Sunday, June 6, 2010

Rousham, Oxfordshire

English Elysium

Rousham House, built in the 1630s and altered by William Kent in the mid-18th century, is set in a 25-acre garden that is one of the most enchanting in England. Close to the house are formal walled gardens that evoke the Stuart period when the house was first built, but beyond these, a remarkable landscape garden extends towards the countryside, a series of spaces at once very English and very Classical that is the work of Kent at his best.

Vistas open out towards the countryside, an arched ‘ruin’ forming a focal point on a distant hill. Paths lead from lawns down slopes and into woods, where there is a surprise around every corner. One’s route curves past statues of Roman gods and dying gladiators. Glades appear, with more statues and grottoes. Water trickles through rills or into pools. Temples and classical gazeboes cling to slopes or are framed by trees or laurels.

The imagery is from ancient Rome. A statue of a lion mauling a horse and another of a dying Gaulish gladiator evoke the ‘games’ of the arena. Venus presides over her own fertile watery vale (above). An imposing six-arched building is called the Praeneste, after a temple site outside Rome. All this links 18th-century Britain with the glory of the Roman empire – and with its gods, since in one version of the British origin myth, Britons are descended from the Roman hero Aeneas, who is in turn a son of Venus.

But for all this weight of meaning, Kent arranged this garden with a gentle touch. One’s impression on walking around it, poking about in its corners, and enjoying a picnic on its lawn, is of a beautifully arranged series of delightful spaces – spaces, moreover, that are very well cared for. Rousham has been in the same family since the house was built in the 1630s. We’re lucky that they’ve looked after their inheritance so well.

Dying Gaul, detail


bazza said...

That first photo (I don't know if it's yours) is a lovely composition. The whole place sounds fascinating with an interesting history.
Your sub-title English Elysium is very apt: An island that is blessed (or something struck by lightning!).
I'm in Portugal for a fortnight but I look forward to catching up when I return.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks, Bazza. The photograph, like nearly all the ones on this blog, is my own.

Peter Ashley said...

Thanks for this. More and more I'm getting interested in landscaped parks and gardens. (Stowe, Stourhead.) We got involved with Wimpole Hall on Saturday, and I showed The Boys how Sanderson Miller's gothic ruined lined up with the entrance hall so that it was framed perfectly out across the intervening park.

Philip Wilkinson said...

All these places are fascinating. The ways in which landscape gardeners both create these 'ideal' prospects, in which things align perfectly, and make constantly changing views open up as one walks around, is particularly absorbing.