Rousham is a 25 acre garden on a steep slope around a bend in the River Cherwell, bearing the marks of two great early eighteenth century designers, Charles Bridgeman and William Kent. It was developed at a time of changing style in English gardens, a reaction against clipped, geometric formality. Writers such as Joseph Addison and Alexander Pope articulated ideas about the relationship between art and nature. Addison wrote,
“There is something more bold and masterly in the rough careless Strokes of Nature, than in the nice Touches and Embellishments of Art… yet we find the Works of Nature still more pleasant, the more they resemble those of Art”
Pope argued that nature should be, “At once the Source, and End, and Test of Art”.
Bridgeman is often credited as being the ‘bridge’ in this movement towards a more natural style. Kent went further and was described by Horace Walpole as a designer who “…leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden”
. Their work often overlaps, both working for example, at Stowe.
At Rousham, as at Stowe, Kent developed Bridgeman’s earlier structure. Timothy Mowl describes Bridgeman’s work here as “… characteristically jagged and dramatic … sharp angles and straight lines …”
The garden as it stands now remains largely as it was after Kent’s reworking, so perhaps the best way to describe this is through my experience of visiting in February this year.
I followed a route described by the estate’s gardener, MacClary, in a 1750 letter to the house’s absent owners. It begins on a long flat formal bowling green, which slopes down towards the river and appears almost to dissolve into fields beyond. Kent’s ‘eyecatcher’ arch on a distant hill can just be seen, having the effect of drawing the river, the road and the surrounding countryside into the garden.
From here I walked towards the paddock and Bridgeman’s Ha-Ha, which keeps animals contained but allows farmland and farm animals to be brought close to the house. As you enter woodland the atmosphere changes. Trees are densely planted, there’s a glimpse of water, the paths undulate so their ends are unseen. Light at the end of the path l am on eads you onto a bright, green slope, and the Temple of Echo, where you can pause and look. I walked back into the relative gloom of the woods led by a narrow meandering rill. The laurel which boldly covers the ground under the trees glowed silver green in the spring sunshine. The path then opens to Kent’s Vale of Venus, with pools linked by rough stone cascades and sloping grassland.
A steep path leads to the Praeneste. This, like the garden’s other buildings and statues reflects the period interest in Classical literature and history and the influence of the Grand Tour. The view from here, however, roots this theatrical classical landscape firmly in rural England.
Dixon Hunt in Lordship Of The Feet describes Rousham as a garden for strolling, where a “…stroll implies an ultimate purpose within the site and a sense of destination.” Kent’s paths meander and wiggle, but with purpose. Using the site’s topography they take you on a journey through set pieces, visual surprises, light and dark. Rousham is a combination of nature and art, Kent seeming to emulate Pope’s words,
“He gains all points, who pleasingly confounds,
Surprises, varies, and conceals the bounds.