In 1733 a disgruntled but extremely rich Whig minister and one-time military man named Richard Temple, First Viscount Cobham, lost his political position and retired to his country estate in Buckinghamshire. What he chose to do then gives a whole new meaning to the expression ‘gardening leave’, for in his exile from power Cobham completed Stowe, the most celebrated and influential of all English landscape gardens. Representing the efforts of at least three of the premier designers of the era (Charles Bridgeman, William Kent and Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown), who worked on the garden over the course of forty years, Stowe still survives – in rather diminished form, it has to be said – as a testament to the heights achieved by this most British of art forms.
For Tim Richardson, the fact that Cobham was a Whig, and a particular brand of anti-Walpolian Whig, is a matter of some significance. Though The Arcadian Friends is a history of the ‘invention’ of the English landscape garden during the closing years of the seventeenth century and the first half