Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Rousham, Oxfordshire

 A touch of the baroque, 1 

After my recent visit to Stowe, I was inspired to revisit another favourite landscape garden, the one at Rousham in Oxfordshire. As at Stowe, the work of the architect and designer William Kent is seen here, but the garden is much smaller than at Stowe and the mark of Kent is writ large on it – in fact it’s almost as it was when Kent left it after working here in the first half of the 18th century, except that the trees are of course older and maturer.* It’s still the miniature Arcadia that it was said to be in Kent’s time. 

I’ve posted about this place before, but I wanted to show a detail or two that struck chords with me after my visit to the much larger garden at Stowe. One of the architects who worked at Stowe was William Kent’s predecessor Sir John Vanbrugh, a baroque enthusiast whose work there included a ‘Pyramid House’ that does not survive. Rousham, however, still has its Pyramid House, actually a gazebo designed to provide somewhere to sit and contemplate views across the landscape towards distant eye-catchers.

The Rousham Pyramid House is small, fronted with a classical arch, and with a pointed roof that gives the building its name. It’s thought to be a small homage by Kent to Vanbrugh and its chunky proportions and pyramidal roof give it a baroque air that the elder architect might well have admired if he’d lived to see it. The roof is not the only Egyptian touch: there are sloping buttresses that seem to recall the battered walls of Egyptian temples and the small carved relief in the pediment also has an Egyptian look.

There is something generous about a landscape in which structures like this, which enable one to sit, rest on one’s walk, and take in the view. In a similar way, the owners of Rousham are to be commended on the generous way in which they open their garden. There’s a fee, of course, but you buy your ticket with a minimum of fuss from a machine near where you park, and you wander around impeded only minimally by barriers or ‘keep out’ signs. While I’m at Stowe, I feel awed by the scale of everything and amazed by the sheer verve and grandeur of the buildings; at Rousham, I feel pleased I’m in an 18th-century version of a rural paradise.

- - - - -  

* Or are more recently planted replacements.


Joseph Biddulph (Publisher) said...

Sloping buttresses in rough stone: the round arch springing from a broad plain horizontal band. Would the Baroque architects of the Continent recognise it as the real thing? Or would they say, vernacular, informal, with a touch of Romanesque? Is there an "attic" (a secret storage space?), or is the dome of the roof hollow, showing a deep cavity for the roof inside?

Philip Wilkinson said...

Joseph: It depends where on the Continent. In a lot of places they'd just shrug their shoulders and say, 'Baroque? In England? There's no such thing.' I take Continental baroque to be different from English – Continental more interested in light and the interplay of interior spaces; English in massiveness and drama.