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The Grecian Valley

Stowe Landscape Gardens



Location

The Grecian Valley is the name given to the area northeast of the house. It is bordered on the north by the Course and on the south by the Elysian Fields and Hawkwell Field. Actually a continuation of the valley in which the Elysian Fields are located, the Grecian Valley turns northeast at the Temple of Concord and Victory and broadens out in a more "natural" shape that is actually artificial, designed by "Capability" Brown to resemble a painted landscape.


Buildings and Monuments

A Map of the Grecian Valley


History

The Survey reports that "before the 1740s this area was farmland outside the garden, as seen on the 1739 plan published by Sarah Bridgeman. The area was undeveloped and unplanted, the only feature within it being a pond at the north-eastern end." By contrast, Hawkwell Field, to the south, was by this time already enclosed in a ha-ha, and construction of the Palladian Bridge, the Temple of Friendship, and the Gothic Temple was at least underway if not completed.

In 1746, Lancelot "Capability" Brown, who was then Head Gardener, began moving a vast quantity of earth to create what is now the Grecian Valley. Some of the earth seems to have gone to fill in the parterre on the South Front; some seems to have gone to raise the level of the Paddock Course on the edge of the northeast extension of the Course. The excavation was evidently intended to produce a river valley, fed by springs at the northeastern end of the area, that would supply a pond in the valley bottom, just to the north of the Grotto. This initial plan had to be abandoned, however, when it was found that the springs were not sufficient as a supply of water and that the area intended for the pond would not hold water.

Other abandoned plans for the area included the building of a triumphal arch at the eastern end of the Valley and for creating an oval ampitheatre of about 500 feet in circumference nearby. The outline of the ampitheatre is still evident, though the sharp edges of the terrace surrounding it have either been worn away by time or deliberately softened at some point. The Survey suggests that the triumphal arch may have come to be seen as out of character for the area of the garden, and that the Corinthian Arch at the head of the Grand Avenue from Buckingham was situated far better, acting both as an eyecatcher from the South Front and as the centerpiece of the most formal approach to the estate.

Other projects were more fortunate. Work on the Grecian Temple began in 1747, though the exterior was not completed until 1753 and the interior until 1762. A monument to the memory of Captain Thomas Grenville was also raised in 1747 about halfway up the Valley on the northern side. This monument, the Grenville Column, was moved to the Elysian Fields a decade later. A third building project, which the Survey reports was started the previous year, was the monument to Lord Cobham located at the southeastern corner of the Valley.

During the late 1740s and early 1750s Brown also concentrated on planting up the area. According to the Survey, "the planting referred to in the accounts for 1746 and 1747 was for large limes and elms transplanted from other parts of the estate. These were carried on a tree carriage (the accounts for 1752 refer to mending and making tree carriages, which according to Dorothy Stroud in her book on Capability Brown were invented by Brown whilst he was at Stowe). Other smaller trees and sets (usually natives) were taken from other parts of the estate and supplemented the stock purchased from nurseries." The Survey also quotes an account by Thomas Whatley writing in 1770 about the appearance of the Valley as it matured:

. . . lovely woods and groves hang all the way on the declivities; and the open space is broken by detatched trees, which near the park are cautiously and sparingly introduced, lest the breadth should be contracted by them; but as the valley sinks, they advance more boldly down the sides, stretch across or along the bottom, and cluster at times into groups or forms, which multiply the varieties of the larger plantations; these are sometimes close coverts, and sometimes open groves; the trees rise in one upon high stems, and feather down to the bottom in another; and between them are short openings into the park or the gardens.
The Grecian Valley is often said to be a masterpiece of Brown's as an attempt to create an idealized natural landscape after the manner of landscape painters. Although later writers on the picturesque were to mock Brown's artificiality, Alexander Pope would have approved of the sort of planning that went into the creation of such a scene. His lines describing Windsor Forest in a poem by that name suggest that the most pleasant scenes have a "harmonious confusion" about them:
Here Hills and Vales, the Woodland and the Plain,
Here Earth and Water seem to strive again,
Not Chaos-like together crush'd and bruis'd,
But as the World, harmoniously confus'd:
Where Order in Variety we see,
And where, tho' all things differ, all agree. (11-16)
The Survey also remarks that sculpture was featured in the Valley -- in specific, there was a grouping of statues near the northeast corner of the Valley: a faun surrounded by shepherds and shepherdesses. The latter statues were most likely moved from the site of the Queen's Theatre on the South Front in the mid-1760s when the Queen's Pillar was moved west to where it replaced the Gibbs' Building. Likewise, a sculpture of Hercules and Antaeus was located on the site left vacant by the removal of the Grenville Column. The sculpture had been located previously in the area of the Building Reserve to the west, and here as well as there it made a symbolic statement. As the Survey points out, "the placing of a statue of Hercules wrestling with Antaeus (Son of Mother Earth) at the edge of the garden overlooking 'Countryside' was symbolic of the struggle between Order and the 'wilderness' of Nature."

In 1764 a monument to the memory of General Wolfe was built in the park to the north of the Valley re-using the stone from the Octagon Lake guglio, which had been removed the previous year. Also in 1764 the Gibbs' Building mentioned above was moved from the site where it had been replaced by the Queen's Pillar and it was rebuilt as the Fane of Pastoral Poetry. Its placement complemented both the nearby location of the circle of faun and shepherds as well as the distant location of Wolfe's Obelisk, which can be seen when one looks directly through the building on one of its axes.

During this same time the Grecian Temple was altered: the relief of Britannia formerly on the eastern wall of the Palladian Bridge was added to the pediment, statues were added erected on the roof pediments, and medallions were added to the interior. At this time it was also renamed the Temple of Concord and Victory to celebrate Britain's gains during the Seven Years' War (1756-1763).

In 1778 the Ladies Temple was also altered -- in specific, the side of the building that backed into the Grecian Valley on the Ladies Terrace Diagonal, the broad grass walk that extends between the Temple of Concord and Victory and Lord Cobham's Monument. The Survey explains that this remodeling followed almost immediately that done to the front of the building, when steps, portico, and balustrade were added. The alterations on the Grecian Valley side consisted of adding a semi-circular portico which allowed a view into the Valley much as the southern portico allowed a view into Hawkwell Field. The Ladies Temple was renamed the Queen's Temple in 1789, when it was dedicated to Queen Charlotte who had just nursed George III back to health after his madness.

The Survey also reports that the Cobham Monument was altered in the 1780s in an attempt "to make both the structure and the appearance more balanced." It was given four massive buttresses at the base, each topped by a stone lion.

As for planting in the Valley, the Survey says that the design "changed during the 18th Century so that by the Seeley plan of 1797 the planting was in much heavier groups. . . . Despite this clumping of the planting, the layout remained very much the same throughout the 19th Century and early 20th Century, as can be seen from the 1840s estate plans. . . . The planting that was added in the first half of the 19th Century included many more coniferous species, as seen in the late 19th-century and early 20th-century photographs."

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