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A Summary History

Stowe Landscape Gardens



Adapted from Chapter Two of the Stowe Garden Survey.

The Survey identifies thirteen important phases in the development of the designed landscape as it grew from a modest walled garden in Stowe Village in the seventeenth cerntury to become one of the finest exponents of the English art of landscape gardening. It will be seen that Stowe did not achieve greatness under the hand of one member of the family or in a single generation.

Although we can look at the plans and drawings which record moments during these changes, there were few years when some alteration was not being made. The famous 1739 plan and etchings by Rigaud published by Sarah Bridgeman are just one part of a huge collection of estate records.

The early nineteenth-century developments have been less studied, and it is interesting to note that it was not until 1824 that Lamport fields were purchased and planted.

Stowe is also renowned for the two "Great Sales" of 1848 and 1921. The first marks the end of significant changes as the family fortune had run out. It is for this reason that the 1835 Birds Eye View by Vergnaud is so important because it records the state of the landscape at the time of its last major change, and it is this drawing which will point the way to future management.

Phases of Development of Stowe Gardens

Phase 1
Pre-1680s

Sir Peter Temple, 2nd Bt. and Sir Richard Temple, 3rd Bt.

Abraham Allen's survey of 1633 of the "Desmesness of Stowe..." included: "Manor House, Orchard, Gardens and Coorte"; "The Two Barn Closes and Hyeways"; "The Owlde Parke" (to the south and west); "The Cops" and "The Spiny Cops" (?Rook Spiny); "Hawckwell" (to the east); "The Bowling Greene and all the Closes into the Millponds."

The house, at the time of the survey, was owned by Sir Peter Temple, 2nd Bart. This early seventeenth-century landscape also included Stowe church and the village of Stowe, to the east. Two roads crossed witnin the estate: the hye-way to the east and the slant road to the south. In 1673, Sir Richard Temple, who by that date owned Stowe, developed a series of walled gardens to the south of the house. These included an orchard, pear orchard, and vineyard.

Phase 2
1680s

Sir Richard Temple, 3rd Bt. and William Cleare

William Cleare designed the new house for sir Richard Temple in 1676. Work started in 1677 and was completed in 1683. The new house was located on slightly higher ground to the northwest; the alignment turned by c20º to the east. The walled gardens were retained but the old house, court, and barns were demolished. Between the new house and the old walled gardens, two parterres were laid out (c1680-82), aligned on the same axis as the new house. The lower parterre abutted the walled gardens, which were aligned on the old house, church, old walk, and slant road. This change of axis was resolved by continuing the central walk from the house through the parterres and then on through the walled gardens. This central walk then crossed the slant road and continued, down to the stream and ponds, aligned on the steeple of Buckingham Church. Beyond the slant road the walk was planted (1682) as a double avenue of Abele trees (Populus alba). A further garden area was created to the west of the walled gardens and on the same alignment as them and the slant road. This was a semi-circular shaped "wilderness" which was crossed by straight and curved walks but was symmetrical about the centre line.

Phase 3
1712-1716

Sir Richard Temple, 4th Bt. [Baron Cobham from 1713] (1675-1749)

Sir Richard Temple, 4th Bart., later Baron Cobham (1714) and then Viscount Cobham (1719), married an heiress, Anne Halsey, in 1715. Between 1712 and 1716 he began to develop the gardens himself. His early works included planting up the North Front and the Course (a double avenue of elm trees) and creating some of the formal ponds in the gardens to the south of the house.

Phase 4
1716-1726

Sir Richard Temple, 4th Bt. [Viscount Cobham from 1719],
Charles Bridgeman, and Sir John Vanbrugh

Sir Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham, employed Sir John Vanbrugh as architect and Charles Bridgeman as garden designer to lay out the new gardens and transform the old ones. The parterres to the south of the house were joined together and widened to the west and east. A new yew hedge was planted around them, later cut into niches and filled with vases and statues. A "Great Basin" was created in the lower part of the parterre with a forty-foot fountain, and the area between the basin and the lower walled gardens was planted up with trees. Some of the walls were removed from the walled gardens, and four formal ponds were created, two on either side of the central walk -- The Abele Walk -- which was terminated on its southern end by a mount (1716). Another mount was made on the north side of the house, terminating the northern end of a long canal.

