Thursday, March 20, 2014

Book review. Vita Sackville-Wests Sissinghurst: The Creation of a Garden

This book is quite simply outstanding. It is without doubt the seminal work on the creation of Sissinghurst.

Sarah Ravens writing is smooth and delightful, it flows and never jars, link this with the words of Vita and you instantly have a book that is impossible to put down.

The addition of the historic timeline is extremely useful and informative. The black and white photographs can only be described as utterly compelling and support the text superbly. They transport you to another world, a lost age. The photograph on page 49 of Vita’s bedroom just after she died leaves one strangely emotional, even sad. The family photos rarely or never seen before give an insight into family life and the progression of the garden. The black and white photograph on page 66 of Sissinghurst at dawn has to be the best one ever taken. After looking at these pictures you will never take a colour photograph again!

One is left reeling over the level of family archival material and memories that have contributed to the making of this book, making it head and shoulders above any other book written on Sissinghurst. One is also left slightly despondent that a subject they thought they knew implicitly has a few holes, due to the in-depth inside knowledge of the author. This really is the definitive book on Sissinghurst and I simply cannot recommend it enough.
Published by Virago Press
ISBN 978-1-84408-896-6


Monday, January 20, 2014

Horace Walpole (1717-97) was the son of Sir Robert Walpole, England’s first Whig Prime Minister. He became a Member of Parliament and writer, producing in 1770 his essay ‘On Modern Gardening’. This was written long after the beginning of the English Landscape Movement and with the benefit of hindsight. Horace was one of the most important figures in the 18th century, an essayist, historian and avid collector of paintings and antiques.

Horace recognised, and noted in his essay that the ha-ha was the main catalyst in the change away from the formal French and Dutch garden style in England. He wrote, ‘The sunk fence ascertained the specific garden, but that it might not draw too obvious a line of distinction between the neat and the rude, the contiguous outlying parts came to be included in a kind of general design….. ‘. In the essay Horace writes undoubtedly the most prophetic words ever put to paper in garden history regarding the influence of the ha-ha and Kent, ‘At that moment appeared Kent……..He leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden’.

Walpole disliked the French baroque garden; stating that Versailles had been designed for a child and that it displayed nothing but a symbol of tyranny. Parterres and elaborate water features were, ‘impotent displays of false taste’. His words on the English Landscape Movement were different, ‘We have discovered the point of perfection. We have given the true model of gardening to the world. Let other countries mimic or corrupt our taste, but let it reign here on its verdant throne original by its elegant simplicity, and proud of no other art than that of softening natures harshness and copying her graceful touch’.
Horace lived at Strawberry Hill from 1747. He delighted at discovering a riverside house in Twickenham. He called it, ’the prettiest bauble you ever saw’. He redesigned it as a Gothic castle the style now known as ‘Strawberry Hill Gothic’. At the time the neo-classical style was the norm but he wrote, ‘I give myself a Burlington air and say, that as Chiswick is a model of Grecian architecture, Strawberry Hill is to be so of Gothic’. Gothicism was inspirational to Horace who delighted in the romance and mystery of it.

The view to the Thames which was just a short distance was extremely important to Horace. He planted trees and shrubs that created a frame in which to see the river from the house. Between the river and formal garden he created a water meadow which has since been lost to the encroachment of housing.

Horace continually purchased new land, when he first bought the house he owned five acres, this rose to forty six in total by the time of his death. The pleasure garden around the house totalled nine acres but again because of encroachment from housing and St Mary’s University College campus buildings; this has shrunk today to around four acres. The university still own the land and property but have given a 120 year rent free lease to The Strawberry Hill Trust. The trust are putting back as many of the garden features as possible but some of them cannot go back into their original positions as they are outside of the leased zone.
Horace loved scented plants and flowers; he created a Winding walk through trees that bordered onto a nursery belonging to Mr Ashe. Amongst the trees that were festooned with clematis and honeysuckle were lilacs, philadelphus and spring bulbs.
One of the first planting tasks undertaken by Horace while still leasing the house was to plant a grove of Lime trees. The limes have been replanted in three blocks as an open grove, the same as in Horace’s day. The two outside blocks were originally intended to frame the south fa├žade of the house.
Most of the main planting has been completed but more restoration will be taking place in the garden. The Theatrical Shrubbery that ran alongside the original entrance route to the house is to be widened; now the first stage planting of this is complete, according to the original Walpole plans. It is in its original position on the north–east side and consists of graduated planting which is arranged carefully in terms of height, colour and scent. Hornbeams provide the backdrop and the front of the shrubbery finishes with perennials. In front of these, trellis, one metre high and painted blue will be added. Then in front of this and in other positions around the house some blue and white tubs containing orange and bay trees will be placed.

