Archive for the ‘Stowe’ Category

Playing with pebbles

October 10, 2013
The Pebble Alcove at Stowe. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

The Pebble Alcove at Stowe. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

I visited Stowe yesterday with Liv Oustrup and Jan Wulff of the Danish heritage agency Slotte og Kulturejendomme (Castles and Cultural Properties). Apart from touring this wonderful landscape garden we also had tea and talked shop with Stowe head gardener Barry Smith.

The seat and pebble mosaics in the Pebble Alcove at Stowe. ©National Trust Images/John MillarChild in the Pebble Alcove at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire.

The seat and pebble mosaics in the Pebble Alcove at Stowe. ©National Trust Images/John MillarChild in the Pebble Alcove at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire.

One of the garden buildings at Stowe that I hadn’t really appreciated before is the Pebble Alcove.

Detail of the mosaics on the Pebble Alcove at Stowe, with the punning Temple-Grenville family motto 'Templa quam dilecta' (How Beautiful are thy Temples). ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Detail of the mosaics on the Pebble Alcove at Stowe, with the punning Temple-Grenville family motto ‘Templa quam dilecta’ (How Beautiful are thy Temples). ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

It is thought to have been designed by William Kent at some point before 1739. It certainly exudes Kent’s playful theatricality.

Detail of the mosaics in the Pebble Alcove. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Detail of the mosaics in the Pebble Alcove. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

It was meant to be seen from the lake as vision of rustic Palladianism, almost camp in its self-conscious juxtaposition of ‘refined’ and ‘rough’.

Detail of the mosaics in the Pebble Alcove. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

Detail of the mosaics in the Pebble Alcove. ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

And when you approach the alcove that refined-rough contrast suddenly flips, as you discover how humble pebbles have been used to create delicate rococo patterns and gnomic symbols.

Inn side story

March 13, 2012

The Corinthian Arch at Stowe. ©National Trust/John Millar

The eighteenth- century gardens of Stowe in Buckinghamshire were effectively one of the Britain’s first public theme parks. Visitors flocked from near and far (and even from abroad) to see the temples, monuments and scenery created by Baron Cobham and his successor Earl Temple.

A view of the New Inn by Jean-Claude Nattes, 1809, in Buckinghamshire County Museum

Such were the visitor numbers that Lord Cobham built an inn at the main Bell Gate entrance to the park, called the New Inn, to provide accomodation for some of them.

The New Inn following its restoration. ©National Trust/Brian Cleckner

The building later became a farm and had recently fallen into decay. It was bought by the National Trust in 2005 and has now been restored and turned into a visitor centre.

Eighteenth-century graffiti at the New Inn. ©National Trust/John Millar

The 75-strong building team and over 250 volunteers restored as much of the original building as possible, studying  historic documents and images and using materials and construction methods of the period. Appropriate period furniture was introduced whenever possible.

The Parlour, with a draught-excluding settle next to the fireplace. ©National Trust/Brian Cleckner

The National Trust has created additional visitor facilities on the footprint of the farm and stable block, including a cafe, shop and conference centre, using larch wood sourced from the nearby Ashridge estate.

The Tap Room. ©National Trust/Brian Cleckner

The Heritage Lottery Fund provided a £1.5 million grant towards the £9 million cost of the project, which was also supported by other fundraising initiatives and donations.

The courtyard seen from above, showing the layout of a traditional inn. ©National Trust/John Millar

The reinstatement of the New Inn as the entrance to Stowe also means that visitors can now begin their walk around the gardens from the same spot as their eighteenth-century predecessors did, which should help to make the experience more authentic and enjoyable.  

The unread pavilion

February 7, 2012

The Chinese House at Stowe, Buckinghamshire (inv. no. 91820). ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The February 2012 issue of ABC Bulletin has just come out, with news about the historic houses and gardens of the National Trust. I wrote a short article for this issue on the hitherto hidden meaning of the garden pavilion at Stowe known as the Chinese House.

One of the trompe l'oeil panels with characters painted onto the Chinese House - this particular one was repainted in the mid-1990s on the basis of old photographs. A sequence of three characters derived from Chambers has been highlighted. ©Emile de Bruijn

The painted decoration on the Chinese house dates from the 1820s and includes a series of vertical trompe l’oeil  plaques with Chinese characters. Because these were difficult to read it had always been assumed that they were ‘faux‘ characters, made up by the Regency designer or painter as a playful, purely decorative imitation of Chinese writing.

