Sexual Politics in the Western Garden at Stowe
by John D. Tatter
Birmingham-Southern College



Stowe, former seat of the Dukes of Buckingham, offers perhaps the best example of the English landscape garden as it developed through the eighteenth century. Such gardens were intended to be read. As John Dixon Hunt explains in one of his many books on gardening, The Figure in the Landscape, a garden like Stowe "asked to be explored, its surprises and unsuspected corners to be discovered on foot" (143). That is, the garden visitor followed a circuit along which he or she encountered temples, monuments, urns, and statuary, each of which carried a particular meaning sometimes underscored by an accompanying inscription. In his book Emblem and Expression, Ronald Paulson argues that the English garden was "a return to what was thought to be the garden of the ancient Romans, which was in practice the Italian Renaissance garden or certain aspects of it that appealed to both poet and politician -- links to classical Rome, allusions to the heroic past, and the mingling of formal with natural" structures and spaces (20). A walk through one of these gardens was thus an act of reading: the visitor encountered visual allusions to historical and mythological narratives, and visual symbols, puns, and metaphors, and was encouraged to contemplate alone or discuss with fellow visitors what these emblems might mean. Furthermore, as one moved through the garden, one would see a particular temple or monument from different perspectives and in relation to other temples or monuments. All of these visual messages were carefully planned by the landowner or garden designer in an attempt to elicit a particular response in a garden visitor -- a response that affirmed the landowner's own system of values, or politics.

A series of views of Stowe by Jaques Rigaud, engraved in 1733 and published in 1739, during the garden's heyday, shows it filled with visitors of both sexes. We may assume, however, that not all members of such a diverse audience were intended, or even able, to read all of the political and philosophical statements embedded in the garden. Some of these statements were obvious to any educated visitor, but others were more esoteric -- inside jokes between the landowner and his close friends, and some of these inside jokes had very short lives. Furthermore, although certain views of and between garden structures were controlled by the landowner and landscape designer, interpretation of and response to those views cannot be controlled.

Because a definitive reading of the garden is not possible, therefore, I have turned my attention (and the focus of this paper) to the ways in which this particular garden might be read. During my last visit to Stowe, I was reminded that the garden memorializes two Restoration comic playwrights, and I began to consider the significance of that fact. William Congreve and Sir John Vanbrugh were friends and fellow members of the Kit Cat Club with Sir Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham, who developed the garden during the first half of the eighteenth century. In addition, Vanbrugh was an architect, designer of such grand houses as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, and -- more important to my interests -- designer of a number of the temples and monuments at Stowe. Furthermore, because the iconography of many of these monuments parallels the themes of Vanbrugh's comedies, I hoped to find parallels between their structures as well.

Ronald Paulson suggests that the garden space at Stowe is divided thematically into halves -- the eastern half having to do with national politics and the western half with personal relationships. The eastern half of the garden is the more famous now -- particularly the secluded valley called the Elysian Fields. Here the Temple of Ancient Virtue celebrates the greatest poet, philosopher, lawgiver, and soldier of the ancient world. Down the hill and across the river, the Temple of British Worthies celebrates fourteen figures of contemplation and action in the modern world: writers, philosophers, and artists on the left, and soldiers, statesmen, and monarchs on the right. Nearby is a monument to Captain Thomas Grenville, a member of the family killed in a naval battle with the French, and one to William Congreve, the aforementioned playwright and family friend. Other temples and monuments in the areas to the north and east of the Elysian Fields celebrate British rule in the Temple of Concord and Victory, British independence in the Gothic Temple or Temple of Liberty, Lord Cobham's political allies in the Temple of Friendship, and Lord Cobham himself in the Cobham Monument. Michael Leslie points out in a recent article that Lord Cobham in his choice of statuary in this part of the garden wished to present a history of Britain that suited his Whig politics. If Paulsen is right about the dual themes of the garden, it seems likely that Cobham would have done something similar in the western half of the garden, offering his political perspective on private life -- love and marriage in particular.