Information on visiting Strawberry Hill can be found on the website:

Sunday, November 24, 2013

                                                                Judith Queree’s Garden
More than a score of donkey's years
He had been since he was foaled;
He munched the thistles, purple and spiked,
Would sometimes stoop and sigh,                                           
And turn to his head, as if he said,
"Poor Nicholas Nye!" ……………..
Walter de la Mare

Jersey boasts some impressive gardens, but to see the best ones you have to go off track. One of the best is found on the North west side of the Island at St Ouen, you literally go down a long track to find it. Judith Queree’s garden is her life’s work; in fact the last 36 years have been dedicated to the designing and planting of this sublime space. Judith and her husband have turned a barren piece of land into a garden that now has over 2,500 species of plants growing in complete harmony.

The Jersey climate helps of course; the warm sea keeps the temperature far higher than the mainland. The warm sea effect which is lessened at the centre of the Island, making it colder than the coast, does not affect Judith’s garden close to the sea. Even so the garden is not immune from severe weather, especially low temperatures that move in on the east to southeast winds but these dissipate by the time they reach the west coast. Winter temperatures on Jersey rarely fall below freezing, when it does happen it is usually only for short periods of time.

Driving down the track the first sight that greets you is a marvellously life like chicken wire sculpture of a donkey, which evokes the poem by Walter de La Mare.

                                                                                                                                           When Judith and her husband first discovered the run down property while on a walk, it was in a total state of neglect, the house requiring urgent restoration. Before work could commence in the garden seven large trailer loads of rubbish had to be loaded and taken away. The soil was no better than dust and full of stones; every bit of it had to be sieved. The garden could not support anything it was so barren and dry. A vast amount of mushroom compost was brought in to condition it, this also helping to sweeten the very acidic soil. The garden still needs regular mulching and toping up, but is now almost self-sufficient in providing its own compost requirements.

The now fully restored cottage

Judith’s one regret is that success has come comparatively late in life, she wishes that it had come sooner, at least before her knee’s had started to complain at the constant kneeling through planting and weeding. But the garden displays a maturity and understanding of colour, form, and harmony that only comes with age and experience. Judith backed this up herself when she said her ‘plants were on wheels’ during the early years of making the garden and that she made many mistakes. Now all Judith has to do is ‘tinker with the formula’. That formula can be described as a profusion of planting, with not one piece of soil showing, plants intertwining like lovers wrapped around each other, displaying like peacocks.

The top end of the bog garden with its mass of planting.

There are two distinct areas of the garden. Around the house is the place for plants that love hot and dry conditions, whereas the bottom bog garden section is fed by natural springs so it never dries out, making this the perfect spot for  moisture loving plants. There are 200 species of clematis with at least one in flower 365 days of the year. Salvias are also a favourite with over 60 species thriving in all areas of the garden.


The area around the cottage with the plants thriving in hot and dry conditions and the boardwalk which takes you over the bog garden

Judith gardens organically and does everything possible to encourage wildlife, because of this the garden is one of the top sites on Jersey to see moths and butterfly’s, some very rare. Over 120 different moth species have been recorded!  . Judith manages the meadow area of the property as a habitat for Voles which are the staple food of the Barn Owls that live in the garden. At night you can see the glow-worms and during the day Slow-worms bask in the sun.

    The charming mock boat house with its very own restored fishing boat is a beautiful feature.

Judith has an arrangement with a French horticultural college. They provide students to undertake work experience with her. The French love this type of garden, it being a total juxtaposition with the more formal gardens of France. Predominantly more than the English, the main visitor demographic are German’s who have a real affinity with this type of naturalistic garden, contrary to our preconceptions of a nation who may favour a more ordered landscape. But of course it was the Germans who took to the Arts and Crafts movement with alacrity and Judith’s garden although she took no influence from a particular style encompasses the arts and crafts method of planting.

