The Leasowes is situated in Halesowen on the southern edge of the West Midlands urban conurbation. It is a 57-hectare public park containing the remains of one of the most important and influential landscapes of the 18th century. The garden at The Leasowes was designed by the poet William Shenstone beginning in 1743 and continuing until his death in 1763. Shenstone created his garden from farmland; forming a diverse landscape of wooded valleys, open grassland, lakes and streams. Today, The Leasowes is of major historic significance ranking in importance with landscapes such as Blenheim and Stowe, and being listed as Grade 1 on the English Heritage 'Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England'.
Shenstone's family on his fathers side were essentially farmers whilst his mother's family belonged to the petty gentry, and it was her money, all be it limited, that enabled Shenstone to live the life of a gentleman after his parents' death. However, William Shenstone was a poet and not a farmer and when he inherited the working farm at The Leasowes his attempts to run it as a going concern were rather half-hearted. Instead he channelled his enthusiasm into transforming parts of farmland into a landscaped garden, a creation he called his 'ferme ornee' - literally meaning an ornamental farm.
The Leasowes is significant in that it is considered to be one of the first natural landscape gardens in England.
At the time that The Leasowes was created, gardens elsewhere in Britain were still being laid out to formal designs following either the Italian style with grand steps, terraces and water features or the French Style with formal and geometric avenues of trees and regularly shaped flower beds.
At The Leasowes, Shenstone broke away from this fashion and instead created a landscape that both followed and enhanced nature. In so doing he created a garden, which represents the very beginning of the Picturesque English Landscape Movement.
Indeed Shenstone began by laying out his garden at The Leasowes in a formal style. However, he soon abandoned this approach, having neither space nor funds to complete such a garden. Instead his poetic nature led him to create a new type of landscape that respected and utilised the natural landscape.
"It is not easy to account for the fondness of former times for straight-lined avenues to their houses, straight-lined walks through their woods, and in short every kind of straight line." W. Shenstone
He worked in an unplanned fashion, his limited funds meaning that he had to economise and use his imagination to create the desired effect.
Public interest in The Leasowes increased during Shenstone's lifetime and continued for some years after his death. Indeed, for a period during the middle of the 18th century it became one of the most visited gardens in the country.
Visitors to The Leasowes would take the famous circuit walk. This path led around the garden allowing every aspect of the design to be fully experienced and appreciated. Walkers would be led past seats and urns carefully positioned to enhance a scene, or to allow the opportunity to rest and admire the carefully created views.
Many of the features also bore poems placed by Shenstone to evoke a sense of mood; some of the seats and urns were also dedicated to Shenstone's close friends. Water was of great importance in the design of The Leasowes and whilst walking around the garden the visitor would be constantly aware of both the sound and sight of water as it flowed through the valleys and rushed over cascades to plunge down into pools.
The garden that Shenstone formed in the fields and valleys of The Leasowes is a truly incredible tour de force. He managed, by skilful use of views (guiding the visitor to view the same feature from different locations and angles) to create the impression that his garden was considerably larger than it actually was. Nowhere in The Leasowes was his genius as a garden designer more clearly shown than in his transformation of the part of one of the valleys which he called Virgil's Grove in dedication to the Roman poet.