Here I would like to pause to say a few words about the term "sexual politics." As Carole Pateman and Mary Lyndon Shanley point out in their anthology Feminist Interpretation and Political Theory,

Sexual difference and sexuality are usually treated as marginal to or outside of the subject matter of political theory, but the different attributes, capacities, and characteristics ascribed to men and women by political theorists are central to the way in which each has defined the "political." Manhood and politics go hand in hand, and everything that stands in contrast to and opposed to political life and the political virtues has been represented by women, their capacities and their tasks seen as natural to their sex, especially motherhood. Many political theorists have seen women as having a vital part to play in social life -- but not as citizens and political actors. Rather, women have been designated as the upholders of the private foundation of the political world of men. . . . (3)
This designated role is not without political implications, however. The Oxford English Dictionary defines politics as "the science and art of government; the science dealing with the form, organization, and administration of a state or part of one, and with the regulation of its relations with other states." I agree with Kate Millett that "one might expand this [science] to a set of stratagems designed to maintain a system. If one understands patriarchy to be an institution perpetuated by such techniques of control, one has a working definition of [sexual] politics" (23n). I use the term politics to refer both to power-structured relationships whereby one group of persons attempts to control another, and to a subsequent definition offered by the OED: "the political principles, convictions, opinions, or sympathies of a person or party." That is, there is a politics of the garden: a physical arrangement of objects in space designed to control the viewer's response; but there are also politics evoked by the garden: the convictions, opinions, and sympathies of individual visitors expressed in response to what they encounter there.

I maintain, therefore, that although the Western Garden at Stowe is usually seen as non-political, especially compared to the Eastern Garden, its original design quite clearly promoted a sexual politics in both of the senses I outline above. Its landscape architecture was axially formal, directing a visitor's path and view, and its individual features were designed to be provocative. In addition, I believe that Lord Cobham would have been aware of and, perhaps, engaged in the ongoing debate about women's rights as individuals. As Melissa Butler points out about the Whig philosopher John Locke, whom Cobham enshrined first in his Temple of Fame in the Western Garden and later in the Temple of British Worthies in the Elysian Fields,

Whigs such as . . . Locke grounded political power in acts of consent made by free-born individuals. Contract and individual choice supplanted birth and divine designation as crucial factors in social and political analysis. These changes raised problems concerning the status of women in the new order. . . . [However], while other Whig writers simply declared that their theories necessitated no new roles for women, John Locke treated the problem somewhat differently. He was among the first to sense the inherent contradiction in a "liberalism" based on the natural freedom of mankind, which accorded to women no greater freedom than allowed by patriarchalism. This is not to claim that John Locke planned or even foresaw the feminist movement. It does seem true, however, that Locke took his individualist principles very seriously, even when they entailed an admission that women, too, might have to be considered "individuals." (74, 81)
It is, in fact, the presentation of women as individuals that reveals Cobham's sexual politics and evokes the political response of visitors in the Western Garden at Stowe.

This part of the garden was the first to be developed, and it continued to be the first to be visited during the typical tour laid out by the guidebooks for sale at the gate. It also figures prominently in two literary works written about the gardens: Gilbert West's poem Stowe (1732), and William Gilpin's fictional account of two visitors' conversation as they walk through the garden, A Dialogue Upon the Gardens at Stowe (1748). What follows is a description of the route prescribed by the guidebooks and illustrated in West's and Gilpin's works.

