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The Octagon Lake

Stowe: The South Front



A view of the Octagon Lake and Pavilions from the South Front of the House


A map of the Octagon Lake As the gray outline in the map to the left shows, the Octagon lake was not always as "naturally" shaped as it is in the photograph above. The Survey reports that between 1720 and 1724 Charles Bridgeman was engaged in creating the largest and the most southerly of a series of ponds as well as a new entrance to the gardens. A great quantity of earth had to be moved, including a mount that had been built in 1716 to terminate an avenue of Abele trees that led southward in a narrow avenue from the House. In 1723, the Survey reports, there are many references to lining the Octagon pond with clay (a practice that helps a pond hold its water). By 1724 the pond, measuring 400 X 300 feet, had been completed. At its center was a guglio, the fountain of which seems not to have worked particularly well, and it was flanked on the south by Vanbrugh's Lake Pavilions.

As an indication of one way in which the arts of painting and gardening converged in the design of the South front, notice that the octagonal shape of the lake, while symmetrical, is not regular. It is, in fact, elongated on its north-south axis, much in the same way that words painted on the highway are elongated so that they are readable when viewed from inside an automobile. When viewed from the house, the Octagon lake would not have appeared to be a regular octagon if it had been designed as one because of the low angle of the viewer's vision. An octagon 400 feet long by 300 feet wide, by contrast, would appear to be regular. Where a painter foreshortens objects to indicate their size relative to other objects on the canvas, here the landscape designer used the opposite optical illusion and lengthened the object.

In a similar way, the landscape designer used the principle of perspective to create the larger vista beyond the lake to the south. Once the Lake Pavilions were moved wider apart and the Corinthian Arch was built in the 1760s, trees could be planted and/or thinned in such a way as to make the distance between the Pavilions and Arch seem longer than it actually was. Notice in the photograph at the top of the page how the clumps of trees are planted closer and closer together as they approach the Arch. Just as lines in a painting converge toward a vanishing point to indicate relative distance, so do the lines of trees in the park.

A view of the Lake, South Front, and House from the West Lake PavilionThe edges of the Octagon Lake were initially softened in the early 1750s by the removal of the original edging stone, and in 1753 the shape of the lake was changed in more substantial ways. The Survey reports that accounts for that year indicate that earth from around the lake was dug and moved and that the guglio in the center was removed. These changes were the first of four stages in altering the Lake's shape and appearance, others coming by 1763 (when the southwestern corner was expanded), by 1797 (when the eastern edge was expanded and the River widened), and in 1827 when the Lake assumed its present appearance. As a way of illustrating how formal the landscape surrounding the Lake was before it went through its stages of "naturalization" compare the photograph above with the one immediately below, of Studley Royal Gardens in Yorkshire. Note that the circular and crescent-shaped Moon Ponds are edged with stone and that the Temple of Piety sits above them on a mount that is shaped with hard angles rather than a gentle slope.

The Temple of Piety at Studley Royal Gardens

The photograph below shows recent restoration work on the largest island in the Octagon Lake. It has been cleared of unruly vegetation, and the large, white marble Chatham Urn (actually a copy) has been replaced. The urn can also be seen framed by the central arch of the cascade from the western end of the Eleven Acre Lake.

A view from its northeastern shore of the Octagon Lake, its northern island, and the East Lake Pavilion

The Seeley Guidebook from 1832 states that the Chatham Urn was "originally erected by Hester Grenville Countess of Chatham [sister of Earl Temple], in memory of William the great Earl of Chatham, her husband, at Burton Pynsent, in Somersetshire, his country seat. When her ladyship died [1803], and Burton Pynsent was disposed of, the Urn was given by John Earl of Chatham to the Duke of Buckingham, and placed in its present situation. On one side of the Urn is a portrait of Lord Chatham, and on the other the following inscription:"

To
the dear Memory
of
WILLIAM PITT,
Earl of Chatham,
This marble is inscribed
by Hester
his beloved Wife.

On one side of the pedestal is inscribed as follows:

Sacred to pure affection,
this simple Urn
stands a witness of unceasing grief for him,
who,
excelling in whatever is most admirable,
and adding to the exercise of the sublimest virtues,
the sweet charm of refined sentiment,
and polished wit,
by gay social commerce,
rendered beyond comparison happy
the course of domestic life,
and bestowed a felicity inexpressible,
on her
whose faithful love was blessed in a pure return
that raised her above every other joy
but the parental one,
and that still shared with him,
his generous country with public monuments
has eternalized his fame.
This humble tribute
is but to soothe the sorrowing breast
of private woe.

The opposite side of the pedestal is inscribed as follows:

In the year 1831,
This interesting memorial
of a near and highly venerated relative,
was, by the kindness of his son
JOHN EARL OF CHATHAM,
presented to the Duke of
BUCKINGHAM AND CHANDOS,
by whom it is here placed
in remembrance of the early
and long attachment of that great man
to these tranquil scenes,
and of his close connexion
with the family of
their Proprietors.


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