Two new areas were taken into the gardens. In the area to the north and west of the "wilderness," Nelson's Walk, a terraced walk lined with an avenue of elms, was created (1718) on the northwest side and terminated at its northern end by Nelson's Seat (1719). Roger's Walk, lined with an avenue of chestnuts, was created along the northeastern edge, also terminated at Nelson's Seat. In the triangular area between these two walks the seven Saxon Deities were set up around an altar. The southern side adjoined the Home Park (an area of grazed meadowland) and was bounded by a stockade ditch, or ha-ha, and the Great Cross Walk (parallel but slightly north of the slant road, which was by this time stopped up). This terrace walk was planted with lime (1719-20). The Temple of Bacchus was built at the northern end of the "wilderness." The areas between Roger's and Nelson's Walks were planted up and crossed by serpentine walks. Coucher's Obelisk was built on the Great Cross Walk facing the Temple of Bacchus.

The second area to be taken in was to the west of the Abele Walk, which was formerly part of the "Oulde Park." The Rotunda was built (1720) at the southern end of Roger's Walk on the bastion of the salient pushed out over the park to the west. The Queen's Theatre was created to the east of the Rotunda, and the Queen's (c.1725) and King's Pillars (1724) were built. To the south, the Sleeping Wood was created, with a Sleeping Parlour (by 1725) in the center reached by radiating walks. A smaller amphitheatre (compared to that of the Queen's Theatre) was created north of the Rotunda; later (c.1725 Vanbrugh or c.1729 Gibbs) Dido's Cave, or the Randibus, was built within it. Another ha-ha was created below the terraced walks along the western edge of the Rotunda and Sleeping Wood.

In around 1720 the southern mount was removed and the Octagon Lake with a central pyramid or guglio by Vanbrugh (1722) was created. South of this the new entrance to the gardens was formed and the two Lake Pavilions were built (c. 1722-23) on a raised gangway or rampart. The Cold Bath, also by Vanbrugh (c.1723) was built just to the west of the pavilions. The western end of the gardens (the area to the north and west of the "wilderness") was terminated by Lee's bastion on Nelson's Walk, and Vanbrugh's last design, an Egyptian Pyramid, was originally built there in c.1724.

Phase 5
1726-c.1732

Viscount Cobham, Charles Bridgeman, and James Gibbs

After Vanbrugh's death in 1726, Lord Cobham employed James Gibbs as his architect. Bridgeman continued as the garden designer. In the same year the landscape was extended to the southwest, enclosing the Home Park with two "arms." The Pyramid was rebuilt (1726) in memory of Sir John Vanbrugh, in the southwest corner, overlooking Home Park. Nelson's Walk was extended to the southwest and terminated by the east (or garden) Boycott Pavilion (Gibbs 1727). The west Boycott Pavilion (enclosed for habitation and originally known as Speed's Building) was built slightly later on the other side of the Course, in the park. Gibbs Building (also known as the Temple of Fame, the Belvidere, and the Fane of Diana) was built by Gibbs in 1728 to the south of Home Park. A dam was built to the south, and part of Home Park was flooded to create the Eleven Acre Lake (c.1728)

