I’d like to cast my mind back to a past visit in 2012 to Rousham Park and Garden. Such was the quality of the garden I was moved to write about it on my return home, and as the article turned out to be quite popular, I thought I’d update the article and post to my current blog – I hope you like the changes!
Rousham Park House and Garden more than lived up to expectation. I still remember a fascinating and engaging visit, when for much of the time there was but a handful of other visitors around. The arrival was something unexpected, with no typical visitor centre, shop or café; just a ticket machine to cover garden entry. The efficiency of the mechanical visitor welcome didn’t quite make up for the lack of a human contact, but the more I thought on it, the more I warmed to it.
Right from the off, I can say that this garden is exquisite. It’s full of character and intrigue, and is beautifully put together and managed – it is perfectly feasible to enjoy it for what it is. I feel however that to really get to know the garden, it is important to understand a little of its history.
Sir Robert Dormer first bought Rousham Manor in 1635. Early investment included a new manor house, and by the mid 1670s formal gardens had arrived. Following work by Charles Bridgeman, William Kent was employed from the late 1730s and instigated landscaping and construction works to the gardens, estate and mansion. Building on Bridgman’s earlier work, Kent appears to have spawned a whole new garden style and his use of planting, developed in connection with gardening staff at the time, along with built structures and ornamentation of course, was exemplary.
Statuary and structures within the garden were of a classical, Augustan nature and those without to ‘Gothick’ design. On a distant hillside, a sham ruin still sits proud and is credited in Jeffrey W. Whitelaw’s ‘Follies’ book as being one of the earliest known. The garden is largely Italianate, most likely conforming to General Dormer’s ideals, drawing no doubt on Kent’s experiences in Italy.
The strength of the garden appears to come from Kent’s expert use of objects to draw the pedestrian through, and of his intelligent use of planting to manipulate light and shade, and mood. There are clearly defined character areas with structures and statuary placed very carefully for fun and effect. Back in the day this atmospheric garden gained much interest from notable people, as indeed it does today. Jane Fearnley-Whittingstall quotes Horace Walpole in her book ‘The Garden, An English Love Affair’ – “the garden is Daphne in little, the sweetest little groves, streams, glades, porticos, cascades and river imaginable, all the scenes are perfectly classic“.
It is certain that Kent adjusted and utilised antique features in the landscape; the thirteenth century Heyford Bridge over the River Cherwell in particular. He also created viewing points from within the gardens which borrowed the landscape, allowing views towards the eye-catchers. This maybe wasn’t the first attempt to harness distant views from within a garden, but it was achieved in an informal way, and the garden as a whole flows naturally into the landscape as a result.
Much land-sculpting would have happened to achieve this apparently natural garden, and Kent’s introduction of classical structures and ornamentation was inspired. At Rousham, as elsewhere there became a reliance on these built classical elements, and sculpture. The items were loaded with meaning, sometimes of a classical or mythological nature, but also of a personal nature. For example, The Dying Gladiator and Lion Attacking a Horse statues at Rousham, as Tim Richardson suggests in his ‘Arcadian Friends’ book make reference to General Dormer’s military career.
All the elements combine well in the garden and a wonderful atmosphere exists throughout. In some locations, designed and carefully managed views are obvious, yet others just appear out of nowhere. Hefty built structures and striking statues blend perfectly in a naturalistic setting, made more special due to the maturity of the planting.
One small yet significant signal to the originality of Rousham is the use of the ha-ha, the introduction of which is credited to Bridgeman, according to Horace Walpole. Kent lifted Rousham to a new level, and with his softening of Bridgeman’s straighter layout, made areas such as Venus’s Vale intimate and all the more special for it. Under Kent’s guidance, Rousham became a place unlike no other, and it’s as perfect now as it ever could have been.
When looking back, I’ve learned that Rousham was possibly more than a garden; it was an experiment and a turning point in garden fashion. Garden walls came down, ha-ha’s were sunk along the boundaries, and a new aesthetic grew from Rousham. Today, the garden is I believe as complete as it was back then, and as such has become a rare survivor; a perfectly preserved example of a landscape garden from the first half of the 18th Century.
It would have been and still is a real treat to walk around, where wide gravel walks narrow to quirky single step tracks, and picnics on the lawn in a leafy glade would be just as refreshing as sitting formally on an elaborately carved seat in the Praeneste. Rousham is beautiful, historic, full of magic and beautifully presented.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit, and the experience still holds strong in my memory. If you’d like to visit, I’d recommend checking ahead, as restrictions apply: Rousham.
If you like the sound of this garden, why not take a look at Monty Don’s visit…