The garden has areas and paths that entice you to explore

Judith has taken her inspiration from the plants themselves, not forcing them to grow in unnatural conditions and everything is in tune with the environment.  She rarely has time to visit the mainland and other gardens, but her other inspirations come in the shape of Dan Pearson and Beth Chatto. Judith loves Dan Pearson’s ‘calmness and naturalistic planting style, he is in tune with nature and that’s what I try to achieve here’. I also and most importantly owe Geoff Hamilton a huge debt of thanks as he inspired me to do this. He was a gardener’s gardener’.

The Shepherds hut another feature of the garden with its own sculpted sheep dog!

Information on visiting Judith’s garden as well as the garden features and a comprehensive plant list can be found at



Saturday, October 26, 2013

Long Barn

In their lifetime Vita Sack-Ville West and Harold Nicolson designed and constructed three gardens. The first was at Cospoli, Constantinople, the second Long Barn, Sevenoaks Weald, and the third, Sissinghurst. The garden at Cospoli was the first attempt Vita made at gardening, and it was here that she discovered her love of plants. Her first foray into gardening was short lived; Harold and Vita bought the property in Cospoli in November 1923, while Harold was working as Third Secretary at the British Embassy. Unfortunately they had to leave their garden behind in the summer of 1914 when war broke out and Harold was recalled to London. Memories of Cospoli still linger on today at Sissinghurst with two items Vita and Harold brought back with them, the Greek plaque on the wall to the entrance of the white garden, and the marble bowl resting on three lions in the herb garden. There was one connecting feature with all three gardens, in each case they were utterly neglected and in the case of Sissinghurst almost non-existent.

In 1915 while renting a property in London since their return from overseas, Vita and Harold started looking for a country house. In March of that year they bought Long Barn, situated on the edge of a rural village named Weald, Kent. Long Barn, which they bought for £2,500 was within walking distance of Vita’s ancestral home, Knole. Vita always loved Long barn and rather understatedly said: ‘it will do very well indeed’. If the garden at Cospoli was where Vita first cut her gardening teeth then undoubtedly Long Barn was where she served her gardening apprenticeship. Her garden notebooks, written in the early Long Barn years show an almost complete lack of basic horticultural knowledge, but both Vita and Harold learnt quickly from their mistakes and very soon Vita built up an impressive knowledge and understanding of plants and gardening.
View from the main lawn. The original cottage is seen face on while the reconstructed barn to enlarge the house can be seen on end.
Long Barn was in a dreadful state when they bought it; the cottage was in extremely poor condition and was fast approaching dereliction. The garden was on a steep slope, full of rubble, weeds and general rubbish. At the bottom was a field and in this a ruined barn which was taken down, material from it subsequently used to make the new wing, doubling the size of the house. The garden soon started to take shape; after the rubbish was cleared a terrace was built with retaining walls to lessen the slope around the house, and too provide the top platform; steps led to a lawn. The garden followed to a degree, the philosophy of the Arts & Crafts movement with some formality in the layout along with garden compartments or rooms, planting being used to soften any hard lines. The Arts and Crafts movement, which purists believe ended with the death of Morris in1896, or a more commonly held thought 1914, with the Great War, also advocated that the garden be integral to the house, displaying a natural unity. Vita’s planting at Long Barn took this to the extreme; the walls of the house were covered with many climbing plants such as Roses, honeysuckle and Clematis. Plants grew from every crack and crevice in the paving, right up to the house, and on the terraces; scent and colour reigned supreme.  Harold was the garden designer and displayed a natural talent, the layout of Long Barn totally down to his skill but Vita provided the planting design in the Arts and Crafts style.
 Both Harold and Vita desired a terraced garden. Harold planned this out and Vita added the planting

The design of Long Barn was influenced by William Robinson who Vita knew and respected. The idea of elements of formality in a garden but softened by planting being key to Robinsonian philosophy, this clearly seen at Gravetye Manor, his home. Vita also visited Munstead Wood and met Gertrude Jekyll in 1917; she went along with Edwin Lutyens and her mother. But the full influence of Jekyll, Robinson and of course Lawrence Johnston’s garden at Hidcote was not felt until Vita and Harold bought Sissinghurst. Long Barn was really the nursery for future designs and ideas. Vita and Harold were good friends with Lutyens another influence in their garden; in 1925 he designed the Dutch garden while staying at Long Barn. Apart from the raised beds nothing remains of Lutyens work on this section of the garden. 