Phase 6
1730s

Viscount Cobham and William Kent

William Kent was brought in to replace James Gibbs and to some extent Charles Bridgeman as architect and garden designer. He was responsible for two parts of the garden: the new southwest "arm" and the Elysian Fields to the east of the Abele Walk. Kent first designed the Temple of Venus (originally called Kent's Building) for the west bastion, in the southwest corner of the gardens below the Eleven Acre Lake. The Hermitage to the east of the Temple of Venus is also by Kent. Both buildings were built c.1732. A few years later, the old hye-way to the east of the church was stopped up, and the Elysian Fields were created between 1734 and 1738-39. The area ran from near the house at the northern end, down past the church and across the Upper River by the Stone Bridge, to the southern end, near the eastern Lake Pavilion. It was divided into three areas, the middle ground being the Elysian Fields proper and containing the Temple of British Worthies (1734-35), the Temples of Ancient and Modern Virtue (1736-38), and the Shell Bridge. The upper section was later known as the Alder River and was more densely planted up. The buildings here included the Grotto and Shell Pavilions, the Temple of Contemplation (later known as the second Cold Bath), and the Chinese House. The lower section across the Stone Bridge included the Pebble Alcove and Congreve's Monument. At this time also the circular carriage drive was constructed, crossing the Palladian Bridge.

Phase 7
1739-1743

Viscount Cobham and James Gibbs

At the end of the 1730s William Kent seems to have retired from Stowe and James Gibbs reappeared as the architect for the garden buildings. Charles Bridgeman had died in 1738 and there was no longer an official garden designer, although Lancelot Brown had joined the garden staff as head gardener in 1741. Gibbs designed all the buildings within Hawkwell Field, which had been recently taken in. The first was the Temple of Friendship (or Diana) on the East Bastion in the southeast corner of the gardens. He also designed the Gothic Temple (also known as the Temple of Liberty), Ladies Building (attributed -- later renamed the Queen's Temple), Lord Cobham's Pillar (attributed), Imperial Closet, Keeper's Lodge, and probably the Palladian Bridge.

In 1742 and 1743 the gardens in the north and south fronts were both simplified, and the Leoni Arches were built. To the north, the formal rows of beech trees were removed, leaving the canal terminated by the Equestrian Statue of George I, set in the deer park. The parterres and basin on the south front were removed, leaving a large grass lawn. Apollo and the Nine Muses were moved to a Spring of Helicon in the Elysian Fields. The seven Saxon Deities were moved to the Gothic Temple. Saint Augustine's Cave was probably built at this time. It was located in the Ashen Spinney, a cabinet along the serpentine walk between the Temple of Bacchus and Lee's Bastion on Nelson's Walk.

Phase 8
1741-1750

Viscount Cobham and Lancelot Brown

In the mid 1740s Lord Cobham and Lancelot "Capability" Brown began to develop the Grecian Valley. This contained a grass amphitheatre surrounded by a terrace (a lake and a triumphal arch had also been planned for this area). The only building in it was the Grecian Temple (1746-1754), now thought to be the work of Lord Cobham (probably from an idea of Kent's). The Valley was not finally completed until the early 1750s by which time Cobham had died and Brown had left Stowe (1750).

Phase 9
1749-1779

Earl Temple (1711-1779)

In 1749 Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (later Earl Temple) inherited Stowe at his uncle's death. He brought his Head Gardener and Steward with him from Wotton, Buckinghamshire. He almost immediately began to simplify and develop the grounds. New buildings included Wolfe's Obelisk (c.1754), Oxford Bridge (1761), the Luffield, Oxford, and Stratford Lodges (all 1760), the Amelian or Doric Arch (1768) with a new Spring of Helicon, the Triumphal (Corinthian) Arch (1765), the third Cold Bath (by 1777), and Cook's Monument (1778). He also rebuilt the south front of the house (designs by Adam and Pitt) and added the colonnades to the north front (design by Pitt) and the return walls between the colonnades and the Leoni Arches (design by Valdre, 1772).

Many buildings were altered and/or moved, including the Boycott Pavilions (altered by Borra, 1752), Coucher's Obelisk (resited 1751-52), the Guglio from the Octagon Lake (removed c.1753 and resited as Wolfe's Obelisk c.1754), the Temple of Concord and Victory (the Grecian Temple renamed after additional decorations), the Palladian Bridge (altered 1762), the Lake Pavilions (altered and resited 1764), the Ladies Building (alterations to the north and south fronts in the 1770s), Gibbs Building (altered and resited in the Grecian Valley in 1764 as the Fane of Pastoral Poetry), the Grenville Monument (resited with different statue in the Elysian Fields in 1763), and Queen Caroline's Pillar or Monument (resited on top of the Ice House, formerly under Gibbs Building in 1764).

