marjorie Williams notes that William Mason, in his 1770s’ poem ‘The English Garden’, ‘extolled Southcote and Shenstone as inventors of the ferme ornee’ (Letters, p.389).

Shenstone himself, in 1748, wrote,

“The French have what they call a parque-ornee; I suppose, approaching about as near to a garden as the park at Hagley. I give my place the title of a ferme ornee;” (Letters, p.156)

And in his ‘Prefatory Essay on Elegy’ Shenstone writes of himself,

“The author of the following elegies … has a right to consider himself a real shepherd. The flocks, the meadows, and the grottos, are his own, and the embellishment of his farm his sole amusement.” 9


8 Joseph Spence, Observations, Anecdotes, and Characters of Books and Men. (First published 1820). In two volumes. Edited by James M. Osborn (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1966) Vol. I, p 250 and 422.

9 ‘A Prefatory Essay on Elegy’ in The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq; in two Volumes, the second edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765-6) Vol. I, p 23-24.

Shenstone and the Creation of the Natural Landscape

Image: This engraving represents a scene within William Shenstone’s estate at the Leasowes, possibly “Virgil’s Grove”, named after the Roman poet. It shows many of the features of Shenstone’s “natural” landscape embellished by “art”. An obelisk (or a representation of a cascade) on the left is “balanced” by another object, a bridge on the right. A winding stream with a waterfall meanders through the scene. Trees are necessary parts of the composition. A human figure – or cherub – observes in the foreground. From ‘A Description of the Leasowes’ by R Dodsley in The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq., Vol. II, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765) p 320.

6. Shenstone and the Creation of the Natural Landscape

At the same time that the (wealthy) English were copying French or Dutch garden styles, they were also admiring paintings of idealized Italian landscapes by, for example, the seventeenth century Salvator Rosa and the Poussins. These landscapes, whether mild or wild, and whether with or without classical ruins or characters, were attractive to the ‘cultured’ English imagination and, with a native fondness for ‘nature’, contributed to the move away from geometric gardening and towards the more natural. Writing to Graves in 1759, Shenstone asks:

“Now you speak of our Arcadias, pray did you ever see a print or drawing of Poussin’s Arcadia? The idea of it is so very pleasing to me, that I had no peace until I had used the inscription on one side of Miss Dolman’s urn, ‘Et in Arcadia Ego.’” (Letters, pp.524-5)

This urn, a memorial to a cousin who had died of smallpox, was one of several objects placed carefully as visual and/or contemplative foci about Shenstone’s grounds. Others included: a small obelisk, a statue of a piping faun, other urns, and several inscribed seats. In his Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening (not published until after his death) Shenstone comments on many points, including the placing of objects and the influence of painters:

“In a scene presented to the eye, objects should never lie so much to
the right or left, as to give it any uneasiness in the examination.”

“No mere slope from one side to the other can be agreeable ground: The eye requires…a degree of uniformity…Let us examine what may be said in favour of that regularity which Mr. Pope exposes…for a kind of balance in a landskip; and…the painters generally furnish one: a building for instance on one side, contrasted by a group of trees, a large oak, or a rising hill on the other. Whence does this taste proceed, but from the love we bear to regularity in perfection? After all, in regard to gardens, the shape of ground, the disposition of trees, and the figure of water, must be sacred to nature; and no forms must be allowed that make a discovery of art.


“I have used the word landskip-gardiners; because in pursuance of our present taste in gardening, every good painter of landskip appears to me the most proper designer.”

Shenstone has been credited with coining the term ‘landscape gardening’. A few further examples from his many, detailed Unconnected Thoughts:

“Concerning scenes, the more uncommon they appear, the better, provided they form a picture, and include nothing that pretends to be of nature’s production, and is not…Whatever thwarts [Nature] is treason.”

“Hedges, appearing as such, are universally bad. They discover art in nature’s province.”

“Water should ever appear, as an irregular lake or winding stream. Art, indeed, is often requisite to collect and epitomize the beauties of nature; but should never be suffered to set her mark upon them…Objects should indeed be less calculated to strike the immediate eye, than the judgement or well-informed imagination, as a painting.”

“Variety appears to me to derive good part of it’s effect from novelty…Ruinated structures appear to derive their power of pleasing from the irregularity of surface, which is variety: and the latitude they afford the imagination.” 7


7 Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening in The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq; in two Volumes, the second edition (London J.Dodsley, 1765-6) Vol. II, p 111-131.

