Saturday, July 21, 2012

Rousham, Oxfordshire

A house and its garden

I first saw Rousham when I was a teenager, and I can remember being somehow surprised by the house. There seemed to be something hard and uncompromising about it, and I wasn't quite sure why I reacted in this way. Looking again at Rousham's 17th-century south front the other day, I think I was reacting not to the stone walls, the pale colour of which warms up beautifully in the sun, but to the windows. What I didn't know back then was that these were originally glazed with small octagonal panes, which were replaced with much larger sheets of plate glass during a 19th-century restoration project. Rousham is a house dating from the 1630s and, apart from the plate-glass windows, one other alteration is visible in my photograph of the south front. About 100 years after the house was built, William Kent was employed to redesign the gardens. Kent also made some changes to the house, including adding the crenellations that top the walls – if you look closely at the picture you can see a slight change in the colour of the stonework towards the top.

So today the front of the house reveals a 17th-century building that has changed with the times, and which still looks impressive in its green frame of trees. And at Rousham, the trees are very much the point. This place is rightly famous for William Kent's work in its garden, an arcadian landscape of conifers and hardwoods, paths and glades by the River Cherwell, punctuated by temples, a grotto, classical statues, cascades, and streams. I've posted about this remarkable garden before. It is one of the best places in Britain to go to savour the atmosphere and architecture of the Georgian landscape garden. From the Venus Vale to the serpentine rill, from statues of Bacchus to the Dying Gaul, it is an enchanting garden, all set against a background of varied greens, displaying real a lightness of touch. Curving paths and distant vistas lead the visitor through a series of spaces, and often, as one contemplates a temple or a statue, there is the sudden realization that, in a gap between trees, another view is beckoning. In Arcadia indeed.

Rousham: behind the statue a triangle of light leads the eye towards another glade.


bazza said...

I note that I said, in that previous post that the first photo was an excellent composition - same goes for this one too!
The building is extremely imposing and the turrets make it appear to be fortified.
Click here for Bazza’s Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Thanks Bazza. It's not a difficult building to photograph, provided there is some sun. Without the sun it looks rather forbidding. Another thing that helped - the gardener had just mowed the lawn!

Stephen Barker said...

Lucky you were a teenager as I recall they do not encourage visits by children. The grounds are beautiful probably William Kent's greatest achievement. The house has a pleasing air of fading granduer. I think the current owners are more interested in the gardens and landscape than the interior of the house.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Stephen: I think you're right about the owners' priorities. I was a teenager a long time ago, and don't know if the 'no children' rule applied then. When I saw the notice forbidding children more recently my first reaction was that it was rather snooty, but having thought about it I'm a bit more sympathetic - and the owners are rather generous in the way they share their garden, for a small fee, and let the visitor roam at will.

Denis Wright said...

I lived in Chipping Norton for several months in 1996, and I'm a bit shocked to discover Rousham only now. (I'm an Australian and was doing research at Oxford.) It would have been a great place to visit. It seems to have had quite a history. There can't be too many grand places like this which not only survived being on the wrong side in the civil war but remain till today in the hands of the original owners.

Denis Wright.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Denis: Rousham is easy to miss. It's not commercialized - not much advertised, and when you get there, there are none of the facilities (shop, tea room) with which country house owners usually try to entice visitors to spend extra money. But all this makes it even more special.