The Dutch Garden today

Vita knew the type of plants that she would use at Long Barn; these were later carried through to Sissinghurst. The garden was packed full of flowering plants, Vita enjoyed roses, and climbers, and the garden was planted using many of them. Interestingly they made the first attempts at one colour designs and planted up a yellow and white border, later of course this idea was taken to Sissinghurst. Harold loved nut trees; there was a nuttery in the garden along with a small apple garden. Vita planted a line of yews which can still be seen today while Harold planted an avenue of poplars. One plant that both loved was the iris, their collection grew and grew.  

In a letter to Harold, Vita describes how the garden was looking, by this time they had been at Long Barn around nine years: ‘Your new poplar walk is alive. The wood is a blaze of primulas, anemones, tulips and irises. The turf is perfect…..The roses are beautifully pruned; the lilac is smothered in blossom. Your honeysuckle by the big room door also’.
The planting covered the house. Vita's first use of inter-planting, extending interest and flowering time.

If ever a garden can be classed as influential then that garden is Long Barn. The obvious part that it played with the subsequent development of Sissinghurst cannot be understated; it was the trial ground for ideas and developments that went on to shape people’s ideas and perceptions of the classic English garden. The idea of one colour gardens first conceived by Jekyll was experimented with at Long barn and from that probably the most famous garden, the white garden at Sissinghurst evolved. The garden at Long Barn is looked after today in a way Vita would approve of and remains true to her ethos. Even more so than Sissinghurst but that has more to do with Long Barn remaining a private family home and not having up to 200,000 visitors through its gates each year.
Long Barn opens for charity events but is not open to the public. For information contact Stephen on

Friday, September 27, 2013

Painshill, Hamilton's Landscape

The Painshill Park Trust, a registered charity, has worked tirelessly since its inception in 1981, to restore the ornamental pleasure grounds, designed and created by Charles Hamilton (1704-1786) between 1738 and 1773. Hamilton started to create the pleasure grounds the same year that plans were being drawn up by John MacClary, based on William Kent’s ideas for the naturalization of Rousham. Painshill and Rousham were at the forefront of the move away from the formal English garden style, but as Rousham followed a strong philosophy, Painshill was designed to be a series of changing ‘scenes’, an eclectic mix inspired by, but not subservient to, the classical world. This can be seen in the varied architecture and the choice of planting that drew in new, rare, and exotic plant species from America.
Hamilton visualised his design as though an artist, constructing his landscape as if creating a painting. The planting, architecture and layout of Painshill were all designed to be a living canvas. Professor Timothy Mowl describes early English Landscape gardens like Painshill as ‘Arcadian Picturesque’, and ‘Savage Picturesque’ for later gardens. The picturesque style is associated with paintings and the Picturesque (higher case ‘P’) is the aesthetic style.
S. Harmer 2013
The photograph shows Hamilton’s main vista as seen from the Turkish Tent. In the distance the Gothic temple can be seen and in the middle the Grotto is just visible. In the foreground is the recently rebuilt Five Arch Bridge

The topography did not lend itself easily to Hamilton’s plan, but with judicious planting; height and slopes were accentuated, removing the need to move vast amounts of soil, which would have been extremely costly. Planting was also matched to the changing scenes found on the circuit of the grounds. The Hermitage stood among a mix of fir, pine, birch and larch giving a feeling of wildness, while the Elysian Fields contained flowering trees and shrubs with wonderful scent to give the feeling of arcadia. Hamilton also had to install a water wheel on the River Mole to lift water through pumps to the cascade, this in turn supplying the lake; some metres higher.
S.Harmer 2010
The 19th century water wheel, not Hamilton’s original, this one built by Bramah & Sons in the 1830’s.

Hamilton designed various architectural features to instil different feelings in the beholder. One such feature was the Mausoleum, a representation of a Roman Triumphal Arch, designed as a ruin and meant to invoke a feeling of ‘melancholy’, (a desired state of mind at that time) making the beholder aware of one’s own mortality.

