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The Octagon Lake Cascade

Stowe: The South Front

Benton Seeley's 1744 Guidebook opens with a description of the Octagon Lake and then highlights this garden structure as "An Artificial Piece of Ruin cover'd with Ever-greens, under which lie the Statues of two River Gods; a beautiful Cascade of three Sheets of Water falls from the Octagon into a large Lake of 10 Acres."

The Octagon Lake Cascade or Artificial Ruins

Bevington notes that three arches for a cascade were built in 1728-29 and that the artificial ruins decorating them were added by 1738, probably from a design by William Kent. Kent's Shell Bridge in the Elysian Fields, though far less rustic in appearance, has a similar design and serves a similar purpose as a dam and cascade between the Alder River and the River Styx. Kent's cascades in two other gardens show a distinct resemblance, as seen in the photographs below: the lower cascade in Venus's Vale at Rousham Park in Oxfordshire (below left) and the cascade at Lord Burlington's Chiswick House in London (below right).

The Lower Cascade at Rousham Park The Cascade at Chiswick House

The River Gods mentioned by Seeley were part of a series of embellishments added and removed in the 1740s and 50s. But whether elaborately decorated or simple as it is today, the Cascade serves at least two visual purposes. Its center arch provides the frame for a westward view over the Eleven-acre Lake (a view you may see while taking your virtual tour of the gardens elswhere on this Web site), and its rustic appearance offers a striking contrast to the Palladian Bridge to the east (as seen in the photograph below). This contrast is one more example in the gardens of the tension that exists between more neo-classical and more romantic structures and spaces.

The Octagon Lake Cascade with the Palladian Bridge in the distance

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,