Little Switzerlands Alpine Kitsch in England
Far from the treacherous peaks and ravines of Switzerland, Alpine cottages arose, unexpectedly, amid the hillocks and modest streams of 19th-century England. Seán Williams recovers the peculiar fad for “Little Switzerlands”, where the Romantic sublime meets countryside kitsch.
December 8, 2021
“Nothing can be uglier, per se, than a Swiss cottage, or anything more beautiful under its precise circumstances”—James Fenimore Cooper, Home as Found: Sequel to Homeward Bound (1838)1
One sunny weekend earlier this year, I visited Biggleswade, Bedfordshire, with my young godson. He stood and stared in awe at the historic aeroplanes, hangared at Shuttleworth, whereas I was transported by the country estate’s Swiss Garden: into charming, if uncanny territory. The museum’s planes looked just as they do in children’s books — much to the toddler’s satisfaction. But the ornate ironmongery and the diminutive duckponds of Shuttleworth’s other main, landscaped attraction surprised me. The neatly-turfed hillocks were cute and hardly confounding by themselves, but unexpected for someone who has had the chance to experience the rugged, startling, and at times terrifying Helvetian mountains. The garden’s centrepiece was a thatched and oddly contrived “Swiss” cottage that bore little resemblance to alpine huts. A white peacock came into view as I tried to make sense of this strange scene. The bird symbolised it for me: visually compelling, yet curiously contrary to what I thought I would see.
Thinking more about Shuttleworth’s Swiss Garden after I got home led me into the eighteenth century. And not only to Switzerland, but across the borders of Europe and over to North America, before returning to England. Around 1800, a version of the aesthetic sublime turned sweet, while the pastoral, with its lakes and cottages, morphed into the picturesque: an agreeable aesthetics of landscape, framed or staged for tourists’ pleasure. James Fenimore Cooper’s characters in the novel Home as Found from 1838 complain of the architectural blight of “Swiss Cottages” afflicting the banks of the Hudson, amid a building boom in New York.2 Cooper had hiked in the Swiss Alps himself, and bemoaned an inauthentic imaginary that was now imitated across the world: for easy, uncritical, and comfortable amusement. The image of Swissness became, to use a German word, kitsch — especially in England during Georgian, Victorian, and Edwardian times, when a fashion for “Little Switzerlands” peaked. We no longer had to go abroad for alpine scenery; Swiss landscapes were brought home, like souvenirs, and domesticated as ornaments for our own countryside.
Now that popular culture has climbed down from the height of that craze, we might not know what to make of Swiss Gardens in the English Shires today. Perhaps the absence of context and cultural history in our present age is a reason why we can cast an eye, at once appreciative and naïve, onto these eclectic, eccentric mountains in miniature. They’re not stunningly beautiful; they’re no longer fashionably delightful. A weird hodgepodge of styles presented as Helveticism, we can but enjoy these Little Switzerlands for whatever, wherever they are now. But what were these fairy-tale-like, small alpine attractions once upon a time?
The story of Swiss Gardens like the one at Shuttleworth begins in 1790, when William Wordsworth stopped, awestruck, while on a walking tour in Switzerland. He was astounded not just by the landscape, but also by an intricate model of Lake Lucerne, of the surrounding Alps, and of characterful cottages — all to scale. Wordsworth did not observe the constructed scene alone: the finely measured mountain-scape, created by the surveyor Franz Ludwig Pfyffer von Wyher, was on display to groups of tourists.3 Nor was Wordsworth the only Englishman or foreigner to traverse Swiss nature. No lonely wanderer, he was joined by a friend, Robert Jones, and accompanied by a whole generation of the European social and intellectual elite. They travelled to Switzerland in search of wonder, sublime scenery, and high ideals.
