Garden Guides at Stowe

Chiswick House Garden Guides explore William Kent’s landscape at Stowe.

On a bitingly cold day in March, a party of Chiswick House garden guides and volunteers visited Stowe, Lord Cobham's ambitious landscape, kindly organised by Ruth Todd. Although on a vaster scale than Chiswick House, it shares a number of distinguishing features with the gardens of Chiswick House. William Kent was employed, as he had been by Lord Burlington at Chiswick, to lay out elements of the landscape and embellish it with eye-catching buildings.  Much of the earlier landscaping had been designed between 1715-1726, as a 'princely garden' by Bridgeman and Vanbrugh. Kent’s involvement commenced in the 1730s with the task of creating a series of natural pictures. As at Chiswick, he softened the formality of the earlier design, eliminating straight lines which characterised its landscape. Stowe, like Chiswick House, continued to evolve in subsequent decades. Capability Brown was head gardener from 1741–1751 and used it as a showcase for much of his landscaping and water design. Its rural location, on the outskirts of Buckingham, meant that a far larger scale could be contemplated and its generous 250 acres compares with Chiswick’s present day, compact, 65 acres.

Like Chiswick, the landscape is rich in political symbolism. Thus the group, expertly led by Stowe's head gardener, Barry Smith, was presented with the prospect of exploring Kent's legacy, stepping carefully through the iconographic programme, its dilemma (symbolically, at least) being to tread the narrow path of life - the choice between good and evil. However, being dutiful garden guides, they regarded it as worldly experience firstly to pass along the route of evil, culminating in the Temple of Venus, before that of good, leading to the Temple of Virtue.

The Temple of Venus which marks the beginning of Kent's employment at Stowe dates from about 1731. Inside, it walls are decorated with scenes from Spenser’s Faerie Queen telling the story of Malbecco and his youthful wife, Hellenore. Malbecco took himself off to the Hermitage, another of Kent's buildings in the rusticated style, in sadness and jealous disgust at her deserting him for another lover.

Shaking itself from the path of evil, the group was led to the enchanting valley, the Elysian Fields, designed by Kent, evoking notions of Elysium itself, the paradise where heroes chosen by the Gods reside in immortality. In iconographical terms, this was the spiritual home of the 'Patriotic' opposition to the administration of Sir Robert Walpole. Its principal buildings are likely also to have been designed by Kent. Here, as though to emphasise the contrast to evil and immorality, we find the Temple of Ancient Virtue and, perhaps the crowning piece, the Temple of British Worthies. It is believed that Kent wanted to design a grand feature along these lines for the exedra at Chiswick.  Instead of Chiswick's yew hedge which closes the vista, sixteen niches are built into a limestone parapet each framing one of the sixteen figures or 'Worthies', symbolising all that was admirable and devoid of corruption.

A shell bridge and grotto, also by Kent, complete the extraordinary ensemble of his contribution to one of the great eighteenth century political gardens and a fine complement to Chiswick's more intimate landscape.

Jeremy Garnett, March 2013

The  Temple of Ancient Virtue at Stowe
The Temple of Ancient Virtue

The Temple of Venus at Stowe
The Temple of Venus

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