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The Elysian Fields

Stowe Landscape Gardens


The Elysian Fields is the name given to the secluded valley just southeast of the house. It runs from the Grotto at the north end to the ha-ha at the south end. The area can be broken down into three sections: the most northern part is occupied by the thin lake known as the Alder River held back by the Shell Bridge, a disguised dam; below this lake is another, known as the Worthies River or River Styx, held back by another dam; below this second dam is the inlet from the Octagon Lake, across which is the wooded area containing the Pebble Alcove and the perimeter walk. The valley is bounded on the east and west sides by linear woodlands.

Buildings and Monuments

A map of the Elysian Fields

Northern Section

Centre Section

Southern Section


This area was the site of Stowe village and was historically separated from the house and the older formal gardens by a highway running north and south. Some of the houses had probably fallen down or been badly damaged during the Civil War (1642-1647), and the houses still standing must have been demolished soon afterward, the population mostly moving to Dadford, a village a mile north. The church survived in its enclosure of trees, where it still stands today.

By 1734 a new road was created along the western edge of the estate, and the old highway was removed shortly afterwards. From this time on, the gardens were extended eastward into the area of the Elysian Fields. One of the first garden buildings to be built there was the Temple of British Worthies, in the centre section of the Fields. Designed by William Kent in 1734, this semi-circular structure (an exedra) contains niches for sixteen busts, eight in either wing, and a central oval niche for the head of Mercury.

By 1738 a companion building to British Worthies was completed on the rise across the River Styx to the west, the Temple of Ancient Virtue. Also designed by Kent, this peristyle rotunda with an Ionic colonnade and two arched entrances contains four niches for full-length statues. Its design was inspired by the Temple of Vesta at Tivoli. When first erected, it was partnered by a Temple of Modern Virtue (no longer in existence), which was devised as a ruin.

In the northern end of the Fields at this time, Kent's Shell Bridge had been completed and, further north, one of his two Shell Pavilions (no longer in existence) between which was built the Grotto in 1739. These Pavilions were similar to one in Pope's garden at Twickenham, and the Grotto similar to both Pope's Grotto and the Hermitage at Richmond in plan, elevation, and decoration. During the years 1740-43 the Grotto was decorated, glazed, altered, and planted up, but by 1752 the area behind and beside was filled and graded so that it became a building below ground. The upper end of the Alder River was, thus, transformed, as the Survey describes it, "from Kent's light Rococo fantasy into a dark overshadowed dripping valley, more in keeping with the late eighteenth-century ideas of the sublime."

The southern end of the Fields was also expanded by Kent at this time across the Upper River, reached by means of a stone bridge. Within this area Kent built Congreve's Monument and the Pebble Alcove. The Alcove bears the arms of Lord Cobham and the family motto--Templa quam dilecta ("how beautiful are thy temples"). Congreve's Monument, dedicated to the Restoration dramatist whose comedies "held the mirror up" to polite society, consists of a rustic pyramid topped by a monkey looking at himself in a mirror. When the Upper River was flooded in 1827 to enlarge and reshape the Octagon Lake, the site of the monument became an island.

Chinese buildings became very fashionable in England from the 1750s onward, but the Chinese House at Stowe was in place by 1738, just to the east of the Grotto. According to the Survey, the outside of the house was painted in the "Chinese Taste" and the inside in "Indian Japan." The house stood in a pond and was reached by a bridge decorated with Chinese vases. Inside was a statue of a Chinese lady asleep, and on the pond were carved birds that moved in the wind. The house and its ornaments were moved to Wotton around 1750, where it stood for over 200 years until it was moved to Harristown House, County Kildare, Ireland. The National Trust purchased the Chinese House in 1992, and it now stands in the lower part of Lamport Fields below the Japanese Gardens.

In 1756 the Grenville Column, a rostral column commemorating Thomas Grenville, a captain in the Royal Navy who had been killed in battle, was moved from its original location in the Grecian Valley to its present position north of the Temple of Ancient Virtue. The original statue of Neptune at the top was replaced at this time by a statue of Clio, the Muse of History.

In 1767 the Doric Arch was built to honor Princess Amelia and to serve as the lower entrance to the Fields. It was placed so that, approached from the west, it framed a distant view of the Palladian Bridge and Stowe Castle (a remote farm that had been furnished with sham battlements: an eyecatcher). Arranged on pedestals in a horseshoe shape below the arch were statues of Apollo and the nine Muses.

In 1778 a monument to Captain Cook was erected on an island in the Alder River. The pedestal bears a marble medalion of the discoverer, and it once again (since 2002) supports a terrestrial globe; for over 150 years it was topped by an ancient granite sarcophagus, which was probably introduced when the monument was moved to a location in the middle of the Shell Bridge during the 19th century. The Guide to the Gardens suggests that, like the obelisk dedicated to Wolfe, Cook's Monument "reflects the vision of empire which inspired the makers of Stowe."

The Seasons Fountain, located on the east side of the Alder River near the site of the Chinese House, first appears on drawings in 1805, when an obelisk and a stone bridge were also erected in the area for the visit of the Prince of Wales in August. This marble fountain bears a quotation on a brass plaque from James Thomson's Spring, and it celebrates the view of nature expressed in Thomson's The Seasons.

According to the Survey, The eighteenth-century accounts and descriptions of the Fields in the Huntington Library give some idea of the planting: "the Grotto and Alder River were planted with alder, horse chestnut, elm, larch, elder, holly, pine, laurel, lime, and yew, with ivy, moss, and sumach. Periwinkle grew on the Grotto itself, and in the 1740s there were flower borders around it befitting the Rococo style of that decade. The Elysian Fields were planted with laurel thickets within extensive areas of closely cut turf. Silver firs are recorded in the churchyard, and oleander behind and beside the British Worthies. . . . The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw the gradual planting up of the whole area, . . . but few other changes, except for the deterioration of the structures."

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,