GARDENING / Thrills in a theme park of the gods: Garden Ornaments - 1. Classical: Around every leafy corner of Stourhead lurks a river-god or temple. Helen Chappell gets some ancient Roman surprises in one of England's first great landscape gardens

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'ONCE you're in this garden, you're in another world,' says Fred Hunt, gazing across the lake. Over the water gleam the white stone pillars of the classical Pantheon. Giant, leafless trees enclose it, a ruffle of white cloud hovers obligingly overhead. 'You see people come into the garden with a worried look on their faces, but when they leave they're looking much better.'

As head gardener at Stourhead in Wiltshire for the past 25 years, Fred has become quite protective of this perfect English landscape garden and its assortment of buildings and ornaments. He inspects the statue of Venus outside the Pantheon every morning, for instance, to check she has not been interfered with. If there are no sticky finger-marks or messages scrawled on her lead anatomy, he is happy. When this garden began to be built behind the Palladian house in 1744, classical gods and goddesses could command a lot more respect than they do today.

We set off up a steep bank crammed with shrubs. This is the classically correct way to tour the garden - a circular route up, down and around the lake, peering at tantalising views from between thickets of trees. We make a distinctly unheroic party, however - Fred, Tom Burr, a National Trust special-events organiser, an Australian publicity officer and me. Not a classical education or a Grand Tour between us. We arrive at the Temple of Flora to be greeted by a Latin inscription over the door: 'Begone, you who are uninitiated] Begone]' In our brash, 1990s fashion, we take

no notice.

At least we are initiated enough to know the origin of this anti-social exclamation. For the price of a National Trust guidebook, any of today's 300,000 annual visitors can share some of the secrets of this exquisite 18th-century theme park. The warning to the uninitiated, for example, was shrieked at Aeneas by the Cumaean Sybil as he attempted to descend into the underworld.

In fact, every bit of classical ornament here, from a fairly modest bust to muscular stone giants, is illustrating the mythical adventures of our hero in his quest to found the city of Rome. In Georgian times, every wealthy aristocrat was itching to transform his acres of dull English pasture into a dreamlike reconstruction of ancient Greece or Rome. Using the right garden ornaments was crucial in pulling off this trick.

When rising young merchant banker Henry Hoare inherited Stourhead in 1741, he had just come home from three years in Italy. Naturally, he was determined to found his own little empire as quickly as possible and in the very latest style. As an elevated theme for a

garden, the birth of ancient Rome would do very nicely. He could make no clearer sign of his impeccably polite education, 'the pursuit of that knowledge which distinguishes only the Gentleman from the Vulgar', as he put it. He was a keen and serious classical scholar, after all. And when your father was in trade and had bought, not inherited, the family seat, such a defiant display of good taste was a very smart move.

Inside the Temple of Flora, our party is inspecting the fruits of Henry Hoare's labours. However impressive these 'garden ornaments' might seem to our modern eyes, the fact is that they were standard items in his day. The marble busts of Marcus Aurelius and Alexander the Great were nothing new, the copy of the Borghese Vase with its relief of a Bacchanalian festival was the sort of thing found in any formal garden. What was different about Stourhead's ornaments was not so much what they were as where they were put. For Hoare had joined the vanguard of a movement to rescue such objects from the stiff formal patterns of the 17th century and scatter them tantalisingly through an 'ideal' landscape of grass, water and trees. With his help, the famous English landscape garden was being born, its mission to surprise and seduce the visitor's eye at every turn.

His efforts certainly paid off. Leaving the temple today, our path winds on through mysterious dense groves of laurel and (Victorian) rhododendrons. Even while Fred is rattling off lists of the Latin names of Stourhead's rare tree collection, it is impossible not to feel a flicker of anticipation about what's around the next corner.

As he and Tom Burr are complaining about overgrown shrubbery spoiling the original vistas, I can spot something exciting coming into view. The entrance to the grotto - all moss-encrusted rustic stone - stands open in front of us. Another inscription from The Aeneid hangs over the door. But once inside, the fusty image of the schoolroom and the Latin teacher is blown away by the sheer fun of it all.

Reclining among the rocks and fossils, an elaborately draped water nymph tries to get comfortable enough to nod off. A pool of clear water in front of her glitters with copper coins. The sound of splashing water leads you on into another chamber, where a life-size river god with a grizzled beard and piercing eyes looms up, pointing wildly into the air. If this place is supposed to fill you with high-minded classical musings, how come I can hardly suppress a squawk of delighted laughter?

The answer, according to Roger White, executive secretary of the Garden History Society, is in the human quirkiness which underlies this sort of garden. 'Very few Georgian gardens were purely classical,' he points out, 'and the pleasures of the rustic and the picturesque were just as important to their owners. Half the joy of them was the whimsicality of it all.' The men who built them were not always pure in mind. Garden ornaments could become unlikely weapons in the arsenal of the social climber, the dilettante and the dedicated fun-seeker as well as the serious scholar.

