Monday, 2 December 2013

Rousham Park

The Dormer family were long established members of the Oxfordshire gentry when Sir Robert Dormer bought the manor of Rousham in the mid 1630's. The family still live there today. It was Colonel Robert Dormer who began the transformation of the garden at Rousham after he succeeded in 1719. The Colonel commissioned Charles Bridgeman, the royal gardener, to draw up plans and the work was nearing completion when the Colonel died in 1737. Alexander Pope described the garden in a letter of 1728. "Rousham", he wrote, "is the prettiest place for water-falls, jets, ponds enclosed with beautiful scenes of green and hanging wood, that I ever saw."

When William Kent (1685-1743) was called in by the Colonel's heir, his brother General Dormer in 1738, he left much of Bridgeman' work intact, but enhanced it with his classical vision. General Dormer was in his sixties when he inherited and as the sixth son he could never have expected to inherit the family home. In the four years that the  General owned Rousham, William Kent created for him a garden of great beauty. This is one of the earliest landscape gardens in Britain, and the only one of the period to survive untouched.

Marble group of a horse and lion modelled by Peter Scheemaker in 1743
after the antique at the Villa d'Este in Tivoli

William Kent brought to his garden design an understanding of painting and first hand knowledge of the Italian landscape. He used the devices of painting and theatrical design to evoke in the English countryside a vision of the classical world. He was inspired by the paintings of Claude and Poussin whose works were highly sought after by the great collectors of the day. General Dormer was already susceptible to these novel ideas, as these had already been nurtured by the great connoisseur Lord Burlington in whose circles he moved. William Kent  transformed Bridgeman's natural landscape into an Augustan landscape that evoked the glory of ancient Rome.

In Whig eyes, the formal garden , enclosed by walls or clipped hedges became the symbol of oppression and tyranny. This outlook had a decisive effect on the English countryside. Vanbrugh demolished the boundary wall and threw open the landscape to view, Bridgeman invented the ha-ha, to make the, necessary, division between garden and pasture invisible. Kent banished the straight line and replaced it with the serpentine. Kent, wrote Walpole, 'leaped the garden fence, and saw all nature was a garden.'

William Kent was fortunate with his commission  at Rousham. From the bowling green at the rear of the house, a series of terraces descended steeply to the River Cherwell below, beyond was an uninterrupted view across open fields. He transformed an old mill in the picturesque style and built a sham ruin on the hill opposite named the 'Eyecatcher'.

The Praeneste

He smoothed the terraces into a convex slope, and at the top he built the seven arch Praeneste, based on the forecourt of the temple of Fortune at Palestrina.

In the woodland garden, Kent composed a series of classical set pieces  with buildings, cascades, and statuary, composed like paintings and designed to be viewed in a sequence from a winding path.

Venus's Vale

Temple of Elcho

In the 200 years since it was created, there has been only one addition to the garden. Sir Clement Cottrell-Dormer, who died in 1808 placed a plaque on the upper cascade to commemorate the life of his dog Ringwood, 'an otter hound of extraordinary Sagacity.' who lies buried there.