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What’s gone is here again

Video game technology has reconstructed the lost gardens of Alexander Pope

What does it mean to recreate something long thought lost? This is the question posed by an intriguing project to digitally recreate Alexander Pope’s Villa and Gardens at Twickenham, undertaken by the Pope’s Grotto Preservation Trust, the body that cares for a surviving fragment of one of the most influential English gardens ever designed.

Only the most idiosyncratic part of the garden survives to us

Alexander Pope, one of the greatest poets and literary scholars of the 18th century, was born into a wealthy and cultured family of English Catholics in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution. His father was a successful textile merchant, with premises on The Strand; his brother-in-law was the miniaturist, Samuel Cooper. In the context of legal restrictions on the rights of Catholics even to reside in central London, Pope grew up in Berkshire, and later lived amongst a cultural circle that surrounded Lord Burlington in Chiswick, where Pope was valued for his acerbic wit and deep knowledge of classical literature.

Pope purchased land on the Thames at Twickenham in 1719, intent on putting into practice his increasingly refined aesthetic palette by building a villa and garden for himself. Only the most idiosyncratic part of that project survives to us: Pope’s Grotto, which originally acted as a tunnel into the secluded, mystical world of the garden itself. As Samuel Johnson remarked in his biography of Pope:

“A grotto is not often the wish or pleasure of an Englishman, who has more frequent need to solicit than exclude the sun; but Pope’s excavation was requisite as an entrance to his garden, and, as some men try to be proud of their defects, he extracted an ornament from an inconvenience, and vanity produced a grotto where necessity enforced a passage”.

The Trust that cares for this ornamented inconvenience commissioned Professor Paul Richens, an expert in architectural computing, to produce a historically rigorous 3D model of the gardens which once adjoined the grotto, so that visitors might get a better sense of what the site, now home to a preparatory school and the Twickenham branch of the Royal British Legion, might originally have been like.

The model has been created using Unity, a video-game engine. On its first public screening we were ably toured round the grounds of Pope’s villa by Professor Richens armed with an Xbox controller. Richens’ research work is impressive and thorough, with each decision in the depiction convincingly argued.

You are inhabiting an implied human body within the world of the reconstruction

One of the ironies of the research process is that some of the key engravings depicting Pope’s house used in the model came from Pope’s nemesis, the printer Edmund Curll. Their bitter recriminations over accusations of pirated texts and libellous satire had reached a head in 1716. According to a pamphlet published that year, whilst out on the town Pope spiked Curll’s pint with an emetic, causing him to vomit profusely. There is some scholarly debate about whether this actually happened, or whether Pope widely publicised the story as a sort of revenge fantasy. Regardless, that Curll’s piratical printing enabled the restoration of his poisoner’s villa is a piece of irony worthy of Pope himself.

Watching the demonstration of this digital model is a curious experience, in part because the medium, a video game engine, brings with it certain norms of design. We start our journey to Pope’s garden as a passenger in a rowing boat, with expositional dialogue highlighting the sights of the Thames-side. The complexities and tribulations of model-making are ably demonstrated here, as the oar of our wherry sweeps cleanly through the neck of a swan, leaving the swan totally unfazed and un-decapitated.

As someone used to the vagaries of video game engines, I felt that the familiar formal tropes of video games structured my experience of the reconstruction. As you jerkily move around the garden with your left thumb on an analogue stick, you control a first-person point of view camera with your right. You are inhabiting an implied human body within the world of the reconstruction, an eye-view, but you do not really inhabit that body. There is a freeness and ease of movement: you are playing a video-game. I found myself looking up at the façade of Pope’s villa, remembering the urban landscapes of the Assassin’s Creed franchise and wondering how exactly I might climb to the top. This is not a thought that has ever seized me when visiting a country house in real life.

Whilst some of the shrubbery tends towards the low-resolution video-game greenery of the noughties, the textures of the stone and some of the trees are rendered with a staggering degree of precision. If you manoeuvre yourself up close, you can see patterns of yellow lichen running over the limestone of the garden’s follies, which has been modelled to accurately reflect a couple of decades of growth in the climate of 18th century Twickenham.