Upon entering the garden at the Bell Gate, one first takes in the view of the manor house across the lake and up the hill. Turning to the left, one comes upon the two Lake Pavilions, which originally had paintings on the rear walls of scenes from the Italian opera Pastor Fido, both having to do with unrequited love. Gilpin's visitors describe them in detail: the one painting depicts Dorinda, a "nymph" in love with the hunter Sylvio -- she has kidnapped his dog for a ransom of kisses. When Dorinda returns the dog, Sylvio to her dismay lavishes his kisses on the dog instead. The other painting depicts Myrtillo and Amarillis, a "swain" in love with a "Lady" who has rejected his advances and refused even to see him. She has been persuaded by his friend to engage in a game of Blindman's Buff where Myrtillo is shown hesitating to approach her in spite of "so favourable an Opportunity, which Love has put into his Hands." In front of these from 1733 to 1742 was a group of statues of three satyrs and a dancing Venus. Both satyrs and Venus figure prominently in the scenes ahead.

Walking along the terrace on the southern side of the Eleven-acre Lake, one comes to a large temple that terminates the terrace and punctuates the southwestern corner of the gardens. The Temple of Venus is dedicated to the Venus of the Garden, a version of the goddess associated with fertility. Accordingly, it is decorated with images that raise issues of marital and extra-marital sex. Entering the central door, one passes busts of Nero and Cleopatra on the left and Faustina and Vespasian on the right. The first two figures are better known to us today than the latter two: Nero for his debauchery and Cleopatra for her seduction of both Julius Caesar and Marc Antony. The Empress Faustina and the Emperor Vespasian are less well known. Although Jonathan Marsden in the current National Trust guide to the gardens suggests that Faustina was an adultress and Vespasian another debauched Emperor, the sources I have consulted suggest that Vespasian was instead a devoted husband and Faustina the Elder a devoted wife -- in fact, Faustina has had an enduring reputation as a woman of intelligence and virtue who devoted herself to charitable work. Vespasian, for his part, restored the Empire and City of Rome in the wake of civil unrest after Nero, and is cited by Tacitus as the first man to improve after becoming Emperor. These four busts, therefore, rather than illustrating the single theme of unbridled sexuality, represent four different manifestations of sexual passion and its place within, as well as its destructive force upon, marriage.

Inside the Temple of Venus on the walls were two paintings of scenes from Book III (cantos 9-10) of Spenser's Faerie Queene. They depict the end of the story of Malbecco and Hellinore, an unhappily married couple. He is a half-blind old miser who both hoards his money and keeps his young, beautiful wife locked up. During the course of the story, she allows herself to be seduced by a visiting knight, Sir Paridell, whom Malbecco has treated insultingly. She takes part of his treasure and sets fire to the rest, escaping with Paridell but crying for Malbecco's help to make the situation look like an abduction. Malbecco chooses to save his treasure first, and only after he has rescued it from the flames does he go after his wife. After a number of weeks, perhaps months, searching for her, he finds her, abandoned by Paridell, but living with a group of satyrs who, in Spenser's words, have taken her "with them as housewife ever to abide, / To milk their goats, and make them cheese and bread, / And every one as common good her handeled." Afraid of the satyrs, Malbecco watches the group from behind a bush and sees several of them having sex with Hellinore. When the group finally falls asleep, Malbecco mixes with the goats and finds his way to Hellinore's side, where he wakes her and tries to persuade her to return home with him. She refuses and threatens to set the satyrs on him unless he leaves. He does so, but is so disconcerted by the situation that he takes leave of his senses and goes to live in a cave where, again in Spenser's words, he "is waxen so deformed that he has quite / Forgot he was a man, and Jealousy is hight." The two paintings on the walls of the Temple depicted Malbecco first seeing Hellinore with the satyrs and later being rejected by her.

Just to the east of the Temple of Venus, close by the shore of the lake, is the Hermitage, which Gilbert West refers to in his poem as the final home of Malbecco, where the cries of the satyrs echo in his head. From the Hermitage, a visitor walks around the western end of the lake to the northwest corner of the gardens and, during the first half of the 18th century would have passed the Temple of Fame, which housed eight of the busts that later became part of the Temple of British Worthies. The view from this building across the Home Park to other temples and monuments gave it its later name, The Belvedere. To the north of this, the visitor would have encountered the Pyramid, a monument to its architect Sir John Vanbrugh, whose plays, as I have said, focus on constancy and inconstancy in marriage. His influence on Lord Cobham is fundamental to the way in which the garden was constructed and the ways in which it can be read, and I will come back to him in due course.

