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The South Front

Stowe Landscape Gardens


The South Front is the name given both to the southern facade of the house and the lawn extending from it down across the Octagon Lake to the Lake Pavilions and the southern ha-ha. The area is bordered on the west by the Sleeping Wood and on the east by the line of trees that separates it from the Elysian Fields. When viewed from the south portico, the lawn seems to extend (by virtue of the illusion provided by the ha-ha) out into the pasture to the south, and the Lake Pavilions frame the Corinthian Arch in the distance, which stands at the head of the Grand Avenue leading toward Buckingham.

Buildings and Monuments

A map of the South Front


What is now a grassy slope used for sports pitches on the northern end and a golf fairway on the southern was originally the site of a number of late 17th-century and early 18th-century formal gardens or parterres. In fact, this garden space actually predates the House. The Survey reports that "between 1671 and 1673 a series of walled gardens were added which extended from south of the church over to the west. . . . The walled gardens were obviously felt to be important because when Sir Richard Temple built his new house the old gardens were left intact."

By 1683, when the new house was complete and the old one demolished, the gardens had taken the form of two walled parterres on two levels, each of which was divided into four quarters by an avenue and a crosswalk with a fountain or basin at the center. The upper parterre had four grass plats with statues at the center of each, and conical topiary features at the edges. The lower parterre's four sections were surrounded by a hedge and contained rows of linear flower beds. (Bevington has printed an engraving of this garden on page 72 of his book.) The Survey suggests that this sort of design would have been common in the 1680s.

Within three decades the walls had probably been removed and several new ponds had been created, including a large geometric one in the lower parterre, sometimes referred to as the great fountain or great basin, which remained an important feature of the South Front for some time. The upper parterre was now in two parts divided on the north-south axis, and surrounding the entire area a yew hedge was planted, into which niches were later introduced to hold statuary. Charles Bridgeman had started to work at Stowe in 1716, and the Survey suggests that these works "were probably to his order or of his design." Bridgeman also worked on the southern end of the area, raising a mount in that year (only to remove it four years later), planting the long avenue known as the Abele walk in 1720, and completing the Octagon Lake by 1723.

Between 1723 and 1726 the rampart of earth to the south of the Octagon was raised and the Lake Pavilions were built on it, much closer together than they are today. Taken together, these features formed the South Front in one of its phases, described as follows in an anonymous account in 1738:

The Entrance into the Gardens is at the End of a long but Narrow Visto, leading up to the front of the House. On Each side of it are Two Porticos of Stone and Ionick Pillars. A Bell hanging on the Wall of the Garden being rung, the Gardiner who attends on Purpose conducts you up a little Ascent till you arrive on the Platform of it. . . . Opposite this approach is an Octagon Bason of Water, 400 feet by 300. In the Centre of it is a Rustick Obelisk 60 feet high from the Water's Edge. . . . From this Walk you pass through another and come to the House. In the Front of it is a large Parterre surrounded by a Ewe hedge cutt into Niches and Pilasters of various forms, Several Statues, particularly those of the nine Muses, and Urns, being interspersed among them. Down the Centre of the Parterre is a Gravel Walk, leading from the House directly to the entrance into the Gardens, overlooking the Obelisque and Bason before mentioned, and affording a View into the Country upwards of Ten miles.
Some five years after this account was written, renovation work began on the northern section, which included removing the parterre and the great basin. Charles Bridgeman had died in 1738, and Lancelot "Capability" Brown had joined the staff as Head Gardener in 1741; and the sweeping changes to the South Front (and other parts of the garden) in the 1740s bear Brown's stamp. The entire northern part of the area was returned to grass with gravel walks around the edge. A number of large firs and limes were removed and replanted in the Grecian Valley. In the 1750s the edges of the Octagon Lake were softened by the removal of the edging stone and the guglio in the center was removed. In the 1760s the Abele avenue was felled, the Octagon Lake edge changed, the Lake Pavilions moved farther apart, and the Corinthian Arch built -- changes that further opened up the view into the countryside and helped the garden and park seem more of a natural part of it.

The 1770s saw extensive changes to the South façade of the House which brought it to its present state. In addition, by 1777 the vista had been widened by cutting back the tree line on both the east and west. The Survey remarks that though the edges were fairly straight they were no longer symmetrical, the eastern edge being cut farther back and on more of a slant. By the 1790s the edges were no longer straight, and the eastern side had been cut back far enough to expose the Doric Arch, which had up until then been surrounded by trees. By this time also the Octagon Lake had been expanded well to the north and east and had lost its geometric shape.

The final expansion of the Octagon Lake came in 1827, when it was extended even further to the east and islands were created. Trees on both sides of the lawn continued to be removed throughout the following decades, particularly on the west side, so that the area surrounding the Rotunda and even the area of the Home Park opened more fully onto the South Front. No significant changes were made to this character area after the mid 19th Century.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College,