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An article by Pam Mills

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 Kent’s 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 artist’s 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 from Rousham.

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 hedges.

Most of Kent’s 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 experiences".

Approaching the gardens from the house, Scheemaker’s 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 Scheemaker’s 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, Townsend’s 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 along".

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.

Enjoy it!

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Pam Mills 2000  
[email protected]


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