To the east of the Pyramid was the Temple of Bacchus, another Vanbrugh design, which contained murals of the "triumphs and happiness of drunkenness" peopled by satyrs and bacchantes. Turning south from Bacchus the visitor would come upon Dido's Cave, a small building with a mural on the back wall depicting Queen Dido of Carthage and Aeneas in a scene from their love story told in Virgil's Aeneid. The moment depicted is when Dido and Aeneas, out on a hunting expedition, take shelter from a storm in a cave and consummate their love. The mural shows them accompanied by cupids bearing torches, the symbol of marriage. The lovers were never actually married, Aeneas eventually leaving Dido to pursue his fate and found Rome, Dido committing suicide. Gilbert West's poem tells of an incident involving Dido's Cave in which the parish priest named Rand, while playing at bowls, was so taken with the charms of a young woman he saw swinging on a swing, that he chased her through the garden until he found her at Dido's Cave, where she had hidden herself. He seems to have used the cave for the same purpose as its namesake; he is reported later to have married the young woman.

After leaving Dido's Cave, the visitor follows the path to the Rotunda, an open circular peristyle building, also designed by Vanbrugh, which houses a gilt statue of the Venus de Medici. Venus faces east, where during the first half of the 18th century, another monument stood at the far end of a reflecting pool -- a statue of Queen Caroline, wife of George II, whose own statue stood above the reflecting pool to the north and looked down over the scene. Caroline's monument, yet another design by Vanbrugh, was set in a small theatre or series of grass terraces surrounded by statues of shepherds and shepherdesses, civilized versions of satyrs and bacchantes. The area around Caroline's monument was called the Queen's Theatre, and it was the last major garden feature to be visited before one either toured the house or moved over to the eastern side of the garden.

From the Rotunda, the visitor would certainly have noticed that the landscape designer had planned views back to each of the garden temples and monuments seen earlier on the circuit. The visitor was thus invited to reconstruct the previous hours' walk and, perhaps, note that scenes of unrequited love led to scenes of animal passion, which then led to scenes of marital devotion. The end of the circuit was dominated by the connection made between art and life -- between Venus and Caroline -- and by the suggestion that Caroline, first as Princess of Wales and later as Queen embodied the positive qualities of femininity in her support of her husband politically (she made peace between him and his father, and she won the support of Walpole) and in her literal fertility: she bore George three sons and five daughters before she died in 1737.

Such a neat reading of the circuit of the western garden has never been possible, however, for at least two reasons. First, as George Clarke has pointed out, Lord Cobham and his heirs were not content -- as were the owners of other contemporary gardens like Stourhead, Chatsworth, and Castle Howard -- to leave buildings and monuments in place once an area of the garden had been developed. Cobham's nephew, Earl Temple, in particular was constantly moving temples and statues from one part of the garden to another, and buildings kept acquiring new names over time. The Temple of Venus was originally named after its architect, William Kent, for example, and Dido's Cave had originally had no name before being dubbed the Randibus, in honor of the vicar whose adventure there suggested a shelter for lovers. The statues of Venus and the satyrs appeared in front of the Lake Pavilions only between 1733 and 1742, and the busts flanking the door of the Temple of Venus appeared in 1738, three years after the murals inside the building had been completed.

A second reason that a neat reading has never been possible is that, although the guidebooks available to visitors suggested a prescribed route, there are many ways to move through the garden. One might just as easily visit Dido's Cave after the Rotunda, for example, or one might simply skip a visit to the Hermitage since it is located off the alleyway between the Lake Pavilions and the Temple of Venus, and one must backtrack to see it before moving to the north toward Vanbrugh's Pyramid. William Gilpin's Dialogue upon the Gardens, in fact, illustrates just how independent visitors to the garden could be -- his two characters completely disregard some of the landmarks we know to have existed at the time the work was written, and completely miss the intellectual point of some of the others, concentrating instead on the composition of the landscape.