Shenstone and English Landscape Gardening

Image: An engraving of Hagley Park, showing a Gothic folly and Greek temple at Hagley with deer grazing in the foreground. The architect Sanderson Miller (1717-1780), rebuilt Hagley Hall and remodelled the park for Lord Lyttleton in the 1750s. Like Shenstone, Miller introduced classical and gothic buildings into the landscape. Shenstone and Miller met and may well have influenced each others designs. From R W Boodle, Worcestershire Scrap Book, vol. II (1903) held in Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

5. Shenstone and English Landscape Gardening

As we are concerned particularly with Shenstone and landscape gardening, we might here ask, how original, how innovative, and how influential was Shenstone in this field? Yet before considering these points, a very brief overview of English gardening in the first half of the eighteenth century, and possible influences on Shenstone, would seem appropriate.

For the latter part of the seventeenth century and into the eighteenth, many of the gardens attached to grand, usually rural, houses in England tended to be in the very formal, geometrical French style, a prime example of which is the parterre still to be seen immediately behind the Palace of Versailles. A second, similar style favoured at this time was the Dutch, also geometrical and formal, and not always easily distinguished from the French. As a reminder that change can be gradual, can occur at different speeds in different places, can be accepted or rejected, is this extract from a letter written by a friend to Shenstone in 1759,

“In going to Hampton Court I met with little or nothing curious or entertaining…The Gardens are all in the Dutch Taste, with Evergreens and strait Canals, and some fine Brass Statues interspersed; there is a Terrass by the Side of the Thames a great Length, with a Wall on one Side, and Iron Pallisades on the other.” 6

Among those very grand places where, through the eighteenth century, the lines and designs of parks and gardens were gradually softened, altered (even to the extent of demolishing a village if it spoiled a view), and made to seem, in parts, somewhat more ‘natural’, were Chiswick, Stowe, Blenheim and Chatsworth. The owners of these estates employed such successful garden designers as Charles Bridgeman, William Kent (a painter, friend of Alexander Pope, and important innovator), Capability Brown, and, late in the century, Humphry Repton.

A contemporary contrast to such as Blenheim and Chatsworth was the five-acre garden, with its famous grotto, of the poet Alexander Pope. This was at Twickenham, to where Pope moved in 1718. Like Shenstone, Pope was his own designer, but perhaps did more practical gardening than Shenstone. One of the few busts Shenstone chose to display in his house was of Pope.


6 Select Letters Between the late Duchess of Somerset, Lady Luxborough, Miss Dolman, William Shenstone, Esq,. and others published from original copies by Mr. Hull in two Volumes (London, J. Dodsley, 1778) Vol.I, p 244.

Shenstone, Rural Virtues and the Countryside

Image: An engraving of a harmonious rural landscape with a cottage and church. The idealised nature of the scene is enhanced by the light of the sun. From The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq, Vol. I, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765), p 332.

4. Shenstone, Rural Virtues and the Countryside

Among Shenstone’s many elegies, the first is entitled : ‘He arrives at his retirement in the country, and takes occasion to expatiate in praise of simplicity – To a Friend’. It begins:

“For rural virtues, and for native skies,
I bade Augusta’s venal sons farewell;
Now ‘mid the trees I see my smoke arise,
Now hear the fountains bubbling round my cell.” 5

This stanza is telling. It echoes the ancient classical ideal of the virtuous, wise man choosing a simple, pastoral, yet cultured, life in the country, rather than live in the corrupt and corrupting city. (‘Augusta’ was London.) The ‘trees’ and ‘fountains’ suggest the woods, natural springs and streams to be found among Shenstone’s own hills and valleys.

The above quotation from Graves mentions ‘pastoral ballads’. Much of Shenstone’s poetry was pastoral; indeed, one poem was entitled ‘A Pastoral Ballad’. Moreover, one of Shenstone’s collaborative literary projects was with the Reverend Thomas Percy, collecting and ‘arranging’ (i.e. altering) poems, many of them ballads, older or eighteenth-century, for what was eventually published in 1765, under Percy’s name, as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry. That Shenstone’s contribution to this was greater than sometimes acknowledged is shown by Marjorie Williams in her edition of Shenstone’s Letters.  Reliques was influential in increasing interest in ballads among the literate classes. Consider, for example, the ballads of some of the Romantic poets.


