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The Rotunda and Sleeping Wood

Stowe Landscape Gardens


This area lies just to the west of the South Front and to the north and east of the Home Park. It includes the woods surrounding Dido's Cave on the northern end, the grassed ampitheatre east of the Rotunda, and the mature trees on the southern end that make up the Sleeping Wood. The Rotunda is located on a natural spur, once a bastion in the inner ha-ha surrounding the Home Park, and it has always been a pivotal viewing point in the gardens, particularly toward the southwest.

Buildings and Monuments

A Map of the Rotunda and Sleeping Wood


Before 1720 this area was part of the parkland that was attached to the old manor house -- in fact, it was part of what came to be known as the Home Park, which occupied the entire area south of the Great Cross Walk and west of the Abele Walk. When the ha-ha which was dug to enclose the Home Park was redesigned in 1719, it separated the Rotunda and Sleeping Wood area from the rest of the parkland, and Charles Bridgeman expanded the gardens westward into this area. The Survey suggests that Bridgeman would most likely have created a triangular area of garden on the east of the South Front to mirror this one on the west, but by the time the area on the east, now the Elysian Fields, was taken into the garden, gardening styles had moved away from symmetry. Alexander Pope mocked this old-fashioned gardening style as unnatural in his moral essay "Of the Use of Riches" in 1731: "Grove nods at grove, each Alley has a brother, / And half the platform just reflects the other."

Like the rest of the ha-ha around the Home Park, the stretch on the western boundary of the Rotunda and Sleeping Wood area was unusual in that it was more like a military fortification than the typical ditch with a stone retaining wall on one side. On the side of the ditch facing the Home Park, wooden spikes projected out of the turf bank, and the bank was topped with a hedge of about four feet high. The terrace that ran along the line of this hedge was called Gurnet's Walk, named (like many of the other walks in the garden) after the gang foreman who oversaw its construction. At the point where the terrace took its turn back toward the Abele Walk -- that is, where the terrace jutted farthest into the Home Park -- Bridgeman constructed a bastion.

On this bastion the Rotunda, designed by Sir John Vanbrugh, was built during 1720-21. It is a circular colonnade of ten Ionic columns supporting a dome. Its placement as well as its design allowed it to provide views to other points in the garden -- particularly views to other garden buildings along the straight avenues that radiated from it -- as well as to be an object of views from other points in the garden. It was first called the Temple of Venus, and it housed a statue of the goddess on a central pedestal.

In 1721 work began on the area of ground immediately to the east of the Rotunda where a hog pond was to be transformed into something more ornamental. The pond was straightened into a canal, and in the process the entire rectangular area was levelled by cutting into the banks on its northern and eastern side. On the eastern end, opposite the Rotunda, was fashioned a theatre of three grass slopes backed by evergreen trees. All of these slopes around the canal were not gentle but sharply cut into tiers. By 1723, formal plantations were being added to the north and south of the new canal, the southern one referred to as the Elm Quincunx.

To the south of the Elm Quincunx during the same three-year period, an area referred to as the New Wilderness was being developed, and to the south of that, an area referred to as the Lime Quincunx. All three of these taken together make up the Sleeping Wood. The 1719 and 1739 Bridgeman plans show this area clearly as being densely planted but crisscrossed by walks -- some straight and some meandering -- that end in cabinets. Six of these walks met in the center of the New Wilderness in a larger round clearing. Bevington suggests that the planting in the wilderness area was flowers and small shrubs. The Survey reports that the Lime Quincunx to the south was turfed and graveled.

During the same time, another grass theatre was created to the northeast of the Rotunda which would later become Dido's Theatre facing Dido's Cave. To the east of this, north of the Rotunda canal and just south of a pair of smaller rectangular ponds on either side of the Great Cross Walk, was the Prince's -- soon to be the King's -- Pillar. This monument, according to the Survey, was first documented in 1724 in a letter by Lord Percival, who described the Rotunda canal as being "overlooked from a considerable [height] by a tall column of composite order, on which stands the statue of [Prince] George in his Robes." Lord Percival also described the Rotunda:

The garden of Venus is delightful; you see her standing in her Temple at the head of a noble bason of water, and opposite to her an Amphitheatre, with statues of Gods and Goddeses; this bason is surrounded with walks and groves. . . .
The amphitheatre he describes came to be called the Queen's Theatre in 1727, the year George II ascended the throne. The previous year, a monument to the Princess of Wales was erected in the theatre at the opposite end of the canal from the Rotunda -- designed by Vanbrugh, it raised her statue on four columns. It was, as Lord Percival's account suggests, surrounded by lesser statues, though not of gods and goddesses but of shepherds and shepherdesses.

