Wednesday, September 03, 2014
When we arrived at our Somerset B&B en route to Wales I told the owner we had chosen to break our journey there to visit the landscape garden at Stourhead. "That's it over there" she said, pointing out of our bedroom at a distant tower rising above the trees on the horizon. While the garden itself was hidden from view on the other side of the hill, this outlying folly 'took dominion everywhere', turning the wider countryside in the warm evening light of late August into the kind of ideal Claudian landscape admired by the tower's creator, Henry Hoare II. The following morning we drove the short distance to see it. King Alfred's Tower was completed in 1772, having been conceived a decade earlier with multiple patriotic intentions: to mark the end of the Seven Year's War, the succession of George III and the place where Alfred rallied his Saxon army to defeat the Danes at the Battle of Ethandun. I was not that surprised to find the door locked, preventing us climbing its 205-step staircase to admire the view - I mentioned here a similar experience at Hadrian's belvedere in Tivoli earlier this year. It was frustrating though, and I fantasised about returning, kitted out like an urban explorer, to just break in and climb up anyway. Perhaps I should start travelling the country at weekends, 'place hacking' other National Trust properties...? Just as I was starting to imagine the possibilities I was subjected to urgent requests for coffee and cake, and so we drove off to find the tearooms.
In his book The Arcadian Friends Tim Richardson describes Stourhead in terms of the circuit one was expected to take in the eighteenth century. The first viewpoint provided 'a vista across the lake to the circular, domed Temple of Apollo high above, its tall columns accentuating its height, with the medieval church and village of Stourton in the middle ground below, and to the left on smooth sward.' The eclecticism of the landscape was therefore apparent immediately - Gothick and classical in one view. Stourhead has no overriding narrative and while there clearly is symbolism in some of its statues and inscriptions, the design more closely resembles a painting - 'a charming Gaspd picture' in the words of Henry Hoare. Setting off on my own circuit of the garden I found myself experiencing a gallery of views framed in foliage, like the one I photographed below, where the eye is drawn across the lake to the temple of Apollo and then beyond to the distant countryside.
After descending to the lake, the garden's original visitors would have continued over a mildly perilous fretwork bridge (no longer extant) and then through a woodland path to the grotto. This rather dank 'house of the nymphs' inevitably recalls Dr Johnson's quip that a grotto was indeed am appealingly cool habitation in the summer, "for a toad". Within it you can still admire the landscape, where gaps resembling the mouths of caves create views over the lake to the Temple of Flora. Emerging from the semi-darkness you ascend to the Pantheon, a remarkably beautiful design that must have improved with age (all Stourhead's temples are mottled with patches of lichen - the example below is from the Temple of Apollo). The Pantheon was shut up so we were unable to go in and see the statue of Hercules, whose biceps were modelled by sculptor Michael Rysbrack on studies of the eighteenth-century prize fighter Jack Broughton, but we were able to admire the Callipygian Venus in a niche outside. This figure, the 'Venus of the beautiful buttocks', is derived from an old Greek story of two sisters who asked a man to assess which of them had the finer bottom. It is a timeless story, recently replayed for the digital age in online newspaper reports of the competing 'belfies' posted on Instagram by Kelly Brook and Kim Kardashian.
Walking the garden circuit and then picnicking by the water, it was very apparent to me how important the lake is to Stourhead's landscape design. You can see this in the first photograph below - a view taken from the convex slope leading up to the Pantheon - where my son seems to be watching the drama of the clouds play out on the screen of the lake. Ripples break the reflections of trees into horizontal strokes, as if the planting had been arranged to create a painting in light on the lake surface. In Arcadian Friends Tim Richardson says that eighteenth century visitors would have been able to experience the garden from the lake itself, an option not normally available now, 'presumably for reasons of health and safety. I had the opportunity of boating on the lake at Stourhead and it does constitute a completely different way of seeing a garden, as you bob along at the lowest level possible, enjoying constantly shifting perspectives of the temples and landscape scenes around.'
The only person out on the lake when we were there was a man on a small dredger, clearing the water of pond weed. He seemed unwilling to take a rest and the relentless noise of the engine made me wonder what the soundscape would have been like in Henry Hoare's day, with nothing louder than birdsong, fountains and the faint strains of music and conversation emanating from one of the temples. Every few minutes, or so it seemed, a plane flew overhead; it would be impossible now to think of designing an arcadia secluded from the wider world. Coming to the end of my circuit I re-entered the woods where I had left the others, following the happy sound of children's voices. It was 'Forest Friday' and my sons were queueing to climb up ropes into the canopy of the old trees. Equipped with hard hats they slowly made their way up as I watched, a little enviously, from the 'soft mossy turf' (as novelist Samuel Richardson described the grass here in 1757). And so, after finding ourselves prevented from ascending King Alfred' tower, the boys at least were permitted a privileged prospect of the garden.