Switzerland was romanticised as the home of freedom and of intense sentimental attachment. And like most idealised concepts that people coalesce around, Swiss freedom was vague: anything to everyone, the freer space was understood in individual, political, and spiritual terms. If a nation is an “imagined community”, to speak with the theorist Benedict Anderson, then eighteenth-century Switzerland primarily emerged in the minds of Enlightenment thinkers as a mythical, arcadian place.4 A fictional idyll rather than a realistic image, this “Switzerland” could easily be packaged and moved elsewhere. Swiss authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau in French and Salomon Gessner in German shaped the country’s image in print; particularly Rousseau’s novel Julie from 1761 became a pan-European success story. Rousseau’s popularity was due, in no small part, to his depiction of an exoticised Swiss landscape that homes in on the senses. What’s more, in Julie, Switzerland stands in as a superior example of aesthetic sensuality and homeliness compared to the rest of the world:
The nearer I got to Switzerland, the more emotion I felt. The instant when from the heights of the Jura I sighted Lake Geneva was an instant of ecstasy and ravishment. The sight of my country, of that country so cherished where torrents of pleasures had flooded my heart; the air of the Alps so wholesome and pure; the sweet air of the fatherland, more fragrant than the perfumes of the Orient; that rich and fertile land, that unique countryside, the most beautiful that ever met human eye; that charming abode like nothing I had found in circling the earth; the sight of a happy and free people; the mildness of the season, the calmness of the Clime; a thousand delightful memories that reawakened all the sentiments I had tasted; all these things threw me into transports I cannot describe, and seemed to restore to me all at once the enjoyment of my entire life.5
If the strange, stylised image of Switzerland abroad began as a literary narrative, it was also shaped by linguistic, artistic, and cultural exchange. Switzerland’s German dialects may have been substituted by the Saxon (or “Meißen”) standard as a supposedly Enlightened literary language, but the landscape of the German Meißen hills was soon framed as Swiss: it was named “die Sächsische Schweiz”, or Saxon Switzerland, following comparisons by resident Swiss artists. Over in England, painters from Berne, Switzerland’s capital, toured Derbyshire to capture natural scenery, which they believed to be somehow similar to their homeland. The Swiss exported the picturesque familiarity of their native country, drawing connections with foreign cultures from that perspective.
Wordsworth, too, engaged in the pursuit of analogy. His own emotions overflowed as he composed a sonnet at the top of the Gotthard Pass about a rural legend: the apocryphal story that a cowherd’s melody, traditionally played on an alphorn, once caused a Swiss man in foreign lands to die of homesickness. Wordsworth writes that we should not interpret the folktale as “fabulous”.6 Indeed, he invokes what is often called the “Swiss illness” to explain his own longing for home: the Lake District. And so Swiss myth influenced the yearning tone of Wordsworth’s English Romanticism.
Literal comparisons between the landscapes of Switzerland and England took a little longer to gain ground, however. If, in a letter from 1790 sent from Lake Constance to his sister, Dorothy, William claimed that “the scenes of Switzerland have no resemblance to any I have found in England”, this would soon change.7 Once home, Wordsworth moulded the English scenery in response to what he had seen abroad. As much inspired by Wyler’s relief of the alpine landscape as by Helvetic myth, Wordsworth began to make realistic analogies between the Swiss and the English countryside in his poetry and criticism. Although the Lake District is geologically mountainous, its landscape is more undulating and less extreme than the four cantons that surround the Vierwaldstättersee, or Lake Lucerne. Smaller in magnitude, yet all the greater in variety, the Lake District is gentler — strong winds don’t blow you about in Cumbria as much as they can in Switzerland. “A happy proportion of component parts is indeed noticeable among the landscapes of the North of England”, writes Wordsworth in an anonymous essay that accompanied a luxury edition of prints in 1810, and which was expanded and published in his name as a Guide to the Lakes in later editions. Further, the English proportionality of mountains is “essential to a perfect picture”, and surpasses “the scenes of Scotland, and, in a still greater degree, those of Switzerland.”8
