Stourhead – An English landscape garden in Wiltshire built by a banker influenced by the Grand Tour.
The genesis of the botanic garden was rooted in the 16th-century age of discovery. And as Simon Schama writes in Landscape and Memory , “If these wonders of the tropics and the Orient could be shipped home, collected, named and arranged within the confines of the botanical gardens at Padua or Paris or Oxford, an exhaustive, living encyclopaedia of creation could be assembled that would again testify to the stupendous ingenuity of the Creator.” Girolamo Porro described Padua’s Botanic Garden (the oldest founded in 1545) as “collecting the whole world in a chamber”.
Foucault points out that classical natural history began to introduce order and classification into nature. “The wild chaos of natural objects and events became transformed into a knowable entity through a developing discourse and technologies for observing, classifying and describing nature: archives, filing systems, catalogues, herbariums, and botanic gardens and zoos display the classificatory systems.” (The Order of Things: an Archaeology of the Human Sciences.)
The 18th century was a period of intense excitement in the horticultural world. England experienced an influx of new species of plants, shrubs and trees from across the globe.
The garden was actually designed by its owner Henry Hoare, not a professional, and worked on by his descendants. Sir Richard Colt Hoare, the third owner of Stourhead introduced diversity on returning from Europe in 1791. He respected his grandfather’s original vision but he disliked his father’s love of fir trees, removing many and undertaking a large-scale planting program of broad-leaved beeches, acers, oaks, tulip trees and limes. He planted some 90,000 trees within the space of 13 years. The tallest is a Giant sequoia at just over 45 metres with a 7 metre girth. He introduced several rhododendrons to England. However he never intended the garden to be an arboretum.
The trees were not labelled, this was a garden of joy. Like Stowe, you would walk around a lake from spectacular view to view, constructed like a painting. Ernst Gombrich actually suggested the garden should bear the signature of the Italianised French painter Claude Lorrain, and yes Henry Hoare did own some Claudes).
The garden can also be seen as a poem following Aeneas. ‘Begone, you who are uninitiated! Begone!’ is carved into the Temple of Flora. The warning the Sibyl at Cumae gave Aeneas before he began descending into the underworld and learn of the founding of Rome. She announced her enigmatic prophecies on scattered leaves.
The flora is set off by the mash-up of architectural features. The Temple of Flora was the first construction (1745) and the grotto in 1748. In 1754 the lake and the Pantheon were made. The Pantheon was designed by Flitchcroft based on a Claude painting once owned by Hoare and now in the National Gallery. The five-arched bridge was made in 1762 and the Temple of Apollo in 1765.
The Gothic features of Alfred’s Tower, the Rustic Cottage and Hermitage were added in later decades. The tower was erected on the supposed site of a Saxon victory over Viking invaders. Inscriptions identif Alfred of Wessex as the “light of a benighted age” who founded the jury system, the Royal Navy, the militiaand “English MONARCHY and LIBERTY”. Like Stowe, this remarkable garden is nationalistic. The garden writer John Dixon Hunt states, “Indeed, many in the eighteenth century would have claimed that, like Liberty, with which it was often compared, the landscape garden was an English invention.”
There is light and dark, Enlightenment, Classical world and the dark pagan, In the grotto dripping water, dim light, jagged views and engraved at the edge of the pool:
Nymph of the Grot these sacred springs I keep,
And to the murmur of these waters sleep;
Ah! Spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave,
And drink in silence, or in silence lave. Alexander Pope
Stourhead is my favourite landscape garden, and one I have seen in all seasons, the lakes iced, the trees decorated in autumnal colours. This year it was summer, but since the seasons were delayed by a cold winter, spring was two and a half weeks late, so we found the garden in both, the birds busy, goldcrest, treecreepers, nuthatches, woodpeckers.