The gardens at Rousham
Park are unique. They are the only gardens designed by William Kent that remain - nearly
three hundred years later - much as he planned them. Kent also contributed to the gardens
at Stowe, Chiswick, Claremont, Badminton, and Chatsworth. It is only at Rousham that he
conceived the whole garden. We are lucky. In 1760, Walpole described Rousham as "the
most engaging of all Kents works".
William Kent (1684 - 1748) was among the
most influential artists of his time. A painter in his early life in England and Italy, he
later worked as an architect, a designer of interior decoration, furniture and theatre
sets, and as a literary illustrator. Late in life - from around the age of 40 he designed
only a dozen or so gardens.
At Rousham, Kent was asked to redesign gardens already formed by others, including
Bridgeman and, possibly, Pope. Bridgeman's designs were mainly formal and largely
symmetrical, but they did reflect something of the contemporary trend to greater
informality and "naturalness". In 1737 General Dormer invited Kent to Rousham to
work on the design of the house and its 25 acre garden - a modest size compared with Stowe
and with an unusually steep slope to the River Cherwell and pastoral and rural views.
However, "Nature "was not allowed to dominate. In 1712, Addison had written :
"We find the Works of Nature still more pleasant, the more they resemble those of Art
.... Hence it is we take Delight in a Prospect which is well laid out ." Kent aimed
to balance nature with art.
At Rousham, Kent took full advantage of the irregular shape of the site and the
meandering Cherwell. Kent "leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a
garden". He included irregular features - serpentine paths, lakes and rills, wooded
areas and dotted clumps of trees. With an artists eye, he used buildings, statues,
screens of trees - with strategically placed openings - to define garden areas, lead the
eye and allow glimpses within and beyond the garden.
Countryside views had long been a feature of gardens. Kent used the haha (started by
Bridgeman) to open up views and also to bring rural life right into the garden. At
Rousham, Kent visualised the surrounding countryside as part of the garden and created a
series of pictures, within and beyond the garden. The Rousham gardener Macclary boasted
that four counties and ten parish churches could be seen from one spot in the garden. To
guarantee the view, cooperative neighbours had cleared away trees. Kent created the
Eyecatcher - a gothic triumphal arch - and added gothic detail to Cuttle Mill to provide
strong focal points in the middle and far distance in exactly the right position for views
To provide and intensify perspectives, he emphasised foreground and background. To add
depth, he introduced yew and other dark evergreens to imitate the sombre green background
of Mediterranean cypress and ilex. He contrasted shaded wooded areas with light, open,
pastoral scenes. For variety and visual interest, he included "romantic woodland
arbours" and "mixed mode" planting, flowering shrubs and underplanted
Most of Kents gardens were effectively designed round a series of small
buildings, statues and other features - classical temples; rustic grottoes, cascades and
hermitages; obelisks - often modelled on classical antiquity and / or Italian renaissance
gardens, set among trees and scattered around the landscape. Very much like a stage set.
Kent designed these scenes to translate into experiences. "Managed surprises"
are revealed during a walk round his gardens in a "succession of spatial
Approaching the gardens from the house, Scheemakers copy of the Tivoli statue of
the horse attacked by a lion (representing the domination of Rome - the lion - over Tivoli
- the horse) draws the visitor across the bowling green, and itself is the point from
which to view the distant Eyecatcher and Cuttle Mill. Further to the left, viewing the
River Cherwell from Scheemakers statue of the dying gladiator, you have no
indication that the arcaded Praeneste lies under your feet (The Praeneste was inspired by
the Temple of Fortune at ancient Praeneste, now known as Palestrina). The Praeneste is
glimpsed from the Vale of Venus and itself provides a point for views over the pastoral
river scenes. The Vale of Venus, the statue of Apollo, Townsends Temple, the cold
bath and serpentine rill - each is a setting in its own right. Each is linked to a next
point in the journey round the garden. And from each you can view or glimpse one or more
interesting garden features.
Rousham is reputed to have over 1,000 possible garden circuits. But Kent had a clear
idea of how he wanted visitors to experience the garden and with his typical attention to
detail, designed seats: "Where you set down and view, what and where you walked
Kent was eclectic in his selection of features, combining in a single landscape
contrasting and perhaps contradictory elements : formal and informal; new and (apparently)
old ; classical and gothic; rustic and Palladian; English and foreign - especially
Italian, classical and Renaissance; classical temples in an English countryside. At
Rousham he translated his vision of a natural classical landscape and made it seem
entirely at home in the English countryside.
At Rousham Kent worked on both house and garden, and because he was allowed a free(ish)
rein, each reflects his vision. It is a lovely and unique garden. It has certainly changed
since 1740. But much about Rousham - as it is now - appeals to contemporary taste at the
start of the twenty-first century.