5 The Poetical Works of William Shenstone, edited by Charles Cowden Clark. (Edinburgh, William P Nimmo,, 1868) p 1.

Shenstone, Poetry and Landscape

Image: Illustration accompanying the poem, ‘Rural Elegance, an Ode to the late Duchess of Somerset’, by William Shenstone in The Works in Verse and Prose of William Shenstone, Esq, Vol. I, Second Edition (London, J Dodsley, 1765), p 111.

3. Shenstone, Poetry and Landscape

Even when not landscaping the Leasowes, Shenstone the poet could combine his
favourite ‘amusements’ and design in imagination. For example, he wrote to Graves in 1743:

“My favourite scheme is a poem, in blank verse, upon Rural Elegance, including cascades, temples, grottos, hermitages, greenhouses…The next, running upon planting, & c. will end with a vista terminated by an old abbey.” (Letters, pp.62-63)

The poem ‘Rural Elegance, an Ode to the late Duchess of Somerset’ was eventually published. The Duchess of Somerset was a friend of Henrietta Knight, Lady Luxborough, of Barrells, Ullenhall. From their first meeting, in 1739, until her death in 1756, Luxborough and Shenstone were firm friends and frequent correspondents. Like Shenstone, Luxborough was interested in developing and improving her house, grounds and farm. And, like several others in their circle, she wrote verse. She also, over many years, recommended Shenstone and his Leasowes to her grander friends and acquaintances, including the Duchess of Somerset.

On 1st March 1744, Shenstone informs Richard Jago, then curate of Snitterfield in Warwickshire: ‘I am taking part of my farm upon my hands to see if I can succeed as a farmer’ (Letters, p.88). A few months later Shenstone reports that he is, ‘pulling down walls, Hovels, cow-houses, etc’ (Letters, p.91). This same year the new farmer enthuses to Jago,

“My wood grows excessively pleasant…I have an alcove, six elegies, a seat, two epitaphs (one upon myself) three ballads, four songs, and a serpentine river, to shew you when you come…I am raising a green-house.” (Letters, p.93)

From now until his death in 1763, Shenstone would, apart from visits to various friends in the Midlands, spend the remainder of his life, and more money than he could sometimes afford, on his beloved Leasowes.

Richard Graves had published his Recollection of William Shenstone in 1788, mainly in defence of his late friend against what he, Graves, considered the undue criticism, error, and under-valuing of Shenstone and his works by Samuel Johnson in the latter’s Lives of the Poets (1779-81). Johnson, however, who visited the Leasowes in 1777, did allow that Shenstone had,

“with such judgment and such fancy…made his little domain the envy of the great, and the admiration of the skilful; a place to be visited by travellers, and copied by designers.” 4

Even so, Shenstone’s champion insisted,

“although…since…many places [have been] improved …, and many elegies and pastoral ballads written in Mr. Shenstone’s style; yet, I think, he has a title to more notice for the merit of originality, in both these respects, than some people have vouchsafed to allow him.” (Recollection, p.8)


4 Lives of the Poets in The Works of Samuel Johnson, in 16 volumes (Troy, New York, Pafraets Book Company, 1903) Vol. XI, p.80.

Shenstone’s Early Life

Image: An engraving of Shenstones’s Leasowes showing the house on top of the hill to the right and the Priory in the foreground on the left, which he constructed in the grounds. The image, if it is an accurate representation, shows the farm before substantial alterations were made. The original date and creator of the engraving is unknown. From R W Boodle, Worcestershire Scrap Book, vol. II (1903) held in Local Studies and History, Birmingham Central Library.

2. Shenstone’s Early Life

Born at the Leasowes, then his father’s farm, in 1714, Shenstone left there as a boy. About 1736 he left Oxford without having taken a degree and lived for a time at a house belonging to his late mother’s family before returning, as owner, to the Leasowes, where, initially, he lodged with the tenant farmer. Over the next few years he made prolonged visits to London and to the family home of his friend Richard Graves in Mickleton in Gloucestershire. He also visited Bath, Cheltenham, and the Welsh borders.