Another plaque with characters, this one with more of the original, worn paint still remaining. A second sequence of four characters from Chambers has been highlighted. ©Emile de Bruijn

A little while ago I discovered that the characters were derived from an illustration in William Chambers’s book Designs of Chinese Buildings, published in 1757.

Plate XVIII from Chambers's 1757 book Designs of Chinese Buildings, with the sequences of characters that can be recognised on the Chinese House highlighted.

More recently one of my former tutors at university, Dr B.J. Mansvelt Beck, who is an expert in classical Chinese, spotted that the Chambers illustration incuded two quotes from the Zhuangzi, a collection of ancient philosophical writings that would become one of the classics of Daoism.

Canton enamel dish with a depiction of Xi Wang Mu, the the Daoist goddess of immortality, at Kedleston Hall, Derbyshire (inv. no. 107343). ©National Trust/Mike Kennedy

The chapter of the Zhuangzi to which these fragments refer is about man’s insignificance when compared to the hugeness of the universe and the limitlessness of time. So this frivolous-seeming little garden pavilion has a rather weighty subtext, albeit one that the original designer didn’t foresee – and that fact gives the whole thing a suitably paradoxical,  Daoist twist.

On the paper trail

November 9, 2011

Fragment of a pomegranate wallpaper found under a tapestry in the Tapestry Room at Erddig. ©NTPL/Barry Hamilton

The National Trust’s wallpaper detective, Andrew Bush (his actual, but far too sensible title is Paper Conservation Adviser), has recently discovered a fragment of an early wallpaper at Stowe, Buckinghamshire that is identical to a rather bold pomegranate or proto-Paisley wallpaper found at Erddig in Wrexham.

View of the New Inn at Stowe in 1809 by J.C. Nattes. ©National Trust

The New Inn at Stowe was built in about 1717 to cater for the increasing numbers of people that were coming to visits its famous gardens. It stayed in use as an inn until about 1850, and after years of dereliction it has now been restored to serve as the National Trust’s visitor centre for Stowe.

Some of the wallpapers discovered at the New Inn. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

Andrew was called in for a one-off visit to check if there were any significant wallpapers, but this turned into a more substantial project as more than sixty wallpapers gradually came to light, dating from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries.

The wallpaper fragment discovered at the New Inn, with the same pattern as the section found at Erddig. ©National Trust/Andrew Bush

A tiny scrap of wallpaper found beneath one of the floorboards turned out to be of the same pattern as the Erddig paper, which could be dated through tax stamps to about 1715-20. The wallpaper would seem to be too grand for an inn, so it remains a puzzle as to how it ended up in an estate building at Stowe.

More about this story can be found in the latest edition of Arts, Buildings and Collections Bulletin. In this issue Sarah Kay also summarises the findings about the Regency card racks at Attingham which keen readers of this blog so generously helped us to unearth.

Stowe’s legacy

October 11, 2011

Stowe, with its famous landscape garden, has the longest bibliography of all National Trust properties. It has inspired and challenged visitors, artists and scholars ever since Lord Cobham began transforming it in the 1710s.

View across the Octagon Lake towards the Lake Pavilions and the Corinthian Arch at Stowe. ©NTPL/Rod Edwards

Any new publication about Stowe has to prove itself in that context. But Stowe: The People and the Place, by Michael Bevington and with contributions by George Clarke, Jonathan Marsden and Tim Knox,  is an interesting addition to the literature partly because it descibes Stowe as a phenomenon, as a garden with a national and indeed international reputation.

The Palladian Bridge at Stowe, which inspired the one at Hagley. ©NTPL/Rod Edwards

Although it is notoriously difficult to establish the precise influence of one garden on another, echoes of Stowe can be found in a number of English gardens. At Hagley Hall in Worcestershire, Cobham’s nephew George Lyttleton erected a number of temples, a column and a Palladian bridge inspired by Stowe.

The politically motivated Temple of British Worthies, which includes busts of King Alfred and the Black Prince. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Frederick, Prince of Wales, added politically symbolic busts of King Alfred and the Black Prince to his garden at Carlton House, London, just as his ally Cobham had done at Stowe. The Prince of Wales also built a House of Confucius in his garden at Kew, which again seems to have been a subtly political emblem similar to Cobham’s Chinese House at Stowe. 