By 1725 another building had been erected to the south in the New Wilderness where the six walks converged. This was the Sleeping Parlour, or Temple of Sleep, which Bevington describes as "a square, double-fronted building" with tetrastyle porticoes. "Inside were paintings of festoons and heads of Roman emperors," he continues, "along with easy chairs and couches for somnolent visitors."

The final building to be built in this area of the garden was Dido's Cave which, according to the Survey, has been attributed to either Vanbrugh or Gibbs. The Survey goes on to explain that "if by Vanbrugh, it probably dates to around 1725 but if by Gibbs, to around 1727-29, when Gibbs was working on Gibbs Building and the Boycott Pavilion." The first reference to the building as Dido's Cave was in the account of an anonymous visitor in 1738, but previously it had been referred to in Gilbert West's poem on Stowe as a "private grotto" footnoted as "the Randibus." This name derives from the name of Conway Rand, the Vicar of Stowe 1711-1734, whose adventure there is more completely described in both the poem and on the Dido's Cave page of this Web site.

The next considerable changes to the area came in the 1750s when the Home Park ha-ha was filled in and other landscape features were softened. Drawings engraved and published in 1753, for example, show that the formal plantings on the northern and southern side of the Rotunda canal had been depleted and that the slopes had been smoothed out to some extent. The east and west ends of the canal had also been rounded. In addition, because the parterres on the South Front had been removed by this time and the front lawn consequently widened in that area, the King's and Queen's Pillars were far less isolated. The dome of the Rotunda was also altered in 1752 to be made less steep.

The Abele Walk on the central axis of the South Front was felled in the early 1760s, and as a consequence the area of the Sleeping Wood was opened up in the south as well as the area of the Queen's Theatre in the north. According to the Survey, in 1760 there is an account for dismantling the Sleeping Parlour and in the next year for dismantling the Queen's Pillar. This latter monument was re-erected on the far side of the Home Park on the site of Gibbs' Building in 1762. At the same time that the Queen's Pillar was removed, work was being done on the general area of the Rotunda canal, which was filled in and the lines of the Queen's Theatre softened. The statues of the shepherds and shepherdesses were moved to the Grecian Valley at this time to become part of the Circle of the Dancing Faun.

By 1777, changes had been made to the walks within the Sleeping Wood. A tree had been planted on the site of the Sleeping Parlour, and a number of the radiating walks had been erased. A new serpentine walk was made up the eastern side, leading from the edge of the Octagon Lake, through the Lime quincunx, and on up to the Queen's Theatre. The planting separating the Queen's Theatre from the South Front lawn had been thinned by this time as well, and the elm plantation in front of the King's Pillar had lost most of its trees. At the northern end of the area, the theatre around Dido's Cave had been filled in and the area around it planted up.

Throughout the 19th Century the area continued to be "naturalized" by the removal of trees and of formal landscape features. Dido's Cave, renamed the Marchioness of Buckingham's Seat, was located in a clump of trees, but the rest of the area was opened up, as was the Sleeping Wood, which was reduced to small clumps and single trees. Around 1840 the King's Pillar was taken down and the statue relocated north of the House on the site of Nelson's Seat. During the spring of 2004, the Pillar and statue were restored to their original site.

Today, the area around Dido's Cave to the north and east is nondescript woodland with very few traces left of the formal walks that had once been there. The Sleeping Wood, however, has been partially restored during 2009 to its condition in the 1760s. Six turf alleys radiate from the central circle where the Sleeping Parlour once stood, and the irregular areas between the walks have been planted with shrubbery and flowering plants. Once the golf course is relocated, the Sleeping Wood will be extended northward toward what was once the Queen's Theatre.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,