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The Sleeping Wood

Stowe: Rotunda and Sleeping Wood

The Sleeping Wood occupied the southernmost area of the garden that Lord Cobham was developing with the help of Charles Bridgeman and Sir John Vanbrugh during the early 1720s. Roughly triangular in shape, it was bounded on the east by the Abele Walk, the central axis of the garden, and on the west by Gurnet’s Walk, which runs on a diagonal northwest from the center of the Octagon Lake to the Rotunda. It was bounded on the north by the canal that served as a reflecting pool for the Rotunda and, eventually, for the monument to Queen Caroline that was raised in 1726. The photograph below shows the present view from the site of the Sleeping Parlour northwest toward the Rotunda. The remains of the foundation of the Parlour can be seen in the foreground.

View from the site of the Sleeping Parlour toward the Rotunda

Compared to the straight walks and the angles formed by their intersections in the garden at this time, the Sleeping Wood was true to its original name, the New Wilderness. David Coffin, in his book on the English Garden, notes that the word wilderness "can be very misleading to nature lovers brought up in the picturesque tradition and familiar with the American public park system for whom the wilderness is an untouched nature of irregularity and disorder." Coffin suggests that in English gardens of the 17th and 18th Centuries "the wilderness was probably related to the traditional garden labyrinth or maze, although it was actually the English descendant of the Italian bosco and the French bosquet." These garden features were usually symmetrical, with trees planted in ranks, and with paths either radiating from a point or forming geometric shapes.

Though the Sleeping Wood at Stowe was crossed by six straight walks leading outward from a central, circular clearing, these were not equidistant or of equal length, and they were connected around their perimeter by a meandering path punctuated by cabinets. The experience of walking around the perimeter path would have been purposefully disorienting to garden visitors, and the straight walks leading out from the central clearing were not punctuated with statuary or monuments like other avenues in the garden. The engraving below is Bridgeman's "bird's-eye" view of the garden around 1719, which shows his plan for the area under development, with the New Wilderness just to the right of center.

Bridgeman's bird's-eye view of the garden in 1720

By 1723, Lord Cobham had begun dense planting of elms on the northern edge of the Wood where it met the Rotunda canal, and a smaller planting of limes at the narrow, southern end where, according to the Seeley Guidebooks, the garden visitor would have entered the Wood. These plantings, called quincunxes, were common features in gardens at the time, composed of repeated patterns of five trees, four at the corners of a square and a fifth in the center.

Landscape historians on the National Trust staff have suggested that Cobham and Bridgeman designed the New Wilderness based on a similar garden feature created at Versailles by André le Nôtre—the Labyrinth, which was developed from 1666 through 1672. The pair of images below offers a comparison of the designs of the two wildernesses.

The Sleeping Wood in 1739 The Labyrinth at Versailles
The Labyrinth at Versailles also incorporated cabinets or clearings at the points of intersection between and among walks, but these cabinets housed the most distinctive features of the garden space—a series of fountains, each of which was associated with one of the Fables of Aesop. Though le Nôtre was responsible for the design of the space, it was Charles Perrault who had the idea of populating it with scenes from Aesop’s Fables. As the Controller General for the Superintendance of Buildings as well as an honorary counselor to the Academy of Painting and Sculpture, Perrault had significant influence in choosing the works of art that adorned royal buildings and parks. Perrault published a volume in 1675 that offered prose versions of the fables that he had composed as well as engravings of the fountains in the Labyrinth.

It is, however, Perrault’s publication in 1697 of a volume of fairy tales that may be his most significant connection to the Sleeping Wood at Stowe. One of the tales is Perrault’s revised and expanded version of the Grimm Brothers’ story Briar Rose, which he re-titles Sleeping Beauty. The fairy tale is, of course, about a princess who, under the curse of a disgruntled fairy, pricks her finger on a spindle and falls asleep for a hundred years until a prince comes to rescue her. During that century, a wood grows up around the princess’s castle (in the Grimm Brothers’ version, a thicket of briars) that the prince must fight his way through. Stowe’s Sleeping Parlour, located from 1725 to 1760 in the central clearing of the Sleeping Wood, could possibly recall the castle of the princess in Perrault’s tale, particularly since a corresponding structure, directly across the Abele Walk in the eastern garden, was called the Witch House.

The Sleeping Parlour and the Witch House

A connection to Perrault in the Western Garden is in keeping with the subsequent development of themes of love and marriage in the buildings that Lord Cobham was to raise in the next few decades. Perrault's morals to his fairy stories (and to his versions of Aesop's Fables) reflect a certain ambivalence intended to foster discussion if not debate. The structure of the Western Garden, composed as it is of viewpoints that encompass several perspectives at once, offers the same invitation for debate. In fact, the hub-and-spoke structure of the paths within the Sleeping Wood was replicated on a larger scale by Lord Cobham in the coming decades with the Rotunda. Housing a gilt statue of Venus, goddess of love and fertility, the Rotunda offered direct and radiating views to Queen Caroline's Monument, to Dido's Cave, to Nelson's Seat, to the Temple of Bacchus, to the Temple of Fame, to the Temple of Venus, and to the Hermitage. Juxtaposed with these temples and garden features, and with the passage of time and the shift from what Thomas Whately in 1770 called the "emblematic" garden to the "expressive" garden, the figure of Venus in the Rotunda served less as a stable icon and more as a catalyst for a widening range of discussions.

This page was created on 5 April 2010.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,