June 9, 2002

In England, a Tranquil Landscape by Design


CONSULT the genius of the place in all," wrote Alexander Pope famously and influentially in his Epistle to Lord Burlington in 1731. The great Enlightenment poet was talking about garden design, advocating a style of leafy retreat that would be in tune with its natural setting rather than imposed upon it.

And although the principle behind what has come to be known as the English landscape garden may seem self-evident to our modern sensibilities, it was actually quite radical for its time, a gauntlet thrown down before those schooled in the formal gardening of the French and Dutch styles that had prevailed for several centuries. In an age when taste mattered above all else, Pope's polemic against the artificiality of box hedges, topiary and rigidly symmetrical parterres marked an important turning point in European cultural history. These days, even Martha Stewart doesn't wield that kind of clout.

One of those who heeded Pope's call was Henry Hoare II, scion of a famous London banking family, who created what is arguably the premier example of 18th-century English landscape gardening still in existence: Stourhead Garden. Tucked away in a quiet corner of the Wiltshire countryside south of Bath, Stourhead is a self-contained 40-acre enclave of variously wooded slopes studded with temples, monuments and tumbling cascades, all arranged around a placid Y-shaped lake. When I visited the garden late in March, it was on a rainy, windy afternoon, but even under leaden skies the place looked like Arcadia.

Stourhead, begun in the early 1740's, belongs to the earliest phase of the landscape movement, sometimes called the pictorial stage. Like any self-respecting 18th-century man of means, Hoare had made his Grand Tour of the great cities of Europe, filling his head with the idealized pastoral landscapes of painters like Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin and Gaspard Dughet. It was these scenes that he attempted to recreate on his own country estate.

And while the idea of reproducing in Wiltshire an Italian landscape as depicted by a French artist (complete with neo-Classical buildings and Gothic follies) may seem to us a little inconsistent with the goal of creating a "natural" English landscape well, our attitudes are 21st century, not 18th. The Enlightenment notion of "nature" was a lot broader than our own.

"There is nothing really natural about Stourhead," says Richard Higgs, head gardener at the estate, which is now owned and operated by the National Trust. "It's all very cleverly conceived. Every view, every surprise has been carefully created."

And certainly, to ramble around the garden's circuit walk is to feel like part of a cunningly orchestrated narrative. Stourhead is dedicated to classical heroes most notably, Aeneas and Hercules and the trip around the lake is designed to be something of an archetypal hero's journey, including even the obligatory descent to the underworld, which here involves ducking into a dark, tufa-encrusted cave.

On the page, this may sound camp, but in practice, perhaps because of the sheer beauty of the buildings and their settings, the circuit walk manages to epitomize the Enlightenment ideals of taste and restraint.

There is an entrance to the garden just outside the door of the Spread Eagle Inn, where I was staying, but in starting my hero's narrative I chose the more historically correct approach from Stourhead House, the Hoare family mansion. This allowed me to begin with a high overview of the entire valley, with each of the garden's major features the Temple of Apollo, the Pantheon, the Palladian Bridge revealing itself in turn as I hiked down from the ridge.

Once on the lakeshore, I picked up the gravel path that traces the water's edge. Since it was early March, the deciduous trees still were bare, but the open spaces already were dusted with the delicate whites and yellows of snowdrops and daffodils, and the first of the rhododendrons were just erupting into bloom. These rhododendrons, along with the ubiquitous laurels and many of the specimen conifers, were later additions by Hoare's descendants, including Henry's grandson, Sir Richard Colt Hoare. But what impressed me the most was how much Stourhead still resembled 18th-century drawings and paintings of the garden.

About a third of the way around the lake, I descended, Aeneas-like, into the fern-cloaked grotto. Here, amid the cool gloom and the gentle burbling of a spring, I found two striking statues a dramatically sculpted river god (by Henry Cheere) and a reclining nymph, before whose bed was etched a few lines of a Latin poem as translated by Alexander Pope: "Nymph of the Grot, these sacred springs I keep/ And to the Murmur of these waters sleep . . ."

Stourhead's most famous feature came a little farther along: the Pantheon, a gorgeous neo-Classical structure designed by Henry Flitcroft, who advised Hoare on most of the garden's architectural features. Under its coffered dome is an impeccable collection of lead, plaster and marble statues, centered on Michael Rysbrack's Hercules. With typical 18th-century eclecticism, Rysbrack based the figure on both a classical model (the Farnese Hercules in Naples) and a contemporary one (the bulging biceps of one Jack Broughton, a Thames waterman who became a celebrated boxer).