How, then, can one hope to produce anything other than an idiosyncratic reading of the Western Garden at Stowe? I believe the answer lies in the influence of Sir John Vanbrugh on Lord Cobham as he designed the garden space. As John Dixon Hunt explained in a passage he quoted from the anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his lecture to us two days ago, a garden is "an ensemble of texts [in this case, temples and monuments], themselves ensembles [of statuary and paintings], that the critic attempts to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong." A number of critics have noted that Vanbrugh's career as a playwright and the subject matter of his plays influenced the design of his most famous buildings: Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard. Laurence Whistler in his biography goes so far as to say that it was Vanbrugh, as a close friend of Cobham, who designed the Western Garden at Stowe and that Charles Bridgeman, who is normally given credit, was simply an able assistant who carried out Vanbrugh's schemes as Henry Wise had earlier at Blenheim (229).

If Vanbrugh is indeed responsible for the design, or if Cobham gave Bridgeman directions based on concepts he and Vanbrugh had developed together, then there is good reason to seek out whatever parallels one may find between the design of Vanbrugh's comedies and the design of the garden spaces. Both the comedies and the Western Garden explore themes of love and marriage, both present contrasting characters within a plot that sometimes, but does not always resolve itself. And both are less concerned, I believe, with drawing a particular conclusion from one exposure than with providing a context for ongoing discussion and debate.

Restoration comedy, particularly its morality, has been the subject of controversy since its beginnings. Jeremy Collier's Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage (1688), a scathing rebuke that many contemporary playwrights, including Vanbrugh, responded to, was one of the first of many critical essays to question the social value and moral foundations of the genre. In particular, because Restoration comedy seemed to subvert poetic justice by rewarding heroes and heroines of questionable virtue, critics who wished to rescue it from the long-standing charge of immorality have tried to redefine its moral center. Norman Holland, in his book The First Modern Comedies, suggests that Restoration comedy was a satire on the Restoration Heroic Play, in which poetic justice was strictly followed. Unlike these plays and the more ideal comedy of Shakespeare, Holland claims, Restoration comedy rewarded imperfect heroes in order to poke fun at the idea of human perfection. Nevertheless, it usually provided normative couples in secondary plots and thus suggested a "right way / wrong way" example for audiences to consider.

If Holland is correct, Restoration comedy employs geometric structures of characterization as a counterweight to the plot and its expectations of poetic justice. Some plays contrast a witty couple with an ideal one; others establish a love triangle in which two suitors struggle to win the heroine's heart and hand in marriage, or which highlights the different treatment a woman receives from her husband and her lover. Still others create a sort of quadrangle composed of two married couples who make advances toward or receive them from each other's spouses. Such geometric arrangements rather raise questions than answer them, and instead of suggesting a moral to the story invite the audience to moralize through argument.

Vanbrugh's comedies quite clearly employ these geometries. As an example, I quote from Frank McCormick, who in his book Sir John Vanbrugh: the playwright as architect, explains the geometric arrangement of The Provoked Wife, Vanbrugh's second play (1697). "The play is structured around two intersecting triangles," he says.