S. Harmer 2013
The Roman Triumphal Arch

Hamilton, as regards available funds was always disadvantaged compared to other garden builders in the 18th Century. He did try to supplement his income from the civil service and his employment with the Prince of Wales; by producing and selling his own Champagne from grapes grown at Painshill. He also had a tile and brick works hidden behind the Ruined Abbey, built for this purpose, and which was built used his own bricks. Unfortunately a good deal of the money used to build Painshill was borrowed and in 1773 his worried creditors forced him to sell up.                                                                                                           

S. Harmer 2012
The Ruined Abbey that Hamilton built to hide his brick and tile works.

Important and influential people of the day visited Painshill and overall it had mixed reviews. In 1763, John Parnell wrote; ‘It is inconceivable how beautiful Mr Hamilton’s grounds appear, all spotted with pavilions, clumps of evergreens or forest trees’. This view contrasts with William Gilpin who visited in 1765 and said about the view from the Turkish tent; ‘too much patched by clumps; and ye eye is disagreeably caught by white seats, and bridges, and ye grotto’. But of course this is hardly a surprise coming from Gilpin; who did though enjoy the Cascade, with its rugged and natural landscape.
Hamilton commissioned the building of a hermitage and advertised for a suitable resident. A hermit living in a garden may seem strange now, but they performed an important role, not only as visual entertainment, but as an embodiment of a simple solitary life, full of moral purity, but also adding a hint of darkness, and melancholy. Hamilton’s conditions of work were that whoever took this employment (the successful candidate being a Mr Remington) would be contracted to; live in the hermitage for seven years and not utter a single word to anyone, never cut his beard, hair or nails and never leave the confines of the garden. He would be given a bible, an hourglass, optical glasses, a mat for a bed and a hassock for a pillow. He was to be supplied with water from the stream and food from the house, and he would wear a camlet robe. The wearing of sandals was forbidden and along with the robe it is possible Hamilton wished to give the illusion of a druid. Unfortunately Mr Remington only lasted a few weeks and did not stay the seven years to earn what would have been a considerable sum of money. The story goes he was found drunk in a pub in Cobham! 

S. Harmer 2013
The reconstructed Hermitage placed back in its original position during 2004. 

Hamilton commissioned the grotto makers Joseph Lane to build his Grotto between 1760 and 1770; they did this for around £8000. Hamilton would have seen grottos and nymphaea in Italy on the ‘Grand Tour’, these influencing his design. The Grotto was brick built from Hamilton’s own works and faced with oolitic limestone. The internal walls were lined with calcite, gypsum, quartz, and fluorite. The roof held a framework shaped like stalactites and covered with crystals, making what was described as the finest grotto in England.
The grotto has just undergone a full restoration and is now open to the public again.

The restored grotto

The Painshill trust was awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery fund to restore the grotto and rebuild the Woollett Bridge. The Grotto alone is worth visiting Painshill for, but the whole garden is an example of a sympathetic restoration and a garden that must be visited.

Photographs taken form the Press day opening of the restored grotto

There are other features not discussed here, so explore Painshill and enjoy the garden; once again it is in very safe and capable hands with more restoration projects to follow.

S. Harmer 2013

The photograph shows Hamilton’s Turkish Tent. Here his guests would find refreshment waiting for them on the return leg.

Friday, September 6, 2013

                             The Island that Appears to Float, Isola Bella. 

Up until the 19th century in Italy, gardens and garden design was controlled by landscape architects. The change that came was overwhelming, when plant species from around the world came pouring into Italy. New and exotic plants became the driving force in garden design, the designer now being superseded by the plantsmen, for the first time. The north of Italy assimilated this change readily, mainly as the new trees and shrubs lent themselves to the English Landscape park style garden, readily accepted in the North due to the climate, an English ex-pat community and the difficult shape and topography of the lakeside gardens which were not suited to the formal terraced Italian style.  In 1796 Napoleon Bonaparte had invaded Italy from the North and a little later took Lucca, which he gave to his sister. She resided at what was then called Villa Orsiti, now named Villa Marlia and proceeded to change the garden into the English landscape style, less formal and with new imported trees and shrubs from faraway places. The new fashion had been dictated and the change was swift.

