It has been stated that the landscape garden is Britain’s ‘ one great contribution to the world of art. Nowhere is this more vividly illustrated than by the landscape garden at Stourhead.
The house was built and the garden started in 1714 by Henry Hoare, of the well known banking family, but it was his son, also called Henry, who completed the unique garden landscape which we so admire today. Whether the younger Henry had any landscape gardener to help him is uncertain : ‘Capability’ Brown did not start work on any great scale till 1750, and the celebrated Uvedale Price not until twenty years later. So Stourhead must indeed be the first landscape garden in England.
Henry Hoare must have been a man of outstanding foresight and taste. But to envisage the garden at Stourhead, to imagine the valley filled with water, the bare downs clothed with woods, and the newly created landscape set with temples and grottoes, as in fact Henry Hoare must have done, calls for imaginative and inventive genius of the highest quality. We must remember that in 1740 it had never been done before: ‘landscape-gardener’ was a term that did not exist, and the romantic, natural garden was as yet unthought of. By damming up two valleys, Henry Hoare created a lake of over twenty acres; the banks he planted with fir and beech trees. Over the year many of the firs have died or been cut down, leaving the beeches to rear their silver trunks in sole splendour. They are now over two hundred years old and in full maturity. Their towering architecture has the effect of making the lakeside banks seem steeper than they are.
Visitors to Stourhead first pass an inn, The Spread Eagle, built two hundred years ago for their accommodation. Suitably refreshed, they make their way towards the lake down a gentle slope: the view from this point at Stourhead must surely be one of the most beautiful man-made perspectives in the world. It might have been conjured or painted by Claude or Poussin; and ‘the eye is led away over the water … to a succession of further views and vistas, paler and more misty, as they recede. These give the impression of going on, like a dream, for ever.’ Such was the art of Henry Hoare.
On their progress round the lake, visitors first pass the Temple of Flora, an elegant building with a pillared and pedimented facade of tawny stone which contrasts well with its leafy background. Later the famous Grotto comes into view, still retaining, ‘in this prosaic age, something of the mysterious and romantic atmosphere that it must have had when Pope’s celebrated grotto at Twickenham inspired it’.
Steep steps lead down, between moss covered rocks, and the subterranean cavern below is lit, dramatically, by an overhead opening. In an alcove of shells and ‘rusticated’ stone, John Michael Rysbrack’s sculptured nymph reclines on a chilly couch, over which water from a hidden spring perpetually flows. Nearby are inscribed some lines by Pope, a gentle admonition from the sleeping maiden herself.
Nymph of the grot, these sacred springs I keep And to the murmur of these waters sleep. Ah, spare my slumbers, gently tread the cave And drink in silence, or in silence, lave.
Sparing the nymph’s repose, and not pausing to ‘lave’, the visitor passes quietly on . . . past another statue by Rysbrack, of Neptune with an ever-gushing urn.
Once more in the sunshine, visitors to Stourhead continue round the end of the lake, past a rustic cottage with an inviting seat. From this restful point of vantage, they can admire the lake in all its limpid beauty, its tree-clad banks, and to the right of where they sit, another temple, a smaller replica of the Pantheon in Rome. This was added to the garden in 1745, the year of the last Jacobite rebellion, and has an imposing portico of pillars. Inside there are more statues by Rysbrack, a well-muscled Hercules and a charming figure of Flora. There are also some well executed plaques, in terracotta, of classic scenes.
The tour continues, and soon yet another temple, the Temple of the Sun, comes into view. This is said to be inspired by the Temple of the Sun at Baalbec. A hundred paces more, and there’s the bridge, and the visitors have regained their starting-point.
One more feature remains to be examined; the towering Market Cross which two centuries ago was found m pieces and neglected m a builders yard in Bristol. Henry Hoare brought it to Stourhead, and re-erected it there in its sylvan setting. The cross dates from the early fourteenth century, and m its Anglo-Saxon Gothicry reminds visitors, after the scries of classical temples they have just admired, that Stourhcad is not m the Campagna, but m England, and in the heart of England too.
OPEN All the year 8 a.m.-7 p.m. (or sunset, if earlier).
LOCATION At Stourton village on B3092, 3 miles north-west of Mere.