English Arcadia

The temple of Apollo at Stourhead. ©National Trust Images/Clive Nichols

The temple of Apollo at Stourhead. ©National Trust Images/Clive Nichols

Stourhead is one the most influential and admired English landscape gardens. Even Horace Walpole, notorious for his bitchy comments on other people’s houses and gardens, was impressed.

Self portrait with Apollo leading the Marchese Pallavicini towards the temple of Virtue, by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), at Stourhead, inv. no. 732098. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Self portrait with Apollo leading the Marchese Pallavicini towards the temple of Virtue, by Carlo Maratta (1625-1713), at Stourhead, inv. no. 732098. ©National Trust Images/John Hammond

Although the entire ensemble of the lake and the buildings ranged around it is artificial, it manages to convey an atmosphere of dreamlike harmony.

Curved bench made for the temple of Apollo at Stourhead, with a depiction of Apollo in his chariot with Aurora and the Hours, attributed to William Hoare of Bath, RA (1707–92), inv. no. 562873.2. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

Curved bench made for the temple of Apollo at Stourhead, with a depiction of Apollo in his chariot with Aurora and the Hours, attributed to William Hoare of Bath, RA (1707–92), inv. no. 562873.2. ©National Trust, image supplied by the Public Catalogue Foundation

The intricate compositions and ever-changing views were clearly inspired by seventeenth-century landscape paintings.

View of Stourhead by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde (1719-91), 1775, inv. no. 730729. ©National Trust Images

View of the garden at Stourhead with the temple of Apollo at left, by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde (1719-91), 1775, inv. no. 730729. ©National Trust Images

There are also strong antiquarian and literary tropes, and originally there were even some exotic touches, including a Chinese-style bridge and pavilion.

View through the grotto at Stourhead, past the lakeside 'window' towards the statue of the river god. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

View through the grotto at Stourhead, past the lakeside ‘window’ towards the statue of the river god. ©National Trust Images/James Dobson

The grotto, on the north side of the lake, takes the visitor down into the darkness where a river god a nymph reside. The temple of Apollo, by contrast, rises on an eminence on the opposite side of the lake, reaching towards the sun, Apollo’s symbol.

Statue of a river god by John Cheere (1709–87), inv. no. 562877, in the grotto at Stourhead. ©National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

Statue of a river god by John Cheere (1709–87), inv. no. 562877, in the grotto at Stourhead. ©National Trust Images/Ian Shaw

But the two buildings do reach out to each other: from an opening in the grotto the visitor can glimpse the temple of Apollo, which in turn reaches down through its reflection in the lake.

Statue of a sleeping nymph, probably by John Cheere (1709-87), inv. no. 562876, with an inscription taken from a fifteenth-century Latin poem translated by Alexander Pope, in the grotto at Stourhead. ©National Trust Images/Nick Meers

Statue of a sleeping nymph, probably by John Cheere (1709-87), inv. no. 562876, with an inscription taken from a fifteenth-century Latin poem translated by Alexander Pope, in the grotto at Stourhead. ©National Trust Images/Nick Meers

Parts of the garden are now in need of major conservation work. Our American partner organisation, the Royal Oak Foundation, has dedicated its 2014 appeal to raise funds for the temple of Apollo, the grotto and the pinetum at Stourhead.

8 Responses to “English Arcadia”

  1. Gésbi Says:

    Sigh. So very beautiful, but I would have said Arcadia with an r, Acadia being part of New France. Let’s hope this idyllic spot can be preserved. It’s so wonderfully ironic that we build our unspoiled Nature!

  2. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Gésbi, thank you for letting me know, I have corrected it – although parts of Acadia look quite Arcadian, too 🙂 I suppose the garden at Stourhead is an example of building in harmony with nature.

  3. Michael Shepherd Says:

    Unfortunately, plans are currently in hand twith the local council o erect a 242ft high wind turbine on the skyline and despoil the view of King Alfred’s Tower on the Stourhead Estate. Arcadia may well be on the decline! Especially sad since it features in the book “England’s 100 Best Views.”

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Yes our colleagues are carefully scrutinising this planning application and the scale and location of the proposed wind turbine.

  5. Grounds Team Says:

    A wonderful landscape and property, feel lucky to have strolled the footpaths in years gone by, and to have enjoyed those reflections. Excellent blog post!

  6. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thank you! And now you are at Compton Verney, which has its own beautiful landscape.

  7. Andrew Says:

    Yes, the gardens at Stourhead are outstandingly beautiful. But a Chinese bridge? Gosh. Any chance of it being reinstated? Here is an impression:
    * http://mannwilliams.co.uk/portfolio/projects_research/the-chinese-bridge-wiltshire.html

    And a couple of contemporary images:
    * http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O597856/the-chinese-bridge-stourhead-drawing-copleston-warre-bampfylde/
    * http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O597786/drawing-sir-richard-colt/

    There is apparently a copy at Wörlitz:
    * http://www.pinterest.com/pin/393572454907237316/

    What was the Chinese pavilion like? Similar to this seat at Hestercombe?
    * http://www.pinterest.com/pin/393572454906211391/

  8. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Thanks for those excellent links. yes there was a project a little while ago to visualise what the ‘Chinese bridge’ at Stourhead would have looked like, by suspending a life-size banner replica in the same spot for a season. I am not sure if there are any plans to reinstate the original – it would be quite expensive, and also the garden lost its orientalist features quite early on, towards the end of the eighteenth century, so there would have to be a debate about whether it would be appropriate to put these elements back (the ‘which period of history to recreate’ question).

    It is interesting how the Colt Hoare drawing in the V&A shows the Chinese bridge in the same view as the temple of Apollo, an interesting east-west juxtaposition and showing how cosmopolitan Stourhead was.

    These single-arch wooden bridges go back to a Palladio design, but they were quickly conflated or confused with Chinese bridges, because of the many single-arch bridges shown in Chinese art and design. Some of them retained their x-shaped ‘Palladian’ balustrade braces (and the Wörlitz bridge you have spotted is one of those), whereas others were given chinoiserie fretwork balustrades.

    We don’t know what the chinoiserie pavilion at Stourhead looked like, only that it was rectangular in plan, appearing as such on a map drawn by the visiting architect Fredrik Magnus Piper in 1779, halfway up the slope on the eastern side of the lake. It is there called the ‘Chinese alcove’, so presumably it was some kind of semi-enclosed seat.

    On the south side of the garden there was also a wooden ‘Chinese umbrella’, and this was actually shown in a drawing by Piper, with the bridge and the Pantheon beyond: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/393572454905398824/ It doesn’t look very Chinese to us now, but was obviously interpreted as such at the time.

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