'Any English gent who had been to Eton and done the Grand Tour, even if he hated the classics, felt obliged to show off his knowledge in this way,' says Roger White. 'It was a case of keeping up with the Joneses.' Soon every country-bumpkin squire was landscaping his grazing land and decorating it with statues, temples, towers, urns and even adding classical facades to his dog kennels and pig sties.

In 1754, a magazine called The World satirised this trend with a spoof article about 'Squire Mushroom' who had converted his farmhouse into a Palladian villa and hemmed it in with a bewildering assortment of antiquarian knick-knacks. Nor would these knick-knacks have been exclusively classical. While the vogue for ancient Greece and Rome occupied one level of the fashionable mind, something more barbaric throbbed away underneath it.

Fake gothic ruins choked with ivy sprang up to evoke a mood of savage melancholy - the dark side of a rigidly rational and harmonious attitude to life. Classical architects and designers such as Robert Adam, William Kent and William Chambers would happily erect an obelisk, pagoda, Eyptian pyramid or shell-decorated hermitage.

Stourhead originally had its grotesque touches, too - a gothic orangery, a Chinese alcove and a Turkish tent made from canvas. Sadly, they were swept away by Henry Hoare's grandson and heir, a rather uninspired Victorian gent with no apparent sense of humour.

Since the 17th century, English gardens had cherished the playful and the absurd in terms of ornament. Garden engineers Isaac and

Salomon de Caus created an extraordinary flight of Renaissance fancy at Wilton in 1632, for example. In the grounds, geometric parterres were decorated with gilded statues and fountains. Hidden water jets would suddenly drench any visitor who came too close, as a joke. Inside a vast grotto, sea monsters, gods and goddesses and mechanical birds all danced around to music. This passion for superb artificiality was expressed again in the formal gardens at Richmond, Ham, Moor Park, Hatfield and Hampton Court.

'In the 17th century, garden ornaments had first become extremely important,' says Richard Bisgrove, author of The National Trust Book of the English Garden (Penguin pounds 14.99). 'Plants were a quite separate thing, and were not really considered part of the garden. They were kept in kitchen gardens and greenhouses. The garden itself was seen as an extension of the house, a place with a certain theatrical grandeur and somewhere to throw parties.' The 'must-have' garden accessories of the time included stone pineapples, Italian or French statues, wrought-iron automata and severely geometrical 'wildernesses' laid out in clipped yew. It was all heavily influenced by fashions from France, particularly from Versailles. Unfortunately, Britain was at war again with France by 1710.

At about the same time, Joseph Addison launched an attack on the formal garden in the pages of The Spectator. In a thinly veiled political swipe, he rejected the rigidly ordered, autocratic style of French gardens in favour of 'the rough careless strokes of Nature'. The garden and its symbolic ornaments were no longer simply a matter of fashion. Suddenly, they also became a badge of patriotism and membership of the ruling elite. The Whigs, with their new money and vaguely liberal notions, were passionate admirers of classical Greece, with its democracy and imagined pastoral bliss. It was this admiration they now expressed in the land they owned. And, as they dominated British politics from 1714 until 1760, keeping the monarchist Tories out of office, everyone who was anyone was anxious to imitate them.

The result was the triumphant spread of the English garden, of which Stourhead was an early example. Championed by landscapers like William Kent, Humphrey Repton and the tireless and ruthless Capability Brown, it obliterated all trace of previous styles.

Ornaments were no longer arranged in symmetrical patterns. They were deployed as gestures and statements within a symbolic yet 'natural' landscape.

'To their owners,' says Richard Bisgrove in his book, 'garden ornaments became lessons in classical culture. Barbed political statements could be made, such as the headless bust of prime minister Sir Robert Walpole in the ruined Temple of Modern Virtue at Stowe.' In mellower moods, their owners could attempt to escape from grim reality and live out their dreams of a lost golden age.

Masterpieces from this new mould included Stowe in Buckinghamshire, Castle Howard and Studley Royal in Yorkshire, Rousham in Oxfordshire, Chiswick in London, Painshill in Surrey (which nearly bankrupted its owner) and West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. But while the authors of these outdoor fantasies may have 'leaped the garden fence' to declare all nature a garden, their creations remained every bit as contrived and theatrical as the grounds at Versailles.

Although inspired by politics, behind the classical garden was an aching nostalgia for a lost golden age. But how could it be recreated in the grey light of the English countryside? Here the paintings of Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin came in very handy. Poussin's idealised grassy arcadia, peopled with solemn draped figures and decorated with urns and busts, were a big hit in the English shires. A grandee with the right attitude would declare 'Et in Arcadia ego' as he threw up another shrine to Hercules or temple of the four winds. There he could retreat from the stresses, strains and smells of a fairly brutal reality. When he became bored with his private melancholy, he could always throw a quick rococo rave-up. At West Wycombe in 1771, Sir Francis Dashwood and guests rubbed shoulders with bacchanals, fauns, satyrs and pagan priests all dressed in animal skins and vine leaves. Then they took their drinks on to boats on the lake and fired off the cannons as a finale.

