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The Rotunda

Stowe: Rotunda and Sleeping Wood

The view of the Rotunda pictured below is from across the Eleven Acre Lake. It illustrates not only how the Rotunda was placed at a high point on the western side of the garden so that it could command views of its surroundings but also how views of the Rotunda were designed to be seen from other points in the garden.

A View of the Rotunda from across the Eleven Acre Lake

This principle of landscape design is explained by William Shenstone in his Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening, published in 1764: "When a building, or other object, has been once viewed from its proper point, the foot should never travel to it by the same path, which the eye has travelled over before. Lose the object, and draw nigh, obliquely." If a visitor to the gardens continues in a clockwise direction along the edge of the Eleven Acre Lake, the Rotunda slips in and out of view until he or she comes out of Gurnet's Wood on the northeast side of the Lake and approaches it directly over a short space of lawn (now part of the School golf course).

The gilt statue of Venus in the Rotunda When the Rotunda was built to the design of Sir John Vanbrugh in 1721 it was intended as a temple to Venus and it housed a statue of that goddess. It was also surrounded by a much more formal garden space, standing as it did on a bastion on the ha-ha that enclosed the Home Park. The bastion was at the point where two formal avenues of trees converged at an angle that jutted into the Home Park to the west. The avenue to the north led directly to another garden building (long since demolished) by Vanbrugh called Nelson's Seat, which was at the head of Nelson's Walk, an avenue that still runs along the southern side of the Oxford Avenue ha-ha. The avenue to the south of the Rotunda, called Gurnet's Walk, led to the northwestern edge of the Octagon Lake and formed a direct line between the Rotunda and the guglio in the center of the Lake.

To the east of the Rotunda, toward the South Front, was a level space of lawn with a formal canal in the center that stretched toward another monument -- the Queen's Pillar, set in a theatre of graded terraces at the opposite end. This monument, later renamed the Queen Caroline Monument, was moved in the early 1760s to the other side of the Home Park where it now faces the Rotunda from the opposite direction and at a greater distance. At that time, the canal was also filled in and the contours of the landscape softened.

Shenstone, in a passage just before the one quoted above, comments on the changes in landscape garden design as taste was moving away from formal geometry toward a more "naturalized" appearance:

It is not easy to account for the fondness of former times for strait-lined avenues to their houses; strait-lined walks through their woods; and, in short, every kind of strait-line, where the foot is to travel over, what the eye has done before. . . . To stand still and survey such avenues, may afford some slender satisfaction, through the change derived from perspective; but to move on continually and find no change of scene in the least attendant on our change of place, must give actual pain to a person of taste.
A View of the Rotunda from the east

The Guide to the Gardens suggests that changes made to the structure of the Rotunda in the 1750s allowed it to appear more in keeping with the changes in its surroundings. The original semi-spherical ribbed dome was replaced by a shallower one, the entablature was re-designed, and a circle of leaves was added to the shafts of the ten columns, which seemed to some to be too elongated as Vanbrugh had designed them. The Guide also points out that a temple nearly identical to the original design of the Rotunda, also designed by Vanbrugh, still exists in Duncomb Park in Yorkshire, where it punctuates a formal terrace. The photographs below of that building, called the Ionic Temple, may be compared with the ones of the Rotunda above.

The Sundial Statue with The Ionic Temple in the distance at Duncomb Park The Ionic Temple at Duncomb Park

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,