Swissness was shrunk, and overlaid onto the English countryside. Not only by Wordsworth — his analogies were already platitudinous. (In composing his Guide, Wordsworth had read Thomas West’s 1778 Guide to the Lakes, which addresses those “who have traversed the Alps” and promises that “the travelled visitor [exploring] the Cumbrian lakes and mountains, will not be disappointed”.)9 But our Lake District poet conceived a popular comparison more theoretically, staking out a claim about sublimity and smallness for those who might not have been to, and could no longer reach, Switzerland. Wordsworth prefaced his reflections in 1810 by recollecting the model he had seen in Lucerne twenty years beforehand, which he now considered from an aesthetic point of view:
The Spectator ascends a little platform, and sees mountains, lakes, glaciers, rivers, woods, waterfalls, and valleys, with their cottages, and every other object contained in them, lying at his feet; all things being represented in their appropriate colours. It may be easily conceived that this exhibition affords an exquisite delight to the imagination, tempting it to wander at will from valley to valley, mountain to mountain, through the deepest recesses of the Alps. But it supplies also a more substantial pleasure: for the sublime and beautiful region, with all its hidden treasures, and their bearings and relations to each other, is thereby comprehended and understood at once.10
As Wordsworth remembers the miniature scene, it was not only delightful, but also pleasurable in a “solid” and “substantial” way. The Alps at scale allowed him to survey the scenery in one go, like a diorama, and to understand, supposedly, its total, overall effect. Wordsworth goes on to admire a “tranquil sublimity”, which was apparently true of the English Lake District too.
For any earlier, eighteenth-century readers, seeing the sublime as sedate would have been a contradiction in terms. Sublimity, and above all the Alpine mountain-scape, was supposed to be awesome, scary. The sense of terror that lay in wait for the observer of the Alps was thanks, in part, to the enduring influence of Edmund Burke’s 1757 treatise on the sublime. (His section titles say it all: Terror, Obscurity, Privation, Vastness, Infinity).11 Immanuel Kant’s equally tremendous discussion of “mathematical” and “dynamical” sublimity also transformed both aesthetic theories and intellectual alpine travellers’ experiences of his day.12 A new tranquil, more domesticated, and overly diminutive sublime, shrunk to scale, now came to define England’s rolling hills and mountains for Wordsworth — a sublimity that “depends more upon form and relation of objects to each other than upon their actual magnitude”.13 His conception of the English small sublime did not fit the existing, European grand theories — but it was an image that stuck.
Wordsworth’s analogies represented his own nation as all the better. Yet his motives did not stem merely from national competition. For most Britons during the first decade or so of the early nineteenth century, Switzerland could be accessed only in the mind. The Napoleonic wars of 1803 to 1815 meant that the tourist population in general had to retreat and stay at home. More significantly, the age of conflict was an obvious cause for patriotism. As Patrick Vincent has pointed out, in this warring period, Switzerland was now staged as a setting for anti-Jacobin morality plays in Britain.14 Although not all poets, staycationers, and armchair travellers used Switzerland as an excuse for comparative national pride, the Alps could no longer be idealised entirely.
That wartime tendency held true across Europe. The German Friedrich Schiller had also expounded on and nuanced the sublime (or das Erhabene), and he dramatized the Wilhelm Tell legend in 1804 as well, with a good degree of ambivalence. On the killing of the tyrannical overlord Geßler, Tell declares that the mountain huts (or “cottages” in the words of the mid-nineteenth century translator into English) are free of Habsburg control by proxy — and innocence is thereby safeguarded.15 Schiller’s play re-works a medieval alpine narrative of self-sufficiency and greater democratic governance, for a political present in which Switzerland had once again become a confederation (following the collapse of Napoleon’s centralised Helvetic Republic the year before, and having been a sister state of France since 1798). Significantly for a German, Schiller romanticises Swiss folklore and society as a Germanic story of liberation. Yet Wilhelm Tell is also ambiguous in its assessment of how revolutionary politics really works. The Enlightenment idyll was marred by historical reality, around the same time as the sublime was split into new sub-categories.
