Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Stourhead ~ Painting with Nature

by M.M. Bennetts

Stourhead. Home to the famous Hoare family--bankers to Catherine of Braganza, Vanbrugh, Lord Byron and Jane Austen.

Along with Wilton and Longleat, it is one of the great houses--surrounded by gardens, of course--of south Wiltshire. And it has been a must-see destination for garden visitors for over two centuries.

In 1717, Henry Hoare, the son of the man who'd founded Hoare's Bank, bought Stourton Manor and promptly had the crumbling half-derelict mediaeval-Tudor pile pulled down. Then, with Colen Campbell (champion of the newest thing in architecture) as his architect, he set about rebuilding a new Palladian villa, which he would call Stourhead, on an adjacent site.

Yet, unlike so many of their contemporaries who sought land-owning respectability and the political power that came with it, the Hoares did not disengage from the business which had made the family rich. Rather the family continued on doing that which they did very well--banking and making money...even as they turned their excess profits into land and Parliamentary influence.

Upon the first Henry Hoare's death in 1725, his son, also called Henry, completed the work of house-building.

And it was he who, until his death in 1785, made the house and garden what it is today. Well-travelled and well-read--he was travelling and/or living on the Continent until 1738. It wasn't until 1741 that he finally made his home at Stourhead.

After the death of his wife, in 1743, and even as he continued work on the house and purchasing paintings and sculptures for it, he began work on the garden--but again, unlike his contemporaries, he didn't hire a master gardener like Capability Brown.

No, Hoare did it himself.

And basing his work on the idealised landscapes he loved by Claude Lorrain, Poussin and especially Gaspar Dughet, Hoare made his garden by painting with nature. "The greens should be ranged together in large masses [he wrote] as the shades are in painting: to contrast the dark masses with the light ones, and to relieve each dark mass itself with little sprinklings of lighter greens here and there."

He had the vast lake that is such a striking feature still today created in 1754 by damming a small stream. (For the trivia seekers among you, the lake is the source of the River Stour--one of five rivers in England so named--which flows through Wiltshire and Dorset, reaching the English Channel at Christchurch. In at least one early map of Dorset it is shown as the River Stower, as it is pronounced to this day. Stourton, on the other hand, is pronounced "Sterton".)

And like many of his class, he sought to illustrate his classical education and erudition through classical references and allusions in his building and decoration of the garden. So he had a Pantheon built that same year--based on the Pantheon in Rome. While the whole trip around the lake--it feels like a good two to three miles up and downhill--was based on the journey of the classical hero, Aeneas.

Writing of the garden in 1755, he said: "Whether at pleasure or business, let us be in earnest, and ever active to be outdone or exceeded by none, that is the way to thrive...What is there in creation [at Stourhead]...those are the fruits of industry and application to business, and show what great things may be done by it, the envy of the indolent, who have no claim to Temples, Grottos, Bridges, Rocks, Exotick Pines and Ice in Summer."

Within a few years, the garden was renowned, not only for Henry Flitcroft's temples around the lake, but for the wide range of plants which had been gathered from around the world and coaxed into growing in this very English landscape.

Indeed, visiting Stourhead became such a late 18th century craze among polite society (similar to visiting Derbyshire and Chatsworth) that Hoare had an hotel built, the Spread Eagle, only a few hundred yards from his gatehouse. Though when Mrs. Libby Powys--a prolific garden visitor and arbiter of garden taste--came for a visit in 1776, she found the inn full...

Over the years, the house was expanded--notably by Henry Hoare's grandson, Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838) who became a noted county historian and an omnivore of a collector. It was he who had built the two side wings--the one to house his library and the other to house his Picture Gallery. It was he also who employed the younger Chippendale to make furnishings for the two new wings and invited a young unknown watercolourist, JMW Turner, down to Wiltshire to paint.

Today, the house and gardens too have seen many changes. The house was gutted by fire in 1902--though because it was slow to spread, the furnishings and paintings from the ground floor were able to be rescued. And within months, it was being rebuilt.

More distressing still to the then owner, the 6th Baronet, Henry Hugh Hoare, was the death of his only son in 1917, while he was serving in Palestine. Thus by 1938, Hoare had decided to give the house and gardens to the National Trust; and in 1946, he did so.

And thus Stourhead, the great visitor attraction of the eighteenth century, came full circle. The Spread Eagle now serves excellent pub lunches; Hoare's estate workers' cottages now provide holiday lets. And the landscape garden designed by a banker, now moulded timelessly into Wiltshire's landscape, continues to paint with nature as season gives way to season.

The lake at Stourhead depicted by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde in the 1770s.
All other pictures were taken this week.

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at


  1. Thanks for a lovely post. Stourhead is one of my favourite places to visit - a walk around the lake when the azalea blossom is out is sublime, and the reflections of the trees in the water are magnificent.
    The temples, grottoes and stylized "workers cottages" are fascinating, but for my money the view across the lake to what was the original High Cross from Bristol (presumably moved to Stourhead by Hoare) is the most stunning of all. A wonderful example of how exquisite taste (when combined with a huge bucketful of money) can improve nature...

  2. Mike, I totally agree! That yellow azalea which they have loads of--azalea lutens--is a Stourhead feature and utterly luscious when in bloom. Nothing in the world smells as sweet.

  3. What beautiful country houses the English have! Every time I read of a new one, I wish to add it to my 'someday' travel diary. I'm amazed that a banker's son designed the gardens. He seems to have had a fine eye. And those Turner paintings inside must be splendid. He was such a talented landscape painter. Thank you for sharing, and letting a Maine girl live vicariously through you, lucky! :)

  4. Meg--I confess I was astonished when I learned that Hoare had designed the garden himself. Because it's just exquisite. But he had spent considerable time in Italy studying painting and landscape painters and so that must have done much to help him formulate his ideas...Then too, it was his way of coping with the death of his wife, bless him.

    The Turners are now in the possession of various museums, I believe. What strikes one most is the number of extra-ordinarily beautiful portraits in the house.

  5. 'Painting with nature' is such an apposite description of Stourhead - even more so than most other English landscape gardens, in my opinion. When we last visited, last October, I was interested to learn that the leaf colouring we see in autumn is, biologically speaking, the true colour - which is masked by the green of spring and summer. That afternoon I sat by the lake and found myself writing this sonnet:

    Now Autumn’s chill brings Truth before the eyes
    When Summer’s verdant chlorophyll decays,
    When still grey light on dappled water lies,
    When darkness steals the better part of days—
    Now Nature shows her colours in the raw,
    Her ochre, midnight purple, green of grass,
    Her umber, orange, earthen red, all soar
    In joyous discourse, riotous as brass.

    And now, O wind, destroy this brittle Truth,
    And now, O rain, its brightness wash away;
    Lock in the pungent moisture of the earth
    The stark irradiance of this Autumn day,
    Lest in its dazzling honesty it glows
    All golden as the burnished yellow rose.

    1. I love this sonnet. I copied it, attributed to you, and put it with my seasonal autumn words. Thank you for sharing!
      ~ Meg

  6. Great post! Love the idea of the travels of Aeneas being depicted around the lake.

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