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Dido's Cave

Stowe: Rotunda and Sleeping Wood



Dido's Cave is another garden building mentioned by neither the Guide to the Gardens nor Robinson's Temples of Delight. Like the Grotto, it was for a long time in a state of disrepair that rendered it almost unrecognizable. The garden visitor comes upon it as he or she walks northward from the Rotunda toward the School Shop.

Dido's Cave

Dido's Cave -- not a cave at all but a simple, single-chambered, rectangular building with an arched central doorway -- was built in the 1720s according to a design by either Sir John Vanbrugh or James Gibbs. The Survey suggests that if by Vanbrugh, it dates from 1725, but if by Gibbs, it dates from 1727-29 when Gibbs was working on the Gibbs' Building and Boycott Pavilion in the western part of the garden. It is first referred to in Gilbert West's poem on Stowe, published in 1732, where it appeared as a "private grotto" that was footnoted as "the Randibus."

Fragonard's Swing The poem tells the true story of Conway Rand, the Vicar of Stowe, being so taken with the "mysterious charms" of a young woman whom he saw swinging on a swing that he left the game of bowls he was playing and chased her through the garden. She attempted to hide in Dido's Cave, but the privacy of that place worked more to her pursuer's advantage than to hers. The poem does not go into detail about what happened when Rand caught up with her except that "the fierce Pursuer seiz'd the helpless Fair"; other accounts report that he later married her. Fragonard's famous painting of The Swing (1767), seen to the right, depicts a similar situation, where the woman by her expression seems to approve of her lover's hiding in the shrubbery below her to catch whatever glimpses he can of her as she is swung by an older man. West's account, which also treats the woman as the object of the reader's gaze as well as Rand's, does not speculate on her desires though it does suggest her fears.

The Survey quotes from the account of an anonymous visitor to the garden in 1738, which describes both the interior of the building and its surroundings:

From hence you go into a Wilderness, in which is a small Building open in Front like an Alcove, Call'd Dido's Cave, the Story of Æneas and that Queen being painted on the Wall. It has been reported that this has been the Scene of more Modern Amours; and as [the] Antient Hero of the first Story [is] said to have been of Divine Race, the later one according to Fame was of Divine Profession. This memorable Ædifice is seated on an Amphitheatre of Grass, cutt into Slopes and shaded with Covert proper for the Use that they say has been made of it.
By the mid 1770s the amphitheatre described above had been filled in, and the building itself was tiled and an inscription added to the outside that Bevington suggests was a tribute to Vanbrugh. Around 1800 the building was again reworked -- the scrolled top of its front was removed and its roof redesigned, and it was faced with tufa -- and it was renamed as the Marchioness of Buckingham's Seat.

During renovation during the winter of 1998-99, the tufa facing was replaced, the interior floor and walls were repaired, and a gate was installed. Visitors to the garden should stop and notice that the National Trust has chosen to leave some of each layer of the façade visible in order to give a sense of the transformations that the building went through during its various remodelings. It is even possible to see the traces of the mural of Dido and Aeneas on the interior walls.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu