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The Temple of Venus

Stowe: Pegg's Terrace and Warden Hill Walk



The Guide to the Gardens points out that not only was this temple the first of William Kent's designs to be built in the gardens, completed in 1731, but that it serves to represent him along a terrace that pays tribute to four of Stowe's great architects (before it was given its present name, it was simply called Kent's Building).

The Temple of Venus

Charles Bridgeman is responsible for the ha-ha and bastions of Pegg's Terrace itself; in the center of the terrace are the two Lake Pavilions of Sir John Vanbrugh (completed in 1723); and on Diana's Bastion on the eastern end is James Gibbs' Temple of Friendship (completed in 1739). All of these garden buildings face inward, designed as they are to provide views of other garden buildings and to terminate views from other points in the garden.

The Central Apse of the Temple of Venus Kent's design is Palladian in at least two aspects: its central feature is a pedimented block, and it has two outer blocks connected to it by curving arcades. In these two ways it also resembles the Temple of British Worthies, which Kent would build three years later in the Elysian Fields. In addition, as Bevington points out, the Ionic colonnade stretching across the apse in the central block is one of the first modern examples of architectural inspiration from ancient Roman baths. The fact that Kent, here and elsewhere in his designs, paid tribute to classical architectural precedents serves to illustrate how the sister arts of painting, poetry, and architecture were related in this time period. Sir Joshua Reynolds, President of the Royal Academy, encouraged his young painters to study the masters and copy their techniques. Alexander Pope, in his Essay on Criticism, encouraged both poets and critics to "Learn hence for Ancient Rules a just Esteem; / To copy Nature is to copy Them." Creativity was recognized not in being unique in one's vision or practice but, rather, in improving on the performances of those who had gone before.

A Bust at the Temple of Venus As Bevington reports, by 1738 there were busts in the four niches surrounding the door in the central block: these were of Nero, Cleopatra, Faustina, and Vespasian. The bust to the left is that of Faustina, replaced when the Temple was repaired most recently during 1991-95. Soon after the Temple was built, the one interior room behind the door in the central block was decorated with paintings on the walls of scenes from Spenser's Faerie Queene and on the ceiling of Venus by Francesco Sleter, in keeping with the inscription VENERI HORTENSI ("to Venus of the garden") carved above the door. The Survey quotes the Reverend John Wesley, who visited in 1779, as saying that the paintings were "lewd" and "neither well designed nor executed."

The 1756 Seeley Guidebook to the Gardens describes the interior of the Temple as follows:

The Inside is adorned with Paintings by Mr. Sleter; taken from Spencer's Fairy Queen.---The Lady is the fair Hellinore, who having left a disagreeable Husband, and wandering in the Woods, was met by the polite Set of Gentry she is dancing with: She likes their Manner of Life, and resolves to enjoy it with them. Her old Spouse Malbecco is inconsolable for his Loss; he wanders many Days in Search of her, and at length finds her (you see him at a Distance peeping from behind a Tree) revelling with a beastly Herd of Satyrs. When the Evening comes on, he follows the Company to their Retirement, takes a commodious Stand, and to his great Torment sees every Thing that passes among them. After they were all laid asleep, he creeps gently to his Lady, and you see him in the other Painting offering to be reconciled to her again, if she will return back with him. But Hellinore threatens to wake the Satyrs, and get him severely handled if he does not immediately leave her. Upon which the poor useless old Man is obliged to fly, and soon afterwards runs distracted.
---See Book III of the
Fairy Queen, Canto 10.

The roof is adorned with a naked Venus; and the smaller Compartments with a Variety of Intrigues. Upon the Frize is the following Motto from Catullus:

Nunc amet qui nondum amavit:
Quique amavit, nunc amet.

Let him love now, who never lov'd before:
Let him, who always lov'd, now love the more.

Underneath the Temple was a large chamber that was discovered in 1991 during the restoration process that both Bevington the Survey suggest was part of a hydraulic pump system that was intended to supply water to a fountain -- presumably the Octagon Lake guglio. The guglio never worked properly as a fountain, and Bevington suggests that the entire system was likely faulty.

The Survey quotes extensively from Thomas Whately's Observations on Modern Gardening, published in 1770, from which the following is an excerpt. Notice the connections Whately makes between the arts of painting and gardening as he describes the Temple of Venus seen from the Temple of Bacchus where it was located directly north across the Home Park:

. . . the ground from every side shelves gradually towards the lake; the plantations on the further bank open up to shew Kent's building, rise from the water's edge towards the knole on which it stands, and close again behind it; that elegant structure, inclined a little from a front view, becomes more beautiful by being thrown into perspective; and though at a greater distance, is more important than before, because it is alone in the view; for the queen's pillar and the ro-tunda are removed far aside; and every other circumstance refers to this interesting object; the water attracts, the ground and the plantations direct the eye thither; and the country does not just glimmer in the offskip, but is close and eminent above the wood, and connected by clumps with the garden. The scene all together is a most animated landskip; and the splendor of the building; the reflection in the lake; the transparency of the water; and the picturesque beauty of its form, diversified by little groupes on the brink, while on the broadest expanse no more trees cast their shadows than are sufficient to vary the tints of the surface; all these circumstances, vying in lustre with each other, and uniting in the point to which every part of the scene is related, diffuse a peculiar brilliancy over the whole composition.
Below is a panorama of the interior of the Temple -- now, of course, without its interior decoration. Notice the view of the Rotunda through the front door. You may control the spin of the panorama by using your mouse. Place the cursor on the panorama and depress your left mouse button: as you move left and right or up and down, the panorama will move in the same direction.



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