Pope was explicit that this mode of landscaping was itself a reconstruction

The research has also done a terrific job of capturing some of the unexpected strangeness, and proto modernity, that might surprise us if we were to travel back to Pope’s arcadia on the Thames. Not least is a high-tech hot house, with pineapple plants in full bloom. The 18th century mania for the exotic fruit inspired reverential fervour, with an arms race between technicians designing complex zig-zag furnace flues to create the optimum temperatures for growing the tropical fruit as far north as Edinburgh. This might be an authentic reconstruction of early modernity, but it is not without its mod cons.

Pope’s landscape gardening is important because it bridged the gap between the formal, baroque gardens of 17th century English country houses, with their complex, expressive geometries and the affected naturalism of the jardin à l’anglaise that Capability Brown and Humphry Repton would perfect in the 18th century as one of the single most influential design concepts Britain ever produced.

Pope contributed this conceptual movement towards iconic landscaping in tandem with William Kent, whose designs for Lord Burlington at Chiswick House integrated a series of axes between follies into a lush landscape that belies its own artificiality. You stand at the end of an axis and suddenly a garden which had seemed natural and disordered snaps into place; order prevails in a succession of vistas, as most vividly depicted by Pieter Andreas Rysbrack in his painting of Chiswick.

Pope was explicit that this mode of landscaping was itself a reconstruction, an attempt to recover the gardens of classical antiquity. In striking similarity to Richens’ archival research to create the digital model, Pope pored over even the most tangential descriptions of gardens and landscapes in Latin and Greek texts, from Homer to Pliny. Visitors to Pope’s villa also understood the gardens as a revival of classical landscapes, as a review of the garden in The Newcastle General Magazine described in 1748:

“There is certainly something in the amiable Simplicity of unadorned Nature, that spreads over the Mind a more noble Sort of Tranquillity, and a loftier Sensation of Pleasure than can be raised from the nicer Scenes of Art. This was the Taste of the Ancients in their Gardens, as we may discover from the Descriptions that are extant of them.”

Dotted around the garden are herms, busts and statues depicting the writers that dominated Pope’s intellectual life. In a move that will be familiar to anyone who ever played Tomb Raider, these statues in the reconstruction have a subtle pulsing glow, enticing the viewer to follow those subtle axes, to pursue the vistas offered from strategic points around the garden. When you arrive at a bust of Homer, a mellifluous reading of a line from the Iliad will start to play.

This was a project about recapturing the essence of something that no longer existed

Some of these tropes of video game can seem a little naff, but they are entertaining, and they introduce new ways for different audiences to engage with the past. All depictions of the world are structured by the medium they are made in. Just as the gardens of Virgil’s Georgics were structured by certain innate qualities of Latin verse, so too were William Kent’s sketches of Pope’s garden partially determined by norms of landscape painting, which in turn influenced the medium of English landscape gardening. Just because the video game is a young medium, doesn’t mean that it deserves reflexive snobbery.

For Pope, recreating the gardens of classical antiquity was not about perfectly reconstructing the physical form, the material reality of Cicero’s Garden. The difference in climate between Twickenham and Tusculum was enough of a barrier in this regard. Instead, this was a project about recapturing the essence of something that no longer existed, transferred through different forms of media, each with their own structuring principles, tropes and logics.

In 2008, then Culture Minister Margaret Hodge argued in favour of the demolition of Peter and Alison Smithson’s Brutalist housing estate Robin Hood Gardens in Poplar, commenting that:

“When some concrete monstrosity fails to make the cut despite having expert opinion behind it, let’s find a third way. This is the 21st century: a perfect digital image of the building, inside and out, could be retained forever”

Whether we are discussing photogrammetry of council housing, or this reconstruction of Alexander Pope’s Garden, we must concede that reconstructions are really representations. They are a powerful tool for education, analysis and entertainment but a partial window into the past, structured by the norms of the medium in which they are made, never a straightforward substitute for the original. As digital reconstructions get better, more detailed and more immersive through the growing ubiquity of virtual reality, we would do well not to confuse the retention of the real thing with its representation.

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