While Shenstone did not settle full-time at the Leasowes until after 1741, by 1740 his letters already include reference to his housekeeper there.2 Another letter of the same year, to Mr. Reynolds, includes: ‘I shall be glad to employ you and Mr. Jago in my little rivulet before winter comes’(Letters, p.13). Reynolds and Jago, both clergymen friends of Shenstone, are, it seems, being invited to help on a project begun previously. Indeed, the Reverend Richard Graves, in his Recollection of William Shenstone, notes:

“He had already on his first coming to board with his tenant at the Leasowes cut a straight walk through his wood, terminated by a small building of rough stone; and in a sort of gravel or marl-pit, in the corner of a field, amongst some hazels, he had scooped out a sort of cave, stuck a little cross of wood over the door, and called it an hermitage; and a few years after, had built an elegant little summer-house in the water, under the fine group of beeches.” 3


2 The Letters of William Shenstone, Arranged and Edited with Introduction, Notes and Index by Marjorie Williams (Oxford, Basil Blackwell,1939) p 11.
This volume has been drawn on heavily for this article.

3 Richard Graves, Recollection of some particulars in the Life of the late William Shenstone, Esq., in a series of Letters from an intimate Friend of his to —–, Esq. F.R.S.(London, J. Dodsley, 1788) p 51.

Introduction: William Shenstone and the Leasowes

“…they observed a Gentleman in his own hair…the now celebrated Mr. Shenstone, whose place began to be frequented by people of distinction from all parts of England, on account of its natural beauties, which, by the mere force of genius and good taste, Mr. Shenstone had improved and exhibited to much advantage. And this had discovered to the world his own fine poetical talents and polite learning, which, from his modesty, would otherwise probably have been buried in solitude and obscurity…”

“He showed [his old friend] his cascades, which are so deservedly admired…the prospects of the country from various points of view; his grove, dedicated to Virgil, his urns, his statues, and his admirable inscriptions. He mentioned several people of…the first taste, who had done him the honour to visit his place.i 1

The above extract, from a novel of 1774, written by one of his friends, offers a partial but reliable depiction of the real William Shenstone.

His ‘place’ was the Leasowes, a small grazing farm (perhaps something around one hundred acres) close to Halesowen. This area is now within the borough of Dudley, and close to the current western boundary of Birmingham. In the eighteenth century, although geographically separated from it, the Halesowen area was part of Shropshire.


i Each work quoted from will be given an initial full reference endnote. Thereafter, generally, title (sometimes abbreviated) and page numbers will be given in brackets in the text. Examples of title abbreviations:  The Letters of William Shenstone = LettersRecollection of some particulars in the Life of the late William Shenstone, Esq. = Recollection.

1 Richard Graves, The Spiritual Quixote: or, The Summer’s Ramble of Mr.Geoffry Wildgoose. A comic Romance. In 3 Volumes. 2nd edition (London J. Dodsley, 1774) p 23-25.
Shenstone was unconventional in that, unlike other ‘gentlemen’ of his time, he chose not to wear a wig. In contrast to the peaceful pastoral of the Leasowes, a few pages further on (32-33), as Wildgoose and his companion ‘walked through Birmingham streets, they heard…fellows in a workshop, up two pair of stairs, quarrelling, swearing, and cursing,…Wildgoose, thinking…to reprove their profaneness,…called out…The litigants…redoubled their oaths and imprecations on the Preacher; and one of them emptied the stale contents of an unscowered piss-pot full upon the heads of him and his companion.’

William Shenstone, The Leasowes, and Landscape Gardening

William Shenstone was born in 1714 and died in 1763. His fame rests on his reputation as a poet and landscape gardener. His estate at the Leasowes (pronounced “lezzoes”) at Halesowen, near Dudley, which he transformed into a cultural phenomenon, attracted visitors from home and abroad. This article explores Shenstone’s impact on the Leasowes and his place in the tradition of English garden design and the cult of the “natural” landscape.

Shenstone lived during a time of rapid industrialisation, but he pays little attention to the mines, glass works, forges and foundries which were operating close to his property, though he travelled locally and was well-acquainted with at least two local entrepreneurs, John Baskerville and Matthew Boulton. Written by a local researcher, this article is accompanied by 18th and early 19th century images to illustrate the text.


9. The Reputation of the Leasowes
10. Appreciating the Landscape: Robert Dodsley and the Leasowes
11. A “delightful Paradise”: the Leasowes Cult
12. “Beauty and Simplicity”: Descriptions of the Leasowes
13. Shenstone’s Influence
14. Shenstone and the Locality
15. Conclusion