There are a few gardens on the lakes that have stood the test of time and remain truly baroque, resisting any change to the English style, thank heavens. One of these is Isola Bella, a garden on Lake Maggiore, Piedmont,  which was commissioned in 1631 by Count Carlo Borromeo III; it was constructed over a 40 year period and can only be described as a baroque masterpiece. Isola Bella is one of the best surviving baroque gardens in Italy and subscribes to the philosophy of using a garden as an overwhelming show of power, knowledge and wealth, an ostentatious display, aimed purely to create shock and awe.

Symbolically the statues look outwards embracing the landscape, acknowledging the move to enlightenment.
 The garden was laid out to look like a galleon on the water and this was achieved; the southern end rises up in terraces like a ships superstructure, forming a truncated pyramid. It has been described as the hanging garden of Lake Maggiore and Monty Don described it wonderfully by saying.
'The garden looks like a mad battleship wearing a party frock'.

The pyramid terrace designed to resemble the stern of a great galleon.

The pyramid is topped by a balustraded terrace where the Borromeo family held lavish celebrations and admired the perfect vistas gained by being 37 metres above the lake. The terraces and the garden in general were planted originally with typical Mediterranean plants such as citrus, until that is the 19th Century when the new plant imports were reaching Italy from China, India, the Americas, the Himalayas and Australia when these new acquisitions were accepted into the garden.      
The island is of an irregular shape and therefore not suited to the preferred geometric composition normally found with the renaissance and baroque style, the main axis of the garden could not be aligned centrally with the palace; this was cleverly disguised by the architect Angelo Crivelli. Many tons of marble, granite and soil were shipped onto the island to build the palace and garden, a huge and expensive undertaking.  

The gardens most impressive feature is the Teatro Massimo, the Maximum Theatre; this can be seen after exiting Diana’s Atrium from a flight of stairs and onto a lawn area where the most magnificent baroque scene presents itself before the suitably impressed viewer.

The Teatro Massimo, one of the most splendid baroque statements of power and wealth.
 The water theatre has pilasters, niches and balustrades, everything constructed from granite and tufa pebbles. The niches house statues of gods and goddesses as well as giant scallop shells, the whole creation topped off at the highest point with a rearing Unicorn, the symbol of the Borromeo family. The unicorn was carved in 1673 and is flanked by seated figures representing art and nature.

The rearing Unicorn, the symbol of the Borromeo family is the highest point, ensuring all can see who has the power here.

In the upper central niche sits a giant, personifying Lake Maggiore while below two lesser figures represent the Rivers Ticino and Toce. At the bottom Centre, stands the Goddess Dianna supported on either side by two nymphs. Four obelisks and four sculptures are there to represent the four elements. Air is seen on the left as a woman holding a flowering branch, earth on the right is an old woman holding a branch, water is a mature man on the left and fire is on the right depicted by a man with an anvil holding an arrow. The whole scene is baroque theatre and extravagance at its best, but it has not been, and is still not to everybody’s taste, being described unfavorably at times and seen as garish.

Two towers were built on the southern end of the garden; the tower on the west side named The Tower of Noria was constructed in 1633 and housed the pumping system that lifted the water from the lake to supply the gardens irrigation system. The east tower named The Tower of the Winds seen in the photograph was built purely to create symmetry and is now the book shop.

The Tower of the Winds built to create symmetry with the opposite tower that housed the great pumping system.                                                                              
 Water effects would play in the theatre but unfortunately today it is only partially working but this detracts nothing from the garden. The palace itself is a must see experience, to enjoy it and its treasures along with the garden, allow a day so you can also take a short water taxi trip to the nearby Isola Madre and visit the botanical garden with its exceptional collection of trees and shrubs.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Rousham, A Kentian masterpiece.

Rousham in Oxfordshire
Rousham is arguably the finest garden in England but undoubtedly William Kent’s finest work. William Kent (1685-1748) was called Cant before he changed his name; he thought Kent would sound better to the gentry. He took a garden that had originally been laid out by Charles Bridgeman (1690-1738) and completed in 1737 on more formal lines. Kent altered it, and now you will find it almost unchanged from Kent’s time. Horace Walpole wrote of Kent that ‘’He leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden’’. These are the most important and profound words ever put to paper on garden history.   

