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
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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living