Rousham (1738 – 41)

The landscape gardens at Rousham are considered the ‘most complete and typical’1 of William Kent’s gardens. They were initially laid out by Charles Bridgeman until around 1737 under the instructions of the Colonel Robert Dormer, but were later completed in 1938-41by Kent when commissioned by the younger brother of the Colonel, General James Dormer. The major technical features of the gardens such as the waterworks of the fish ponds and the earthworks on the river bank are known to have been carried out by the time Kent got to work so that as severely observed, Rousham is ‘still a garden of Bridgeman’s date where Kent softened the lines and added some buildings’ (Whistler 1954, cited by Hussey 1967, p.147).

The gardens that Kent inherited were a palimpsest, and the underlying infrastructure introduced by Bridgeman was retained. Kent’s contribution over the next four years was in successfully reworking the entire landscape into a choreographed sequence of picturesque spaces; a series of spaces, one leading onto the next, with invitations to journey and possibilities in routes, veiling and revealing vistas, combining the ‘ideal’ and the pictorial ideas: it was the ‘visual embodiment of a philosophic idea (‘Nature’s genuine order’)’2. Kent was also able to incorporate skillfully this sequence of spaces into an irregular site that, had it been developed with Bridgeman’s design with its French influences, would have been awkward and less successful in dealing with the peculiarities of the site.

The richness in composition is effected through the employment of various landscaping concepts and techniques, such as the use of the ha-ha (invented by Bridgeman), the use of borrowed landscape and of the play of ‘light and shade and architecture’3, and historical and intellectual references through the statues and their placement in their surroundings.

The grounds are situated alongside the River Cherwell that runs west to east until it makes a sharp almost ninety degrees turn halfway through to flow south. The land slopes quite dramatically down towards the river from the house and the paddock to the northeast of the site.

Fig 1. Kent’s planting map for Rousham

KEY    1.Bowling Green     2.Praeneste     3.Vale of Venus     4.Cold Bath     5.Statue of Apollo    6.Temple of Echo

The bowling green in front of the house is a large expense of lawn that appears to extend into the landscape as the land beyond the green falls sharply to the river, the view orientated by a centralized edifice at the end of the lawn. To the grounds on the eastern side of the lawn, the person is allowed to choose one of three paths. Travelling on the northernmost path opens up a view northeast to the paddock, which is separated by a ha-ha. To the south of this path are trees obscuring the view down to the river until the person arrives at the hinge of the site where the river turns to its southerly course, when a dramatic vista opens up. This awkward pinch point of the site is cleverly mitigated by an impressive arcade, christened the Praeneste, which serves as a retaining wall to the higher ground that the person is travelling on. The nature of the arcade is not discovered on the outward journey; the Praeneste only reveals its façade on the journey back down along the river. For now, the traveler is confronted with a vista over the balustrade down to the river and the land beyond.

Past the Praeneste and through a barrier of trees, the traveler will come onto the Vale of Venus, with its stepped pools and grottos that lead down to the water. From this orientating point, again the traveler is allowed to choose to follow several paths to continue the journey. The first invites by the means of a serpentine rill of water that flows from octagonal pool into the woods. And as the account goes, ‘… at the centre of the garden’s heart of shadows: the Cold Bath… a squat building beside a still, silent, densely overgrown pool. The few shafts of sunlight that filter through the branches overhead make intricate patterns among the dead leaves on the ground and glow in the murky water… reminded of the possibility (of darkness)’4. The second is an order from a statue of Apollo, his back to the traveler that stands in the light beyond the darkness of the woods that the path traverses. Along this path, the land rises to meet the statue and when the traveler reaches Apollo on the upward journey, he is revealed to be looking out and over onto an open, gently sloping grassy hillside. A quiet diminutive structure appropriately called the Temple of Echo, tucked into the folds of the trees at the brow of the hill, attracts attention. Here the path along the river is also noticeable, proposing the journey back to the house along the river. The journey back reveals many of the spaces already encountered in a different perspective – that from below. The grounds on the west side of the house are laid out with similar principles, and effectively coordinated into the orchestration of spaces in the landscape of the Rousham gardens.

The landscape is also littered with statues and small structures that make historical and cultural references, enriching the reading of the spaces they occupy. For instance, a statue of a dying gladiator along the Praeneste terrace although steeped in romanticism, is seemingly appropriate for a soldier’s twilight years.

Fig 2. Bowling Green                                                                       Fig. 3 Octagonal pool at the Vale of Venus

Fig. 4 Cold Bath                                                                                 Fig. 5 Temple of Echo

Whatever may have been the affectations at that time, Rousham provides important lessons. More poignant than grand in its diminutive size and irregularly shaped grounds that leave no opportunity for grand promenades, the landscape garden of Rousham is nevertheless a beautiful sequence of spaces where nature is enriched by its human associations, where as Walpole suggests in The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening, ‘the whole is as elegant and antique as if the emperor Julian had selected the most pleasing solitude about Daphne to enjoy a philosophic retirement’5.

© Kalpana Gurung

1 Hussey, C., 1967. English Gardens and Landscapes 1700 – 1750. London: Country Life Ltd.

2 Ibid.


4 Turnbull, Jr. W., 1988. The Poetics of Gardens. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press

5 Walpole, H., 1995. The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening. New York: Ursus Press

Hyams, E., 1964. The English Garden. London: Thames and Hudson.

Thompson, I., 2009. Rethinking Landscape, a critical reader. Oxon: Routledge.

Fig. 1-5 Taken from: Turnbull, Jr. W., 1988. The Poetics of Gardens. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

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