When peace was restored, international travel resumed. And, even as more people experienced Switzerland first-hand, the old fictions of Swiss authenticity were re-issued in the minds of many. The simple beauty and arcadian happiness of the country seemed straightforward once again. Wordsworth returned to Switzerland, accompanied by Dorothy, and his wife, Mary. Other English Romantics holidayed there as well: Percy and Mary Shelley famously stayed with Lord Byron near Lake Geneva, where they told stories to each other through the night — giving rise to Frankenstein in 1818. Mary Shelley’s Gothic novel compares Derbyshire’s Matlock to “the scenery of Switzerland; but everything is on a lower scale, and the green hills want the crown of distant white Alps”.16 In Cumberland and Westmorland, too, the titular character fancies himself “among the Swiss mountains”.17 And during correspondence written from Jura, while observing the mountains, Mary Shelley casts Switzerland’s famed alpenglow as quintessentially English: “that glowing rose-like hue which is observed in England to attend on the clouds of an autumnal sky when daylight is almost gone”.18 Literary analogies between England and Switzerland were either explicitly positive, or passing observations that went unquestioned.
Matlock in Derbyshire and the Lake District were both in demand with day-trippers and domestic holiday-makers by this time, just as the Alps were. (Jane Austen bemoaned the absence of a friend in 1817, who was “frisked off like half England, into Switzerland”.)19 In fact, Percy Shelley complained of tourists as he tried to picnic on the mountainside near Chamonix in 1816 — irritated that they made the place “another Keswick”20 — while Byron, in his journal from the same trip, recalls overhearing an English woman exclaim “‘Did you ever see anything more rural?’ – as if it was Highgate, or Hampstead, or Brompton, or Hayes”.21 Ironically, though, the Romantic writers themselves contributed to this very tourism — as travellers, and as authors whose words were taken out of their mouths and printed in pocket guides. In 1817, Byron wrote from Venice to ask Thomas Moore if he’d ever been to Dovedale in the southern Peak District, assuring him that “there are things in Derbyshire as noble as Greece or Switzerland”.22 Guidebooks soon plucked that quotation, and some changed it: in one case, in 1879, from “things” to “prospects”, implicitly relocating the view to Matlock Bath – fifteen miles or so further north.23
The Victorian travel journalist with a liberal attitude to literary lines proceeds to defend the comparison between Matlock and Switzerland in Wordsworth-like logic: “The Peak is Alpine on a reduced scale; it is Switzerland seen through a lessening lens; its hills are mountains in miniature”.24 A German guidebook to Luxembourg from 1934 that I picked up in Hay-on-Wye over the summer, a bookish Welsh border town in the small shadows of the Brecon Beacons, justifies the Petite Suisse Luxembourgeoise in the same way: smallness relative to Switzerland, and magnitude (at a mere 400m) when compared to the surrounding Luxembourg flatlands. The idea of pocket-sized Swiss mountains was pan-European, then, but in England it had an especially poetic inflection from the nation’s literary canon. The above line from the English journalist is similar wording to that which Percy Shelley had used when writing to Thomas Peacock from the Alps in 1816: “The scene, at the distance of half-a-mile from Cluses, differs from that of Matlock in little else than in the immensity of its proportions”.25
The legacy of Romantic musing has not only been canonical literature about Switzerland, it seems, but signposts, postcards, and tourist brochures as well. The slogans of the tourist trade were thus also the commonplaces of English Romanticism. Old postcards in Buxton Museum caption Matlock as “Little Switzerland”, or as a location with a “Switzerland view”.26 Copy-writers in Southern England seized on the words of Romantic poet Robert Southey, for the so-called Little or English Switzerland in Devon’s Lynton and Lynmouth. Of the latter, he wrote: “the beautiful little village — which I am assured by one who is familiar with Switzerland, resembles a Swiss village”.27 Southey saw an Alpine likeness without ever having seen the real thing himself. These analogies became practically contagious, passed by word of mouth, and are still employed by the tourist industry to this day. Why else does a cable car dangle above the A6 in Matlock Bath, Derbyshire? Installed in the 1980s, the visitor attraction seeks to capitalise on the area’s Swissophilia that stretches back in time over two centuries.
