The majestic gardens that inspire British artists

Stourhead was modelled on Europe's masterpieces. A new exhibition featuring Turner and Constable celebrates the estate's place in UK painting. Louise Jury reports
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The gardens of the magnificent Stourhead estate in Wiltshire were inspired by the works of the great European landscape artists. In turn, they attracted the finest British artists to be inspired. Now, reproductions of many of the works painted on the 3,000-acre estate by the likes of JMW Turner and Constable over 200 years are being put on show where they were created.

Pride of place is going to two Turner watercolours which the National Trust experts did not know existed until they trawled the archives of the Tate gallery in preparation for the show. One is a picturesque painting of the gothic cross and lake at Stourhead that has not been on public display for decades. Another is a picture of the sun rising through the mist on the lake.

Katharine Boyd, who researched The Art of the Garden exhibition, said: "It will be a unique experience for visitors to Stourhead to view the garden from the point where great artists such as Turner or Constable painted. There is something engaging about seeing the paintings reproduced in the landscape rather than in a gallery."

The great gardens of Stourhead were created in the 18th century by Henry Hoare, of the wealthy banking family. He fell in love with the masterpieces of the 17th-century French artists Claude Lorrain and Poussin while on his Grand Tour of Europe. He brought their works to Wiltshire, some as original paintings, others as copies, many of which remain in the estate collection.

While fellow landowners were still following the example of the excessively formal gardens of Versailles in France, Henry Hoare set about establishing a more natural landscape garden, using his European paintings as a model.

Alan Power, the head gardener at Stourhead, said yesterday: "It was one of the first landscapes that moved away from the strict formality of European gardens such as Versailles which restricted nature and created form with military precision. Instead, Stourhead contrives a picture but it creates a natural picture. The idea of Stourhead was that you were enticed and teased around the landscape by its different views.

"There is a straight link between the pictures in the picture gallery and what happens on the ground here. Claude Lorrain was painting classic landscapes with temples that emulated the Pantheon and overlooked natural valleys; that is exactly what Henry came back to recreate. The trees Claude used to frame his views are exactly what you get at Stourhead."

Most notably, the temple and bridge in the grounds of Stourhead reflect exactly Lorrain's Landscape with Aeneas at Delos in the National Gallery. There is a copy of the work in the Stourhead collection.

Katharine Boyd said: "The whole premise of the exhibition is to show that the landscape painting of 17th-century Europe inspired the landscape at Stourhead. Through subsequent centuries, landscape painting has documented the development of that landscape and artists have been inspired by the garden. It comes full circle."

The range of artists to have captured the gardens at Stourhead is considerable, from lesser-known 18th-century painters such as Bampfylde and Nicholson through to John Piper in the 20th century, who painted it in vibrant abstracts, and Adrian Berg, a Royal Academician today.

In the early years, many were commissioned by Henry Hoare to paint the estate, a habit that has proved a boon to garden historians. His grandson, Richard Colt Hoare, continued that tradition. But while Stourhead is much loved by visitors and among the National Trust's more popular properties, not all its artistic visitors are impressed.

Ms Boyd said: "Turner liked the majesty of it, because it was dramatic. I don't think Constable was so inspired by it. He was much more interested in rustic subjects such as old ruined mills." Research for the exhibition has uncovered details of many of these artists' visits. "There's always been a rumour here that Turner painted Stourhead and the field beyond the lake is always known as Turner's paddock," Ms Boyd added: "I'd never seen any evidence of it. But when I started to research this exhibition, I went through the Tate archives and came up with four unfinished watercolours of Stourhead."

All were given to the Tate as part of the artist's personal bequest to the nation in 1856 and were catalogued nearly a century ago. But, given the thousands of works in the archive, few will have seen them before now, when Stourhead asked to show a couple of them in reproduction. In total, 14 views will be examined through large reproductions across the estate during the whole of August.

Ms Boyd said comparisons of the works with the present views will show clear changes as planting developed and the skyline changed in the years following Henry Hoare's purchase of the ancient manor of Stourton in 1717. He demolished the property, built one of the first Palladian houses in England in its place and embarked on his grand landscaping project.

"Early panoramic views show significantly fewer conifers and more open space," Ms Boyd said. "You can see a transition from that arcadian vision towards more woodland." But there are also places where the gardening team work hard to try to preserve the vistas as Henry Hoare would have enjoyed them.

Mr Power said: "I look at the Claudes to get the feeling of what Henry Hoare was trying to create because that is where his original ideas came from. There is an atmosphere, an experience, and I look to the Claudes for things like that. We work to a conservation plan that tries to maintain between six and 10 classic views that will always stay the same. But there are certain views in the garden that need to be transient. That is what is enticing."

Ben Tufnell, a curator of an exhibition at Tate Britain which is also entitled Art of the Garden, said the British obsession with gardens - with a forest of makeover shows on television - had been around for centuries.

"A century ago, there were lots of gardening magazines and key gardeners, such as Gertrude Jekyll enjoyed celebrity status," he said. "You can probably take this right back to Shakespeare, with his characterisation of England as a garden. The garden is an image that has been used over many centuries as characterising Englishness. It becomes an attribute of the national identity, a self-fulfilling cycle; we garden because we're English and because we're English, we garden."

There were maybe two traditions in painting, he said. One seeks the wild natural landscape as seen in the sketchings by Turner on his trips to places such as Scotland and Wales. The other tradition, highlighted in the Tate's present exhibition, focuses on the cultivated landscape.

Both probably reflect changing attitudes to nature and reflect a romantic link between gardens and painting suggested in 1734 by the poet Alexander Pope who aid: "All gardening is landscape painting."

But Mr Tufnell pointed out that for artists, gardens were also simply the easiest landscape at hand to paint. Constable, for instance, produced pictures of his own back garden and of his mother's flower garden, the latter apparently as an act of memorial shortly after she had died. A trend in the 20th century towards more commonplace scenes, such as Stanley Spencer's views of the neat back gardens in the town of Cookham, Berkshire, where he lived, reflected a shift in assumptions of what was worthy to be painted.

But, Mr Tufnell added, many artists were also gardeners. The French artist James Tissot, who worked in London in the 19th century, created a garden that was the setting for many of his paintings. The British painter Cedric Morris, a famous iris breeder, taught students such as Lucian Freud in his garden. "We were surprised to discover how many painters were gardeners," Mr Tufnell said. "There seems to be a natural two-way traffic."


Claude Monet and Giverny

To many people, Monet is defined by his paintings from Giverny, the village in which he and his family settled in 1883. There he created art twice over, developing a spectacular garden including a water garden inspired by the Japanese and then capturing its features - a Japanese bridge, the waterlilies - in large and dramatic canvases.

Ian Hamilton Finlay and Little Sparta

Little Sparta is a farm and garden at Dunsyre near Edinburgh which Ian Hamilton Finlay began to transform into a neoclassical sculpture park in 1966. The garden showcases Hamilton Finlay's distinctive sculptures in materials such as wood and stone, many including text, but, taken as whole, the garden is a work of art in itself.

Stanley Spencer and Cookham

Although Spencer created many wildly imaginative scenes such as the dead rising from their tombs in the churchyard, nearly all his paintings were set in the Berkshire village of Cookham where he lived. And when he painted Cookham itself, it was the little back gardens, delineated by their white fence-posts, which defined the village as much as its cottages.