Other buildings were entirely or partially (as in the case of the Pyramid) removed. These included the Chinese House (relocated at Wotton), Vanbrugh's Cold Bath, the Temple of Contemplation Cold Bath, the Witch House, the Sleeping Parlour, the Imperial Closet, and the Temple of Modern Virtue (also the old vicarage and smith's shop and yard).

The gardens were simplified further by the removal of formal features such as the Queen's Theatre, Dido's amphitheatre, the Abele Walk and other avenues (Gurnet's Walk, for example, and most of the trees on the Great Cross Walk). The ha-ha around Home Park was filled (1751-52) and the edges of both the Octagon and Eleven Acre Lakes were naturalized.

Phase 10
1779-1813

1st Marquis of Buckingham (1753-1813)

George Grenville, Earl Temple and later the 1st Marquis of Buckingham, inherited Stowe upon his uncle's death in 1779. Like his uncle, he also removed some of the garden buildings (Nelson's Seat, Saint Augustine's Cave, and the remains of the Pyramid) and built a new one, the Menagerie. This was built around 1780 and was probably the work of Vicenzo Valdre. He created a simple flower garden around it. In 1805 the Prince of Wales stayed at Stowe and various buildings were erected in the Elysian Fields for the Fete to honor his visit. This included a temporary bridge and obelisk and also possibly the Seasons Fountain.

The main changes he made were to the planting. Between 1809 and 1817 he placed large orders for plants and trees with the famous nursery of Lee and Kennedy, including many of their new introductions. As well as replanting, he reduced other areas and clumped up much of the remaining planting into bolder groups.

The Marchioness refaced Dido's Cave with tufa stone around 1800 and it was renamed the Marchioness of Buckingham's Seat. Lord Cobham's Pillar was altered by Valdre in the 1780s. In 1803 the north front court and entrance was altered and the Equestrian Statue of George I was brought in closer to the house and turned to face west.

Phase 11
1813-1839

1st Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1776-1839)

The First Duke retired to Stowe in 1825 and began a series of restoration tasks, most notably to the Temple of Venus. He also carried out a lot of clearance work in the woodlands. He converted the Menagerie into the Museum, to house his collection of minerals, artifacts, and antiquities. The Flower Gardens were created at this time and the Octagon Lake was expanded to its final form. He expanded the park, stopping up and diverting old roads. The King's Pillar was taken down (1840) and the statue was placed on a pedestal on the site of Nelson's Seat. In 1824 he purchased Lamport Fields and planted it up as parkland with mixed coniferous and deciduous species. In around 1838 the house and gardens of Lamport Manor were taken in, the house being demolished in 1841 and the gardens further developed as the Water and Rock Gardens (now known as the Japanese Gardens). There was also a menagerie for rare birds and animals and a plantation for rare shrubs. Lamport Lodge was built in 1840 to service the east entrance to the estate.

Phase 12
1839-1921

2nd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1797-1861),
3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos (1823-89), and
Baroness Kinloss (1852-1944)

This was a period of stagnation and neglect, punctuated near the beginning and at the end by the two "Great Sales" of 1848 and 1921. Although the house, garden buildings, and planting decayed, they were also preserved from development and retained in their early 19th-century form.

Phase 13
1921-present

Stowe School and The National Trust

The house and gardens were purchased in the 1921 sale by Mr. Harry Shaw who re-sold the estate in 1922 to a committee formed to create a new school. An endowment fund was raised, and the school was founded on May 11th 1923. Restoration of the house and gardens were carried out. There was also a period of expansion, resulting in many new school buildings. A "Building Reserve" was designated to limit further destruction of the garden. The Landscape Committee was set up to oversee restoration of the garden buildings. In 1967 the greater part of the gardens were covenanted to the National Trust who, in 1989, took over the gardens from the school. Since that time, most of the garden buildings have been restored, the lakes have been dredged, and a campaign of replanting has been ongoing.

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John D. Tatter, Birmingham-Southern College, jtatter@bsc.edu