When Stourhead was first created in the 1740s, it was described as ‘a living work of art’. It was then, and still remains, one of the greatest examples of the Arcadian style of landscape design. This world-famous garden has as its centrepiece a magnificent lake which reflects the classical temples, mystical grottoes and rare and exotic trees which skirt its borders.
The estate and park at Stourton had been owned by the Stourton family since before the Norman Conquest in 1066. In 1717, the family sold the estate to Henry Hoare I, a wealthy banker from London. Henry Hoare replaced the Stourton home with a Palladian-style country house and laid out a railed forecourt and walled garden close to the house. When Henry's son, Henry Hoare II inherited Stourhead, as the estate was now known, he began to extend his father's gardens with a formal terrace walk of Scotch firs to the west of the house. However, it was after his return from Italy in 1741, that he started to lay out the extensive landscape garden that we see today. Hoare was heavily influenced by his travels and the painters Claude Lorrain, Poussin and Gaspard Dughet who painted Utopian-style views of Italian landscapes. His own design would be an Arcadian design; an idealised version of classical antiquity.
Henry II created an extensive lake from two existing ponds situated in the valley next to the house. A circuit walk around the lake is meant to evoke a journey similar to that of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld (from Virgil’s Aeneid). The walk passes various buildings and features added over a period of nearly 40 years including the Temple of Flora, Pantheon, Temple of Apollo, Hermitage and Palladian Bridge. In the late 1770s he completed Alfred's Tower, the focal point for a formal ride around the park and surrounding woods.
Henry II also undertook an extensive planting scheme to create pictorial effects and contrasts between dark and light; a feature typical of Arcadian fashion. The plantings were arranged in a manner that would evoke different moods and realms of thought, drawing visitors through ever changing vistas and enticing them onwards. According to Hoare, 'The greens should be ranged together in large masses as the shades are in painting: to contrast the dark masses with the light ones, and to relieve each dark mass itself with little sprinklings of lighter greens here and there.’ In this way the gardens at Stourhead aim to capture the drama of Aeneas’s journey and allegorical Arcadian gardens.
Not long before his death in 1785, Henry II handed Stourhead over to his grandson, Richard Colt Hoare. Between 1791 and 1815, Richard added two wings to the existing house, remade the boundaries and the ha-ha between the garden and surrounding meadow, and extended the park. In the garden around the lake he removed various garden buildings that were not in keeping with the classical and gothic styles, including the Turkish Tent, and the bridge over the lake. New features were added including the Gothick Porch and a variety of ornamental trees and shrubs, including many rhodedendrons and the American tulip tree, Liriodendron tulipifera.
The estate descended in the Hoare family who cared for and added to the estate until it was passed over to the National Trust in 1946 by Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare; his only son had been killed at the Battle of Mughar Ridge in WWI leaving him without an heir.
Today, Stourhead remains under the care of the National Trust who have dedicated the last half century to preserving and restoring the estate in keeping with its original design. It is a firm favourite of Violets and Tea, and is a pleasure to visit all the year round.
We visit Stourhead on our 2021 Enchanting Cotswolds & the Chelsea Flower Show tour and our A Touch of Magnificence tour.
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Images © Eliza Ford