A little known estate offers large lessons

Kent's path begins behind the manor house, next to the ha-ha.

Kent’s path begins behind the manor house, next to the ha-ha.

I first went to Rousham, the little farm estate 10 miles north of Oxford, England, because of its historic reputation as one of the first places where—as Horace Walpole put it—the garden jumped the wall and “all nature became a garden.” But I’ve returned several times because of all it has taught me about pathmaking.

During that initial visit,  I was unimpressed, at first. After parking near the stable block, I passed through the cutting and kitchen gardens, laid out within their high walls with the formality typical of so many English estates, and across the terrace behind the house, still symmetrically formal with straight bordering paths. Despite being known as the Bowling Green, the terrace bore the homely surprise of croquet wickets and posts set up on the central lawn.

Only when I took the paddock path did the trail become more interesting, much more interesting. It was sinuously curving, mown, and ran along the upper edge of a ha-ha, the unfenced ditch that made the pasture seem part of the larger landscape.

On the other side, woods crowded the path, and the woods were edged with a tapestry hedge of beech, yew, and holly. So I already understood Rousham was neither fully formal as the medieval walled gardens were and still are, nor was it simply a naturalistic garden, as most of Capability Brown’s work was to be in the next generation. Rousham was a place of transition, laid out in the 1730s by William Kent, rich in the overlap of the dying and the being born.

Along the Rousham paths, Kent—Janus-like— looked back to an earlier vocabulary of classical symbols of human form, and forward to the just-discovered science of perspective and the new outward-looking pastorality. Even though the property devoted to the landscaped path is cramped between the house and the river below, my walk lasted the better part of half an hour.

In route, I was led past one statue after another, to a series of small buildings, alcoves and arcades, huts and temples, each of sturdy masonry, each with classical references, and each with views out. I passed by open groupings of trees that enlarged the sense of space beyond the river. And late in the tour Kent’s diminished but still potent surprise caught me off guard. (See a gallery of photos of the walk at Rousham.)

The primary path around the property is punctuated by classical statuary, like Venus in her vale.

The primary path around the property is punctuated by classical statuary, like Venus in her vale.

Overall, it was as though here at Rousham William Kent offered proof that he understood the very fundamentals of human nature, the kinds of places we humans seek out for protection and comfort, the kinds of routes we want to take and the kind of places we want to linger in, and how best to surprise us. It was as though he knew how art along a path could at one and the same time reference the culture at large and the character of a client. And how a small, varied property could be made to seem large and unified, even extended off site onto far hillsides.

That he developed such capabilities is surprising because Kent trained in painting coaches and signs before a local group of Yorkshire gentlemen spotted and sponsored him to a Grand Tour of Italy that lasted 10 years and introduced him to Richard Boyle, Lord Burlington, his patron from then on. Burlington directed Kent away from his limited painting ability to architecture and requested from him everything from furniture to costumes. Stage design fit in there somewhere as well so that today Kent’s work includes everything from the look of Holkham House in East Anglia to the Royal Barge in Greenwich, from the furnishings at Hampton Court Palace to the Palladian Bridge at Stowe.

Still, it is Rousham’s landscape for which Kent is best known. In the late 1730s Kent in his 50s and property owner, General James Dormer near the end of his life, transformed the landscape with his circuit path full of statuary, temples and incident that I have since followed time after fascinating time. The Dormer-Cottrell family continues to maintain the several gardens with care and intelligence after a remarkable two and a half centuries, without the usual intrusions of trinket shop, restaurant, amusements, or safari park.

In texts further on I will walk you through some of the lessons in pathmaking I’ve gained from visiting this master site.


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