The first consists of the surly Sir John, his provoked wife Lady Brute, and her admirer, the sophistical Constant. The second consists of Lady Brute's niece Bellinda, her admirer (and Constant's companion) Heartfree, and the lady whose affectation Heartfree would reform, Lady Fancifull. Among the members of these triangles Vanbrugh develops an elaborate set of contrasts: between the cynical Heartfree and his (initially) idealistic companion Constant; between the tradition-bound Lady Fancifull and her tradition-defying antagonists, Bellinda and Lady Brute; and between the dissolute Sir John and the temperate Constant, whose abstemiousness is a matter not of ethics (success or failure in attaining one's ends is the only measure of conduct the characters of the play recognize) but of policy shrewdly calculated to gain the favors of his mistress. Implicit in each of these contrasts is the perennial opposition of custom to nature. It is an opposition that is most conspicuously embodied in the contrast between the antagonists of their respective triangles, Sir John and Lady Fancifull -- exemplars, respectively of brutish nature and simpering affectation, two extremes of human nature between which, as the events of the play insist, the wise will maintain an equal distance. (26-27)
It seems to me that both the plays and the garden are to be approached in terms of the tensions set up by the geometric connections and oppositions. Rather than read these comedies simply for the success or failure of poetic justice, one finds richer material in the similarities between apparently unlike characters, or the differences between two examples of the same stereotype. Rather than focus simply on the outcome of the main plot and subplots, one can find more complexity in the ways in which the separate plots examine the same theme.

Likewise, in walking through the Western Garden at Stowe, rather than trying to trace a linear track leading from a starting point to an ending point, one finds a richer and more complex experience in noticing the ways in which the temples are juxtaposed and, through those juxtapositions, developing statements about the merits and the liabilities of different kinds of love. While on the one hand the sexual attraction of a Cleopatra or a Dido can distract a hero like Antony or Aeneas from his duty, on the other hand the rational choice of a Malbecco to rescue his money before his wife can cost him his marriage. While on the one hand it would seem that Cleopatra and Faustina are juxtaposed on either side of the entrance to the Temple of Venus as mistress and wife, respectively, on the other hand they may be seen as sister queens who sought to protect their own people. It is quite clear that Lord Cobham placed the temples of Venus and Bacchus opposite each other across the 11-acre Lake and that he expected his visitors to relate the two deities, both in their orgiastic influence on humans and in their embodiment of fertility. As James G. Turner points out, even the statue of the Venus de Medici, a copy of which is housed in Vanbrugh's Rotunda, presents a duality in that "her gesture combine[s] concealment and display, modesty and availability" (347). Add to this duality the visual contrast between the goddess and the Queen facing each other across the reflecting pool between them, as well as the varied embodiments of Venus, as herself and in the images of Cleopatra, Faustina, Hellenore, and Dido, and one has a number of permutations to explore.

Reading a garden by noting the axial juxtaposition of its temples, monuments, and statuary is, of course, no more a novel idea than determining the themes in a play by noting the juxtaposition of the central characters and their foils. The novelty -- and significance -- of my connection between Vanbrugh's comedies and his gardens is the fact that both allow for multiple and conflicting interpretations by a viewing audience. The Western Garden at Stowe, therefore, rather than promoting a single perspective on love and marriage, instead provides a forum in which visitors are encouraged to discuss and debate the merits of different perspectives. In the house, the roles of husband and wife might be quite clearly defined according to a sexual politics that maintains male power and prerogative. But in the garden, where the seasons and the weather and the whims of the gardener keep everything in flux -- just as in the playhouse of Congreve and Vanbrugh -- there is the chance to entertain other possibilities.

Works Cited

Butler, Melissa A. "Early Liberal Roots of Feminism: John Locke and the Attack on Patriarchy."
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Clarke, George. "The Moving Temples of Stowe: aesthetics of change in an English landscape
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Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. Poetical Works. Ed. J. C. Smith and E. de Selincourt.
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Turner, James G. "The Sexual Politics of Landscape: Images of Venus in Eighteenth-Century
English Poetry and Landscape Gardening," Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, 11 (1982), 343-66.
West, Gilbert. Stowe, The Gardens of the Right Honourable Richard Lord Viscount
Cobham. Descriptions of Lord Cobham's Gardens at Stowe (1700-1750). Ed. G. B. Clarke. Buckingham: Buckinghamshire Record Society, 1990. 36-51.
Whistler, Laurence. Sir John Vanbrugh: Architect and Dramatist, 1664-1726. New York:
Macmillan, 1939.


This paper was presented at the Landscapes and Politics Conference,
University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, Scotland, March 2001.



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