Anna Pavord: Hotfoot it to Rousham House to appreciate William Kent's landscaping


The exhibition on William Kent, Designing Georgian Britain, closes tomorrow at the V&A museum in London. But to understand the genius of the man, you need to spend a day in one of his gardens (preferably Rousham), not trapped among his architectural drawings. And Rousham is open every day. Stand by the majestic Scheemakers statue at Rousham (a bloodthirsty subject: a lion attacking a horse) and gaze out over the river Cherwell to the peaceful landscape on the far side – a kind of promised land. Follow the sinuous rill out of the shady woodland down to the elegant octagon pool and marvel that Rousham still has magic, still has soul, still speaks to us of the man who had so much to do with its making.

Kent had genius, but he also had luck on his side. Born in Bridlington, Yorkshire, in 1685, he began his working life as an apprentice coach painter and ended it as pet architect and landscaper to the top Whig grandees of the age. One of his first benefactors was Burrell Massingberd, squire of Ormesby in Lincolnshire, who introduced Kent to the hugely rich Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington and Cork, then making his first Grand Tour in Europe.

That was the meeting that mattered. For the rest of his life, Burlington remained his friend and benefactor and put Kent in the way of many lucrative commissions: painted ceilings, plinths for statues, bridges, garden buildings. Kent could make pretty drawings and cleverly managed to avoid ever having to tackle the boring part of his job. He was the concept man. It was somebody else's problem to work out how best to execute his ideas.

Fortunately, there were plenty of craftsmen skilled enough to execute Kent's concepts. His design for the south lawn and the Temple of the Mount at Holkham shows how, in their irregular shapes and serpentine lines, his gardens differed from the geometric style fashionable at the end of the 17th century.

Encouraged by Burlington, Kent became increasingly interested in garden buildings. The poet, Alexander Pope, was a fan, too, and Kent designed an extravaganza for Pope's estate at Twickenham. "All gardening is landscape painting," said Pope, and Kent showed it was true.

Rather than painting in two dimensions, Kent now used three. Woodland, smooth expanses of lawn, water, the contrasts of light and shade were his materials. Famously, his near contemporary, Horace Walpole, wrote that he "leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden". By 1734, Sir Thomas Robinson of Rokeby was writing to his father-in-law about "a new taste in gardening just arisen ... to lay them out, and work without either level or line". The celebrated gardens of Claremont, Chiswick and Stowe were now full of labourers, he said, already "modernising" expensive work by previous designers that had only just been finished there.

A wisteria-covered path in the William Kent-designed garden A wisteria-covered path in the William Kent-designed garden (Alamy)
Labourers were also busy at Rousham, where Kent's employer was General James Dormer, a veteran of Blenheim, who after his brilliant military career sought "philosophic retirement" in the Oxfordshire countryside. Kent's work survives virtually unchanged at Rousham: the statues, the plunge pool, the Vale of Venus, the circuit walk, grottoes, glades, cascade, temples, serpentine rides. Even the cattle grazing the > park are period pieces: majestic longhorns, in summer wallowing in buttercups.

Rousham was the first place to embody Pope's concept of "calling in" the surrounding countryside to the garden. Distant prospects are borrowed and enhanced by eye-catchers, like the Gothic folly you see when you stand by the statue of the lion and the horse. Although he usually used classical buildings in his gardens, he turned to the more picturesque Gothic for distant buildings, such as the eye-catcher and the mill at Rousham. He never went Baroque. Burlington's circle associated Baroque with the decadent monarchies of the Continent. Rousham was conceived as a patriotic garden, a political garden, a celebration of Englishness.

To get the full Kent effect at Rousham, follow the circuit walk, already shown in an estate plan of 1738, drawn up by the steward and the head gardener, John MacClary. The walk takes you round the edge of the garden, where a ha-ha allows you to look directly out over the outer park and its fine trees. Tunnels of dark yew give on to light, grassy glades, where there might be a statue, or a spring, or a view, carefully framed by wings of trees on either side.

MacClary evidently loved the garden. "The prettiest view in the whole World," he wrote in a letter of 1750. By some miracle, the views are still there. Venus still presides over her Vale. Apollo, with his back to the garden, still broods moodily over the River Cherwell. Privately owned, by the same family that first brought it into being, Rousham has escaped into the 21st century, its spirit of place still intact.

The garden at Rousham House, Rousham, Steeple Aston, Oxfordshire OX25 4QU, is open every day (10am-4.30pm). No children under 15. No dogs. No shop. No tea room. Admission £5. The garden at Chiswick House, Burlington Lane, Chiswick, London W4 2QN is open daily (7am-dusk), conservatory open 10am-4pm. Admission free. William Kent also worked at Claremont Landscape Garden, Portsmouth Rd, Esher, Surrey KT10 9JG which is open (10am-5pm) daily until the end of October. Admission £7; and at Stowe, Buckingham, Bucks MK18 5EQ, open daily (10am-6pm) until 2 Nov. Admission £8.50

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game