Stourhead Gardens, the best known landscape garden in England, was started in 1735 by the banker Henry Hoare. He dammed the River Stour to make a sinuous lake. About the lake’s shores he arranged paths, temples, urns, a shivery grotto and a great wealth of trees. It became one of the best-known gardens in England in the 18th century when ‘polite society’ made garden visiting a fashionable activity.
An amateur creation, Stourhead was made for the most part by two members of the Hoare family, Henry Hoare (1705-1785) and his grandson Richard Colt Hoare (1758-1838). The main features of the gardens were virtually complete by 1783, and they have been little changed since then, apart for the introduction in the nineteenth century of ornamental and exotic trees and shrubs. The landscape is set at some distance from, and below the house, which does not form part of the scene. It’s a landscape which is at nearly every point self contained, with wooded slopes around an irregular three-limbed lake. On the shores, or higher up the slopes are a variety of garden buildings, some classical and some Gothic. By and large, these buildings were each meant to be viewed in a distinct and separate scene, and usually from across the lake. When the form of the gardens at Stourhead was established, the instructed visitor was meant to stroll in a certain direction, following and receiving a succession of hints and statements provided by grotto, inscription, urn and temple which alluded to episodes in Virgil’s Aeneid, book III. Not only was the garden an image of nature, but the sequence of its features alluded to a particular part of the fabled past. It is an idea which appeals, but it was not carried out to the letter. The Claudian feeling is strong, and intentional. Claude Gelée (1600-1682) a French painter of idealised landscapes, was noted for his subtle depiction of light. Among the paintings of Italian scenes owned by Henry Hoare was a ‘Gaspard of Tivoli’, and a copy of a famous painting by Claude, the ‘View of Delphi with a Procession’ which has among its buildings an edifice based on, but slightly different from the Pantheon at Rome. Henry Hoare had this building reproduced by builder Henry Flitcroft at Stourhead in the 1750s – not exactly Claude’s, but a Pantheon incorporating some of Claude’s features.