It was in this context that Swiss Gardens were dug and designed throughout England, both on private estates for the aristocracy and on land for attractions marketed at the general public. These ornate gardens centred on a stylised “Swiss Cottage”. Inspired by Rousseau’s novel Julie, Marie Antoinette had a little Swiss cottage built at Versailles in the eighteenth century already, complete with cows and even a real-life dairy maid. The word chalet was borrowed into English from Swiss French, and by the mid-nineteenth century follies and cottages ornés were erected almost everywhere in a picturesque, and only nominally Helvetian style — from the cosmopolitan centres and out into the provinces. London’s “Swiss Cottage” goes back to a pub that was built in the Swiss chalet style in 1804. Extraordinary examples of Swiss Cottages can be found in Tipperary, Ireland, or at Endsleigh in Devon, England — which was designed around 1815, and is rented out as holiday accommodation today. In the Peak District, there is a village of Swiss chalets and a cottage-style school-house in Illam, Staffordshire (near Dovedale), and a Swiss Cottage by a lake on the Chatsworth Estate as well, built in 1842. The latter is also let for holiday amusement.
At first, all of these odd cottages looked similar. Hardly quintessentially Swiss, but quaint for some visitors. John Ruskin was scathing in The Poetry of Architecture around 1837, however, about “what modern architects erect, when they attempt to produce what is, by courtesy, called a Swiss cottage.” He wryly opposes, on aesthetic grounds, “the modern building known in Britain by that name”.28 Ruskin is right insofar as the Swiss Chalet was appropriated by national architectures. It differed throughout Europe, but was generally regionally consistent: in Norway, for example, Swiss cottages were wooden structures — most magnificently seen in the Hotel Union Øye, constructed in 1891, and the Kviknes Hotel from 1913. In England and among the Irish aristocracy, the fashion often signified a thatched building with an acutely gabled roof, and usually bow windows — until even English Victorian terraced houses had “Swiss Cottage” etched into their brickwork. In Britain, architectural Swissness soon became but a name.
Leaving aside architectural adaptations, Ruskin’s main objection was that the Swiss Cottage abroad had always been inauthentic and contrived. He repeatedly describes its ornamental features, derisively, as “neat”. The structure aspires to the picturesque, but fails. The idea doesn’t work, he writes, “the whole being surrounded by a garden full of flints, burnt bricks and cinders, with some water in the middle, and a fountain in the middle of it, which won’t play; accompanied by some goldfish, which won’t swim; and by two or three ducks, which will splash.”29 Although Ruskin had an airbrushed view of real life in the Alps, it is true that the Swiss cottages of England and elsewhere were fakes. But the foundation of Switzerland they built upon in the popular consciousness was itself a fiction of authenticity: the literary and artistic image of a nation from the late eighteenth century, now evoked for the nineteenth century in new Swiss stories of homesickness and an Alpine state that in the end apparently offers the best of both educated and civilised, as well as sublimely natural worlds. (Joanna Spyri’s Heidi was translated into English in 1882.)
Such a stylised Swissness became more and more fashionable over the late nineteenth century, and moved ever-further away from any plausible comparison to Switzerland — or its fictions that continued to influence public perception of the country. Around 1900, Swissophilia in England was at its height: as ornaments at home and as local holiday amusements. On the Norfolk Broads, for instance — an implausibly flat place for the Alps — there were at least two “Little Switzerlands”. The names of these attractions seem to have signalled little other than neatly landscaped waterside parklands for public pleasure.