Page of illustrations from Benton Seeley's 1750 Stowe guidebook. ©National Trust

However, Stowe also became well know abroad. There were so many French visitors that in 1748 a French guidebook entitled Les Charmes de Stow was published. Traces of Stowe can be found in gardens in France, Germany, Sweden, Poland, Hungary, Italy, and even as far afield as Monticello, Virginia.

The Cooke and Grenville monuments at Stowe, shown in an 1805 view by J.C. Nattes. The rostral column was copied at Tsarskoye Selo. ©National Trust

Stowe’s most direct and striking influence can be found in the pleasure grounds of Tsarskoye Selo, one of Catherine the Great of Russia’s residences. The famous ‘Frog’ dinner service that the Empress commissioned from Josiah Wedgewood in 1773, and which was decorated with British scenery, featured more views of Stowe than of any other place.

A new bridge at Stowe

May 30, 2011

The new bridge at Stowe. ©National Trust/Nadja Wendt

A new bridge has recently been completed at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, to reconnect the two-kilometre-long lakeside walk. 

The Nattes view of the original bridge.

The original bridge, which collapsed in 1827, is shown in an early-nineteenth-century view by John Claude Nattes. Seeley’s 1827 guidebook to Stowe records the walk that it was a part of, circling and crossing the Octagon Lake and the Eleven Acre Lake.

The new bridge being constructed. ©National Trust/Nadja Wendt

Surveys revealed the location of the original paths, which were then rebuilt by the gardeners and volunteers at Stowe (and are now suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs). As part of the process, various views across the lakes have also been opened up and improved.

The bridge being fixed in place. ©National Trust/Nadja Wendt

The National Trust built the bridge in partnership with Moulton College, Northampton. Trees felled by Moulton arboriculture students supplied the timber for the bridge.

Tracing Capability

May 11, 2011

The Boycott Pavilions at Stowe. Lancelot Brown lived in the westernmost of these in the 1740s with his wife and burgeoning family. ©The National Trust

Garden writer Jane Brown has just published a new biography of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, entitled The Omnipotent Magician. Brown, of course, was responsible more than anyone else for the creation of the ‘English landscape’ style of garden. The biography is thorough and attempts to trace and disentangle Brown’s life and astonishing career, from his youth in rural Northumberland, his training as a gardener and surveyor, his move south and the gradual building up of a network of patrons.

View down the Grecian Valley at Stowe, created by Brown between 1747 and 1749, from the Temple of Concord and Victory. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The secret to Brown’s success seems to have been a combination of sound technical and management skills with a talent to see how a given landscape could be made into a three-dimensional landscape painting à la Claude or Poussin.  This is where his nickname ‘Capability’ originates – he was supposedly in the habit of telling propspective patrons that their grounds had ‘great capabilities’. However, as Jane Brown has found, there is no evidence that this slightly derogatory monniker was used during his lifetime.

Lord Cobham's Pillar, constructed under Brown's supervision between 1747 and 1749. ©The National Trust

The gardens at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, played an important role in Brown’s early career. He was Head Gardener there from 1741 to 1750, which allowed him to develop his skills in a setting that already contained a number of astonishing garden features. Brown married Bridget Wayet at the church of St Mary’s at Stowe in 1744 and they lived in one of the two Boycott Pavilions.

View from the Temple of Concord and Victory towards Lord Cobham's Pillar. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Brown was in charge of creating the Grecian Valley, which required huge earthworks and the replanting of mature trees. It is the first example of the kind of landscape garden for which he would become famous. He also supervised the building of Lord Cobham’s pillar, possibly after a design by James Gibbs, which he had to modify because ‘the Wind has a very great effect on Buildings that stand on so small a Base.’

Imagined landscapes

November 22, 2010

©Emile de Bruijn

Alan Carroll at Surface Fragments recently did a post about French eighteenth-century artist Jean-Baptiste Pillement’s chinoiserie designs.

In response to that I thought I would show some more images of the interior decoration of the Chinese House at Stowe, which is in the Pillement style (with apologies for the amateur quality of my snaps).

©Emile de Bruijn

The painted decoration probably dates from the 1820s and is reminiscent of the decoration of George IV’s Royal Pavilion at Brighton.

