Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Stowe - a wonderful landscape still

Once upon a time.....Stowe was the greatest English landscape garden: the incomparable Georgian forerunner of the English landscape style. A classical naturalistic landscape copied throughout Europe, inspiration for centuries to come.

Since the garden was begun in the 1680’s, the greatest designers of the Georgian age had their hand in the design: Charles Bridgeman (the ha ha), William Kent (serpentine streams) and Capability Brown (naturalistic vistas) made their mark. Architecturally, equally renowned men designed their ornamental buildings: among them Robert Adam, James Gibbs and John Vanbrugh.

Plonk yourself down in an English village circa 1700 - what would you have seen. Depending in which part of the country you lived, you would notice small rural buildings (roofs thatched or covered in slate or clay tiles), hedged or walled fields, the occasional field tree, perhaps coppices, forests or moors.

The small rural village consisted of mismatched vernacular buildings; scattered tenant farms dotted the scene. The local big house may have had a deer park, or straight paths and formal beds. The river would have supported a mill, bridges were practical, gates stockproof.

Roads at that time were unmade and impassable in very bad weather, farmyards mired in muck, houses lacked sanitation. Mess and mud were part of life. Everything was utilitarian. Life was hard.

For those lucky few - men of wealth and leisure - travel to Europe was de rigeur. On their return they were able to indulge their fancy and show off their education and wealth. They strove to impress society with their knowledge of the classics and superior taste. What better and more conspicuous a way than to improve their estate. And the owners of Stowe were no exception: they conceived the greatest idealised classical landscape of the time.

In the 1700’s the visitor to Stowe - unused to the wonders of world-wide travel - would have been enchanted to see a rolling landscape, a rural idyll, planted with trees on hill tops and a clear meandering river in contrast to their plainer, less ordered rural environment.

At each turn, they would be transported by a framed view of a beautiful classical building with - what a joy - yet another and another from every angle. It was a scene they could believe existed in Greece or Italy. Of course, most would never have seen anything like it except in the paintings of Claude or Poussin.

Today, one would imagine that the world-weary sophisticate would find this all very ordinary. But not at all. Strangely, in spite of the run-down complexion of the whole at Stowe (structures in various state of repair, lacking the statuary and embellishments that they used to boast) the casual visitor experiences much the same sense of surprise and wonderment that his 18th century forebear would have experienced, although for different reasons.

Sated with televised visions of beautiful landscapes, wonderful buildings, incomparable views, it's refreshing to find that we can still be impressed with the less than perfect, here and now. Stowe offers the visitor something we have all become rather unused to: a landscape that's not manicured. Buildings that are not finished to pristine Disney standards.

And so natural and realistic does this sort of manmade landscape look to us now that we're as surprised to find Grecian stone structures hidden around every corner as the original visitor most probably was over three hundred years ago. Stowe is a wonderful landscape still: those of us without a classical education may miss the all but most obvious allusions but it is still a delight, a pleasure to visit.


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