A first impression touring Rousham is that each of the landscape structures that Kent used to punctuate the walking circuit is unique, different in purpose and form from all the others. The Pyramid takes its namesake’s form, Praeneste is an arcade supporting a terrace, while the Temple of Echo is a little house and the Cold Bath resembles a grotto. And on it goes.
However, thoughtful review of their shapes, furnishings, and locations suggests a contrary idea—that all these structures of widely varying form are different expressions of a single design concept, namely, refuges with prospects. Every structure—whether seat, arcade, or building—has a protected back and sides, often a solid roof, and always an open front. Every structure, in short, assumes the classic form of a refuge—protected behind, to the sides and often above, but open to viewing and escaping out the front. Indeed, most are downright cave-like: built of masonry, with a dark interior, and a single limited opening to the outer world.
Only some of the structures contain statuary or inscriptions, but they are all furnished with seats or benches. These are always at the back, in the darkest part of the interior, with the most direct view out. On a clear day, a person sitting in one of these little shelters is hidden in deep shade while anything in the world outside is drenched in sunlight. One is seeing without being seen. All but one of the structures backs into a hillside or woods accentuating the sense we are protected.
Fetches are long because the buildings are almost all elevated above their surroundings and the slopes in front have been cleared. Ten of the eleven refuges are on the upper shelf of land at the house level or on the slopes up from the riverbanks. About half the refuges have immediate views down across hollowed ground—“concave slopes” as Kent marked them on his plan—that tend to focus and frame the further views and that further connote the notion of refuge.
From there, the views open outward onto increasingly larger cleared spaces—the fields and far hillsides of the broad Cherwell valley. Kent increased the sense of distance of the views with widely spaced plantings of trees along the river bank. Appleton pointed out that such arrays of trees can be thought of as refuges while the spaces between them offer prospects.
The Kentian features that are not refuges—the statues, the ponds, cascades, and fountains in the Vale, the original Bridle Bridge across the river, the mill façade in the village, and the faux ruins on the distant hilltop—attract us to places where long views have been arranged or serve as secondary prospects, promising further views. For instance, at the start, behind the house, we are drawn across the Bowling Green to the lion/horse statue, from where we can see the far ruins, from which we imagine we could see down into a farther valley.
All of these features and their purposes stand in marked contrast to Rousham’s earlier constructed kitchen gardens. Horace Walpole was referring to Kent when he wrote in his History of the Modern Taste in Gardening about he who “leaped the fence, and saw that all nature was a garden.” The jumped-over fence was the very wall that still surrounds the vegetable and cutting gardens at this and so many other English estates—walls that continue to make them refuges without prospects.