©Emile de Bruijn

The Temple-Grenville family who owned Wotton (where the pavilion then resided) knew the King and would have been invited to the Royal Pavilion. The head of the family, the second Marquess of Buckingham, was ‘upgraded’ to a dukedom by the King in 1822 as a reward for his politicial support. 

©Emile de Bruijn

The decoration of the Chinese House shows a rich mixture of influences, including Chinese export art, the illustrations in Sir William Chambers’s 1757 book Designs of Chinese Buildings and Pillement’s Rococo chinoiserie.

©Emile de Bruijn

The Pillement-style landscape panels imitate the look of red and gold East Asian lacquer. 

©Emile de Bruijn

The landscapes themselves are very much a European fantasy, however, with palm trees growing out of clouds, huge birds perching next to diminutive parasol-clutching people, and dragonflies whirring past ethereal pavilions and pagodas.

©Emile de Bruijn

When the Chinese House was restored in the 1990s its interior was found to be in relatively good condition – considering their exposure to the elements – and therefore the painted surfaces were merely cleaned and stabilised. They constitute a remarkable snapshot of late-Regency chinoiserie taste.

Read all about it

September 1, 2010

The Rotunda, with the Temple of Venus in the distance, at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Our curatorial and publishing teams have been collaborating on a bibliography listing all the books and articles about the properties of the National Trust. This bibliography has just been made available online.

The Oxford Bridge, Stowe. ©NTPL/Jerry Harpur

It currently contains over 4,000 entries – the earliest one is a record of a visit by Queen Elizabeth I to Melford Hall in Suffolk in 1578.

The south front of Stowe House. ©NTPL/Rupert Truman

The property with the most entries is Stowe in Buckinghamshire. This very grand garden full of pavilions and monuments has inspired texts and interpretations almost from its inception.

View across the Octagon Lake towards the Lake Pavilions and the Corinthian Arch. ©NTPL/Rod Edwards

Even in the mid eighteenth century it had its own guidebook explaining the monuments to visitors.

The Gothic Temple seen beyond the Octagon Lake. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

It also had a ‘visitor centre’, the New Inn, specially built to cope with the growing number of visitors. This is currently being restored so that it can once again function as the start to the visitor route to the gardens (and if you should feel like donating to the New Inn Appeal you can do so here).

The Grecian Valley seen from the Temple of Concord and Victory. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

We hope that the new bibliography will help to unlock the available knowledge about places like Stowe.

The Palladian Bridge across the Octagon Lake. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

We aim to update the bibliography every six months, so do let me know if you know of a new – or old – publication about a National Trust property that is not listed yet.

Confucius: British hero

August 6, 2010

The Ruined Arch at Kew, an allusion to ancient Rome as the examplar for the emerging British empire. ©Emile de Bruijn

I am still reeling from the experience of seeing so many wonderful gardens on the Ashridge Garden History Summer School. One of the places we went to was Kew, which we were looking at from a historical, rather than the usual botanical, perspective.

The Pagoda at Kew, built by William Chambers in 1762 for Princess Augusta. ©Emile de Bruijn

The respected garden historian Dr Patrick Eyres took us round and pointed out the remnants of the original layout of the garden as designed by William Chambers for Princess Augusta, the widow of Frederick, Prince of Wales, in the middle of the eighteenth century.

The House of Confucius at Kew. It had painted decoration inside showing 'Confucius and his doctrines'.

Before his early death in 1751, Frederick had commissioned a garden pavilion called the House of Confucius for Kew. The ancient Chinese philosopher Confucius had become known in Europe throught the writings of Jesuit missionaries in China. The Jesuits were keen to talk up their China mission and to present the Chinese as ‘almost Christian’.

Frontispiece of the book Confucius Sinarum Philosophus (Confucius, philosopher of the Chinese), published by the Jesuit Philippe Couplet and others in 1687. Image Wikimedia Commons

As a result Confucius – and China in general – became something of a symbol of public virtue and sound government in England. In about 1738 Viscount Cobham added a Chinese House to his garden at Stowe, which was already full of political allusions and metaphors.

The Chinese House at Stowe. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The Prince of Wales and Cobham knew each other and were both associated with the opposition Whig faction, so the House of Confucius at Kew seems to have been at least partly inspired by the Chinese House at Stowe. Chinoiserie pavilions were popping up all over England at this time, an interesting convergence of politics and fashion.


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