Ruskin would lay the blame for the kitschy craze of Swiss cottages and Little Switzerlands at the foothills of modernity. Europe around 1800 set mass consumer culture and increasing commercial tourism in motion. And once the train tracks were laid, more and more working- and middle-class day-trippers flocked to places such as Matlock from industrial cities like Manchester. Switzerland became more accessible, too, because of the tours of Thomas Cook, the new railways, and cable cars. But Ruskin erred in seeing the antidote as authenticity and the genuine arts. We should remember that it was Wordsworth and his Romantic circle who first made the Alps less terrifying or remote for the British, and the foreign more familiar. And yet these authors were both participants in, and critics of, a nascent capitalist society and an emergent culture of European travel which was briefly paused by the Napoleonic wars — with tropes packaged up and brought home. Causal connections here are complex, so it suffices to say that the amusingly acerbic but simplistically anti-modern, pro-arts criticism of Ruskin doesn’t quite stand up to scrutiny.
Perhaps an easier question for our purposes is: what was wrong, aesthetically speaking, with the conventional, if unauthentic, experience of Swissness in nineteenth-century England? Why criticise Swiss kitsch? The German philosopher Ludwig Giesz conceives of kitsch as not only, always, or even necessarily about a lack of authenticity. His list of kitschy characteristics from 1960 maps onto Little Switzerlands well: for him, kitsch is a sentimental idyll with pseudo- or vague ideals that feel real. It’s about making the sublime insignificant and unthreatening. It renders the exotic everyday; the uncertain quotidian. There is no transcendence of the trivial.30 Such qualities may have been true for the experiences of Little Switzerlands in earlier centuries, but not nowadays. Swiss kitsch is problematic when we compare it to the original Switzerland — but not if we don’t perceive a relationship between Little Switzerlands and the actual Alps any longer.
The Swiss Garden at Shuttleworth that I visited earlier this year is one of the leading examples of the ornamental Swiss style, completed in the 1820s and 30s and extending to the architecture of Old Warden, a village on the estate. The brainchild of Lord Robert Henley Ongley, the garden’s plans were explicitly influenced by handbooks such as the J. B. Papworth’s Hints on Ornamental Gardening from 1823. But this text did not yet illustrate a Swiss Cottage — rather a “Polish Hut”, which was said to be “not unlike those of Switzerland”.31 It remains my speculation that Lord Ongley read the Romantics, as well as obviously following a mainstream fashion for Switzerland in Regency England.
Ongley spent thousands of pounds on his picturesque project. Yet contemporary visitor Emily Shore was unimpressed. In her journal entry for July 23, 1835, she wrote that the feature was “a very curious place” — a damning verdict that would surely have made Ruskin smile.32 For “the whole of this garden is in very bad taste, and much too artificial. The mounds and risings are not natural. . . . Even the Swiss cottage is ill imagined”.33 We can only guess how she would have perceived the Victorian additions of the industrialist John Shuttleworth, who, in the late nineteenth century, threw parties in this kitsch alpine playground. (The era, incidentally, when the word kitsch was coined.)
But as the years have passed, we have forgotten the original aesthetic aims of imagining English pastures or lawns as Little Switzerlands, or that such aspirations were turned into common attractions across the country — and, indeed, the continent and America (and in time, Australia too). I think that loss of context allows for a lighter, and certainly less loaded appreciation of their strangeness in our contemporary landscape. We can look on, amused or bemused, at their foreignness amid the familiar. They appear to be not so much out of place, but instead representative of no immediately comprehensible setting at all. Nowadays, the charm of a Little Switzerland is neither a lofty, aesthetic ideal of Romanticism, nor a conventional offer from the leisure industry. Wrenched from any referent that makes intuitive sense to us, today’s Little Switzerlands have become wonderfully weird.
Seán Williams is Senior Lecturer in German and European Cultural History at the University of Sheffield, and writes and broadcasts on German and comparative cultural history. His first book, Pretexts for Writing: German Romantic Prefaces, Literature, and Philosophy, concerns print culture around 1800. He is currently writing a cultural and media history of the hairdresser. A version of “Little Switzerlands” can be heard on BBC Radio 3.