S. Harmer 2012
On the hill can be seen the ‘sham’ ruin. A single wall to make as though the garden and its architecture extend into the distance and to give a perception that the garden extends further than it actually does. These features are sometimes known as ‘eye catchers’ This is a perfect example of Kent’s work showing his ‘concealment of bounds’ and bringing the countryside and landscape into the garden. In the foreground the cottage has been altered on the right hand end to look like it could be an old fortified house. This was done to make the vista more interesting to the eye.

            S. Harmer 2012
The ha-ha plays an important part at Rousham by ‘concealing the bounds’. Between the long horn bull and Rousham house is the ha-ha. There have always been long horn cattle at Rousham.

Rousham is the perfect example of the Augustan style, the first period of the English landscape movement. The exponents of this style celebrated and strove to renew the past glories of ancient Rome. They also celebrated England’s peace and prosperity after the civil war. The Augustan landscape is categorised by classical architecture and sculpture as seen at Rousham.  Of course there were also voices raised against the formal gardens of England that preceded gardens such as Rousham. Raised against them for many reasons including social, economic and political. One of these voices belonged to Joseph Addison, writing in the Spectator in 1712 he stated, ‘Our British gardeners on the contrary, instead of humouring nature, love to deviate from it as much as possible. Our trees rise in cones, globes and pyramids. We see the marks of the scissors upon every plant and bush. I do not know whether I am singular in my opinion, but for my own part I would rather look upon a tree in all its luxuriance than when it is thus cut and trimmed into a mathematical figure’.

S. Harmer 2012
The stature is one of either two figures. Some say that it is Apollo while others that it is Hadrian’s lover Antinous. General Dormer was greatly interested in Antinous and he is the most likely candidate. The figure looks outwards away from the garden and down towards the River Cherwell. Again showing the garden is integrated into and moving out to the wider landscape.

S. Harmer 2011
The Praeneste is a seven arched structure which was Inspired by the temple complex of Palestrina near Rome. It was not placed to be seen until you were on the return leg of the journey around the garden, almost a ‘Grand Tour’ in miniature. Again the iconology is that of ancient Rome.

Iconography can confuse the interpretation of a garden and Rousham is no exception. The garden can be read on many levels. In its simplistic form Rousham pays homage to ancient Rome and the Imperial games. This can be seen for example in Sheermakers work depicting a mortally wounded gladiator, perpetually dying. The gladiator can be seen simply as what he is, a gladiator dying from his wounds inflicted by another in the games. Here we have the simple reference to ancient Rome. Others may argue that on another level  the gladiator represents General James Dormer who owned Rousham and commissioned Kent from 1738 until Dormers death in 1741. Dormer was wounded at the battle of Blenheim and the dying gladiator most likely is a reference to the general, himself severely wounded in battle and never recovering from his wounds.

S. Harmer 2011
The dying gladiator

The garden can also be seen as a representation of the Elysian Fields, the mythological resting place of the Roman soldier.  Elysia the place of peacefulness and calm which is supposedly the final home of the brave who died in battle. Again was Dormer creating his own Elysian fields? The Elysian Fields are portrayed in other gardens such as Stowe and Painshill Park. The garden at Rousham is believed to be Dormers own journey from life to death and from light into darkness. The garden indeed displays this when you move from areas of light into areas of heavy shade. We can also see a reference to Caesar with the sculpture depicting Pan and Venus. Caesar claimed descent from these mythological beings. 

S. Harmer 2012
The illustration shows the ‘rill’ and octagonal bathing pool. Kent canalised the water to form the rill. It has a fluid serpentine movement and winds its way through the understory planting of Laurel. Laurel is mainly used in English landscape gardens as a dense evergreen planting and kept at the height seen. The rill moves down to the Vale of Venus. At some point the rill was wider and deeper than it is now as there are firsthand accounts of fish swimming here.
Lastly what defines Rousham now is that it has not followed the National Trust philosophy of endless gift shops and cafes with hundreds of screaming children running around the gardens followed by worn out parents. Rousham remains as it has always been a sea of tranquillity with children under sixteen not permitted. How wonderful!

Rousham Gardens are open every day of the year from 10 am. Last admission is at 4.30 pm and the gardens close at dusk. Tickets for the garden are £5 per person.