Monday, January 10, 2022

Stowe, Buckinghamshire


Buildings in a landscape, 3

Set on a rise, looking across Stowe’s Elysian Fields towards the Temple of British Worthies (see previous post), the Temple of Ancient Virtue is circular, domed, and surrounded by 16 Ionic columns. By making the temple round, William Kent chose one of the purest, most symbolically perfect architectural forms to house a shrine to four exemplary ancient Greeks: the general Epaminondas, the law-maker Lycurgus, the philosopher Socrates, and the epic poet Homer. Viscount Cobham, owner of the house and garden when Kent was doing some of his most notable work there, chose Greeks, not ancient Romans, for his ancient heroes, because he and his Whig friends were suspicious of the ruthless empire-building Romans (who after all conquered Britain), preferring the Greeks, who invented democracy and stood high for them as founders of western civilisation.

Peter Scheemakers was commissioned to create full-length statues of these great Greeks, but the originals were sold off in 1921 when the owners fell on hard times, and today the temple contains plaster replicas. This itself might be seen to symbolise the decline of the ancient virtues in the modern era, but by the 1730s, Cobham had already thought of this. Near to this temple he also commissioned a Temple of Modern Virtue. This was conceived from the beginning as a ruin and has since decayed so badly that there are only a few traces left, walls poking out of the soil here and there and promising more evidence of what once was hidden beneath the accreted earth. How pleasing that so much else in this remarkable garden has fared better, or has been sensitively restored thanks to the various efforts of Stowe School, the Stowe House Preservation Trust, and the National Trust.

Stowe: the remains of the Temple of Modern Virtue

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