Back at Stourhead, special-events organiser Tom Burr must be glad of the blatant theatricality of this scene too. It acts as a perfect stage set for his fund-raising extravaganzas on behalf of the National Trust. Last year, he threw the toga party to end all toga parties. Guests braved the rain to cavort in damp sheets and green wellies, serenaded by an orchestra in the Pantheon and a firework display.

This summer there will be a Venetian carnival for which Tom is spying out the land today. Head gardener Fred Hunt smiles tolerantly. He is casting an eye over the lichen-shaped pock-marks on the Pantheon columns. Then there are graffiti on the Temple of Apollo and the growing threat of garden antiques theft to worry about. Fred performs a skilful balancing act between moving with hard financial times and protecting the past for people to enjoy.

For modern visitors, dazzled by the Disneyesque 'experience centres' of today's heritage industry, the true meaning of the silent statues and static temples may be hard to grasp. But something brings them here in their thousands every year. It may not be what the makers of the garden intended when they warned the uninitiated to begone. But whatever it is, it is keeping the genius of the place alive.

Stourhead garden is open all year, daily 8am-7pm. For details of house opening hours, tel 0747 840348, of the Venetian carnival, 0747 840142.

WHERE TO BUY CLASSICAL ORNAMENTS

Sotheby's (0403 783933) has a bi-annual sale of antique statuary at its grounds in Summers Place, Billingshurst, West Sussex RH14 9AD (this year 1 June and 28 September). View in advance in the walled garden: temples, water garden fixtures, fountains, oriental statues and lanterns, sundials and pedestals.

Drummond's of Bramley, Birtley Farm, Horsham Road, Bramley, Guildford, Surrey GU5 0LA, has barns of antiques, including busts, plinths, statues and carved figures. Prices range from the cost of a window-catch to pounds 200,000. Open seven days a week until 6pm (0483 898766).

Architectural Heritage of Taddington Manor, Taddington, Near Cutsdean, Cheltenham, Gloucestershire GL54 5RY sells original antique statuary, some copies and some designed by the firm. Among its own designs is a stone statue of Pan, playing his pipes, seated on a tree stump ( pounds 550 plus VAT). A copy of a 19th-century boy and girls sheltering under an umbrella fountain is pounds 3,800 plus VAT. An original 19th- century cast-iron group of cherubs is pounds 25,000 plus VAT. The company designs and makes stone and oak pergolas (0386 73414).

Crowther exhibits its antique statuary in the gardens and grounds of the Georgian Syon Lodge - previously part of the Duke of

Northumberland's Syon Park Estate. William Randolph Hearst came here to buy treasures for his home in California. Stock includes architectural antiques from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, including life-size stone or marble figures, urns, temples, fountains, animals, and seats. Syon Lodge, Busch Corner, London Road, Isleworth, Middlesex TW7 5BH (081-560 7978).

Bailey's is based in an old engine-shed built by Brunel for the Great Western Railways near Ross-on- Wye. Apart from architectural interior pieces, it stocks lead planters, lion's head fountains and semi-circular cisterns (excluding pump), chimney pots, flagstones, tiles, iron-work brackets and shelves (and anything else about to be bulldozed). Stock changes constantly. The Engine Shed, Ashburton Industrial Est-

ate, Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR9 7BW (0989 63015).

Chilstone Garden Ornaments (Sprivers, Lamberhurst Road, Horsmonden, Kent TN12 8DR) has an extensive range, from items as modest as a bust of Diana at pounds 186 (plus VAT) to an Etruscan Garden House at more than pounds 10,000. The ornaments are made of reconstituted stone; there is also a workshop specialising in copying ornaments and architectural details to customers' requirements. The firm will also advise on ways of 'antiquing' ornaments, erecting a Doric temple ( pounds 3,534, excluding roof and VAT) and setting out a fountain. Pumps, plaques, balusters, urns and obelisks also on offer. Mail order available; ring 0892 723266 for opening times, brochure.

Classical Flagstones makes replica York and Pennant flagstones, suitable for gardens, patios and gardens (as well as indoors), which fool all but an expert. The stones are hand-finished and come in two thicknesses. The thinner stone can be especially useful where weight is a factor - for instance on a roof garden. Prices start from pounds 19 per sq yd; Classical cobbles are pounds 19 per sq yd (plus VAT). Lyncombe Vale Farm, Lyncombe Vale, Bath BA2 4LT(0225 316759).

Garden et cetera sells hand-made terracotta pots, busts, statues, urns and columns at Boblow House, Helions Bumpstead, Haverhill, Suffolk CB9 7AN (0440 730774). A 4ft-high Ali Baba jar costs pounds 465, a statue of a figure holding a pot is pounds 610, but a small wall-hanging pot will cost you a mere pounds 1.85.

(Photographs omitted)

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