By James Furse-Roberts (Grafton 95)
Stowe is not a Romantic Landscape: the majority of it pre-dates the Romantic artistic movement that looked back at a mediaeval past and idealised its principles and aesthetics. Instead, the creators of Stowe looked primarily to the classical world for their inspiration, a world that had become familiar to Stowe’s owners through their classical educations and their grand tours of Europe. However, while Stowe might not be a Romantic Landscape, it is certainly a landscape of romance. It can elicit feelings of mystery, excitement and remoteness from everyday life and, like all romantic encounters, it has the power to change us.
A feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love.
A quality or feeling of mystery, excitement, and remoteness from everyday life.
Stowe’s unique landscape is one of the attributes that sets the School apart from others. On a cold wet winter’s evening, when hurrying back to their houses after a long day of classes, it may not be at the forefront of most Stoic’s minds. However, at some point during our time at Stowe, each one of us will have looked down one of Stowe’s many vistas and been caught up in the beauty of the trees, planted decades before, the proportions of whichever of the many temples happens to be positioned at its end or watched the mist rising evocatively from one of the lakes, dug by hand but sculpted to appear as if they had always been there. When current Stoics aren’t thinking about the landscape they are living in, it is still working its magic on them, insinuating itself into their being and creating an Arcadian aesthetic that is carried with them beyond Stowe; ensuring that every student, as JF Roxburgh put it, should “know beauty when he sees it all his life.”
This idea that experiencing Stowe’s garden could change the way you think was not unique to Roxburgh: the original conceivers of this landscape designed their garden specifically to do this. Stowe is layered with allegory: the form, names, location and relationships between the various temples and lakes, when viewed through an understanding of classical mythology and the politics of the time, reveal a narrative exploring these topics. This adds a layer of intellectual mystery to a walk around the grounds. When strolling through the west side of the Garden we are encouraged to explore different ideas of love, from romantic to sexual, while the east side concentrates on politics and moral standards. How fitting it is, therefore, that this landscape, designed to stimulate thinking and impart ideas, should have become the setting for an organisation with similar goals.
As well as a way of expressing ideas, the grounds were also a private pleasure garden, there to impress and entertain. These roles were facilitated through the provision of spaces, such as the Queen’s Temple and the Temple of Friendship (before it burnt down), where the family could entertain friends and distinguished guests. The design also promotes the sense of excitement in several ways. Of course, there is the obvious titillation from the Temple of Venus with its, now long lost, murals depicting a racy passage from Edmund Spencer’s The Faerie Queene. More subtle than this is the way that the Garden reveals itself to you as you move around it; each vista ending in a folly and at least a couple more follies visible from each. This expectation of discovering a new view at each turn builds a sense of excitement. This trick of revealing a part of the Garden and then hiding it again occurs not just in the Garden but also during the visitors’ approach to the Mansion. Here, as well as building excitement, it is used to give an impression of wealth and to set the Stowe Estate apart from the surrounding countryside.
The Dukes of Buckingham wanted visitors to Stowe to know they had arrived. They achieve this wonderfully by building a series of thresholds over which you are conscious of passing. If you travelled from the south, you enter the Estate through the Buckingham Lodge Gates, leaving the town behind and entering into the Avenue. Passing through the gates emphasises the change from town to private estate. You would continue on and pass through the Corinthian Arch, where the South Front of Stowe is revealed to you in the distance. However, the road curves and you lose sight of it. Instead you move down more avenue with occasional glimpses of other temples. The Pepper Pots come into view and you must pass between them to join another avenue. It is only at the end of this that the North Front of Stowe is revealed to you. Not only has this somewhat circuitous route given an exaggerated impression of the size of the Estate but it has also created a feeling of remoteness, of a place separated from the countryside around it. The presence of the Ha-Ha, the sunken wall that allows uninterrupted views from the Garden out into the landscape beyond, would seem to counter this idea. However, like the Lodge Gates, this pseudo-military fortification would equally bring with it the feeling of a barrier preventing the wider countryside and its contents from getting into the Estate. The concept of Stowe’s historic relationship with its surroundings, again, resonates with its current use as a school. Stowe continues to be an environment, sheltered from the outside world, where Stoics can feel safe while they learn about themselves and life beyond the Ha-Ha. If evidence were needed that these thresholds do indeed create a sense of removal and that the process can also be experienced working in reverse, think back to your time at Stowe, I’m sure I am not the only Old Stoic to have felt the significance of crossing over the Oxford Water Bridge at the end of term.
When you look through the historic plans of the Gardens, it is clear that there was never one fixed idea of what Stowe’s landscape should be; instead it has been like a canvas still on the easel, constantly tweaked, revised or painted over in part by successive artists wanting to express new ideas. Unlike a painting, the very medium of expression, the trees, are constantly changing as they mature. This has been the same during the School’s time in this landscape.
Older Old Stoics talk of experiencing the Grounds as overgrown with abandoned follies to be discovered and explored. While I was at Stowe, part of my experience of the landscape was working to clear many of these trees, to un-wild it and return it to a more ordered interpretation of a rural landscape that might have been in Capability Brown’s mind when he was working there. For current Stoics, the grounds are a lot busier with visitors and, just as my generation saw the removal of tennis courts from in front of the Temple of Friendship, they will see the Golf Course move from the heart of the Garden to an area between the Bourbon, Stowe Castle and Lamport. Change is inevitable but I hope that future generations of Stoics will continue to feel that these beautiful surroundings are an intimate part of their time at Stowe; after all, while staff come and go and teaching practices change, it is this romantic landscape that has been a common factor in the creation of all Stoics, past and present.
James Furse-Roberts (Grafton 95) is the founding director of FRLA, a design practice that provides interpretation and landscape design services to heritage organisations and private individuals.