But no hero's journey would be complete without a moral trial, and Hoare made sure that his garden provided one. About three-quarters of the way around the lake, I was confronted with a turning point: I could select either the difficult path of virtue, up the steep hillside to the Temple of Apollo, or the easy path of vice, which hugged the flat shore and led straight toward a specimen California sequoia. Naturally, I chose virtue and was rewarded with another commanding view of the valley. This was the climax of the circuit, the high vantage point that allowed me to look over the path I had come by. It marked the crescendo of a journey well traveled. And I celebrated as any hero might, with a pint of ale at the local pub.

Having fortified myself for further adventures, I moved on to Stourhead House. Built in the 1720's, it belongs to a slightly earlier era than its garden and was the work of Henry's father, also named Henry (though affectionately known as Henry the Good to distinguish him from his more illustrious son, who is usually given the sobriquet Henry the Magnificent). Designed by Colen Campbell, the house is a vast Palladian villa of honey-colored stone, very much in keeping with the eclectic classicism of the pleasure grounds behind it. I found the exterior a little ponderous and stodgy, with its rigid symmetry and imposing two-story portico, but the mansion's prominent position on a high plateau overlooking miles of Wiltshire countryside is undeniably impressive.

Although I had arrived before the annual late-March opening of the house, I was able to tag along on an unofficial tour with a group of National Trust volunteers who were being rewarded for a week of maintenance work on local hedgerows. The house's rooms proved far more inviting than its exterior, especially the library, a magnificent barrel-vaulted space dominated by an arched lunette (by Francis Eginton) painted in imitation of Raphael's Vatican fresco "The School of Athens." This entire library wing was a later addition of Richard Colt Hoare, who, unlike his predecessors, never earned a sycophantic nickname, even though he was probably the most accomplished personage of the family line. Colt Hoare was also responsible for adding the picture gallery on the opposite end of the house, and for collecting much of the elegant Chippendale furniture that fills its rooms.

The house is most notable, however, for its paintings, which line the walls of every room in multiple tiers. Many were collected by Henry the Magnificent on his Grand Tour, and he clearly felt a need to display as many as his house could possibly hold. This eagerness is understandable, given that the banker Hoare was a socially ambiguous figure for his time, with one foot in the merchant class and the other in the landed gentry. (As our guide, Gary Calland, pointed out, "He was a member of the nouveau riche class, so he probably felt he had to make a show of his education and refinement.") The paintings by the likes of Nicolas Poussin and Carlo Maratta are especially interesting in the context of the garden Henry designed, since you can see on the canvas where he got many of his landscaping ideas.

But the garden remains the principal attraction of the Stourhead estate, and since the weather was clearing, I was eager to get back to it. As a guest of the Spread Eagle Inn, I was allowed 24-hour access, so I returned at closing time. I made my way around the circuit walk again, admiring the play of buttery light on the lake and listening to the varied calls of the waterfowl (including one that sounded remarkably like an old manual typewriter).

When dusk finally set in, I retreated to a bench at the Temple of Flora to watch night fill the little valley. And as the sailing ducks turned to silhouettes against the luminous water, as the Pantheon receded into the darkness of the hills and the night's first bats began careering across the darkening sky, the garden's historical associations seemed to melt away. I could imagine Stourhead, this place that speaks so eloquently of 18th-century high culture, becoming something quite different a totally natural place, wild, mysterious and timeless.

Visitor Information

Getting There

Stourhead is difficult to reach by public transportation the closest train station is at Gillingham, which is more than six miles away. The best bet is to hire a car and make the easy half-hour drive from Bath.


The Spread Eagle Inn, in the tiny village of Stourton on the Stourhead estate, (44-1747) 840-587, fax (44-1747) 840-954, has five spacious, comfortable rooms with private bath, antiques, television, phone and equipment to make tea and coffee. Room rates include garden admission. Doubles, $127, at $1.49 to the pound, include a hearty English breakfast. From November to March, the second night of a two-night stay is free.


A new visitor center has opened at the garden, with a self-service restaurant, shop and plant center. Snacks and lunches from about $2 to $9.

The Spread Eagle Inn also offers light food in its pub and full meals in its dining room. The menu is traditional, with an emphasis on game. Dinner for two, including wine, is about $67; lunch in the pub, with a pint of ale, about $20.


Unlike many English estate gardens, which close in winter, Stourhead Garden, (44-1747) 841-152, fax (44-1747) 842-005, or at www.nationaltrust.org.uk, is open year round from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., or sunset. General admission, $7.30. Personal and group tours booked up to four weeks in advance.

Stourhead House is open daily through Nov. 3, noon to 5:30 p.m. or until dusk, except Thursday and Friday. Combined general admission for house and garden is $13.

King Alfred's Tower is an 18th-century red brick gothic folly about two miles northwest of the garden, offering a view of three counties. Open through Nov. 3, 2 to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or dusk on Saturday, Sunday and holiday Mondays. General admission, $2.50.

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