A Work To Wonder At

27th May 2011

Two hundred years ago the Georgians made a beeline for Buckinghamshire’s Stowe House and its magnificent landscape gardens. Although it is much less visited today, an ambitious plan of restoration has meant the return of some of its ancient lustre, says Jack Watkins.

Among the stately homes of England, Stowe should be up there with the Blenheims and the Burghleys. It’s an absolute monster of a mansion, one of the country’s first 18th century neo-classical palaces, set in 400 acres sprawling across the best of rural Buckinghamshire. In its Elysian fields, its gardens and parkland are over 40 different types of monuments or follies including temples, chapels, bridges, grottoes and archways. You could fill an ornamental pond with the salivations of the art connoisseurs who have visited and been sent into raptures of delight down the decades.

Stowe was, for over 300 years, the home of one of the most powerful families in England, the Temple-Grenvilles, and was used by them to demonstrate their burgeoning influence. The list of talented architects and garden designers employed here reads like a mini-Who’s Who: Charles Bridgeman, William Kent, Capability Brown, Sir John Vanbrugh, James Gibbs, Robert Adam and Sir John Soane among them.

Yet Stowe is also a monument to social-climbing aristocrats who lived beyond their means. When Queen Victoria and Prince Albert came for a short stay in 1845, residents from the surrounding villages turned out in their thousands to cheer the royal procession all the way up from Buckingham. Little did the monarch know that some of the soldiers of the local militia who escorted her cortège were also bailiffs preparing to serve Richard Temple, now 2nd Duke of Buckingham, with a bankruptcy order.

The family clung on grimly for the remainder of the century, even staging something of a revival after a Great Sale of many of the house’s treasures, but soon after the Great War, as with so many other noble families, punitive death and income taxes and the lack of a male heir saw the property placed on the market, with further contents sold off in yet another massive auction. The building thus did not enjoy the fortunate outcome of being handed on, treasures intact, to the National Trust. Rather, its unusual saviour was that in 1923 it became a private school: Stowe School. It was an infinitely preferable outcome to the intended alternative, which was to market it as a quarry for salvage. But it meant that, part-institutionalised, it found itself serving a purpose for which it had never been intended, and time was left to work its inevitable effects.

It hasn’t been a one-way descent, however, and in the last twenty years a rearguard action has been fought. In 1989, recognising that the grounds, with their incredible heritage-listed monuments – many of them at Grade I, the highest form of protection – were becoming unmanageable, the school handed them over to the National Trust, which has since worked steadily on a long term plan of restoration, maintenance, archaelogical survey and replanting.

Meanwhile, although the school had tried to maintain the house as well as it could, no major renovations had been carried out since the 1860s. So a Stowe Preservation Trust was formed in 1997, with the aim of saving the house and displaying it to the nation, while leasing it back to the school.

In 2002, the World Monuments Fund added Stowe to its Watch List of Endangered Sites and joined other bodies and private donors in contributing to the Trust’s £10 million programme for ongoing restoration work. The north and south fronts can both now be appreciated in something approaching their former awesome, gold limestone grandeur, and several of the state rooms can be seen on guided tours during term time.

Stowe was once so splendid that it was a Grand Tour in its own right. It was the first English site to have its own guidebook, in 1745, during the ownership of the man who probably did more to enhance its design than any other, Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham.

Because the house has been emptied of so many of the contents associated with its prestigious past, it takes an effort of imagination to summon up a picture of it in its halcyon days. Still, huge progress has been made. From this spring, visitors have been able to marvel at the recently restored Large Library, originally built as a ballroom in the 1740s, and then gilded, furnished and stocked as a library in the 1790s in anticipation of a visit by the book-loving monarch George III. The king never came, and the library later became caught up in the inevitable spiral of decline. Painstaking analysis of over 800 samples of painted and gilded finishes in the room revealed that 15,000 gold leaves were used in the floral pattern of the original scheme, and these have now been replaced. Nearby is the even more splendid, if austere, Marble Saloon, an oval version of the Pantheon in Rome. Its coffered dome rises to 57ft, above which is a glazed oculus which, when the sun glints through, spotlights the rich frieze running round the base of the dome, presenting a Roman triumphal procession of 230 sculpted figures.

In other parts, such as the North Hall, the faded state of the decorations is all too plain. Empty plinths are a legacy of the Grand Sales, which, as our guide admits, left the place bereft of art. Yet this lends a certain piquancy to the visit. We walk quietly through the library for pupils are in there studying, and along the corridors pad white-clad lads being led out by a master to play cricket on the lawns beneath the south front, where the massive Corinthian Arch stands soberly on the rise beyond. Such a scene stirs an indescribable sense of nostalgia.

The state dining room now serves as the refectory, with all the aromas you’d expect in a school canteen. An ex-pupil of Stowe is known as an ‘Old Stoic’, and there is a corresponding sense here of a grand building stoically enduring its reduced circumstances.

There’s a look of decay in the gardens too, though that is partly intended, for follies were always supposed to convey an impression of picturesque abandon, and Capability Brown wilfully designed Stowe’s landscape as an early move away from more formal garden layouts of a previous age.

I visited on a blissful spring day when the horse chestnut candles were in full bloom, and ewes were grazing in the pastures with lambs at foot. It was like a walk through an enchanted kingdom. Up on the hill was James Gibbs’s Gothic temple, as ‘pure and beautiful and venerable’ as when Horace Walpole visited some two centuries ago.

Attempting to find the house’s entrance (with all the sense of direction of a mole, I had managed to get lost on my way up from Buckingham) I strayed, fittingly enough, upon William Kent’s Roman-style Temple of Ancient Virtue, hidden among the trees, its setting a deliberate attempt to create a sensation of being lost in the wilderness. A guidebook, available from the National Trust visitor centre, is a very valuable tool for those exploring the grounds.

In its day, Stowe’s fame spread across the continent. Today, it’s less well known, but it is still as Alexander Pope, that great Georgian arbiter of taste, described it in 1731: ‘a Work to wonder at’.

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