Statues, seats & structures drive Rousham walk

A garden refuge offers us a seat with a view after which the term-mounted Minerva draws us forward along the path Kent intended for our one-way circuit fo the Rousham grounds.

A garden refuge offers a seat with a view after which the term-mounted Minerva draws us forward along the path Kent intended for his one-way circuit of the Rousham grounds.

If meadows, forests, and hills form attractive compositions for strolling, why introduce manmade objects and risk disrupting the natural harmony?

The Rousham estate in Oxfordshire can again provide memorable answers. Dotted along its main path through woods and along the river are statues, seats, and little structures. These artificial insertions don’t disrupt the natural scenery. On the contrary, they help create composed landscape scenes, and serve several other purposes besides.

A primary purpose is to draw visitors forward since before we view any statue, sit on any bench, or enter any little building, we have to walk up to it. Kent wanted to draw visitors forward for several reasons:

First, he wanted people to walk in a certain direction around his circuit path.

Second, he needed to draw visitors two-thirds of the way around the loop for them to reach the Venus of Vale, the small valley where his cluster of water surprises spurting up and cascading down awaited them.

And, third, Kent needed strollers to reach the estate’s farthest extremes to enlarge the feel of its limited acreage, so he posted seats and structures at each of the property’s far corners.

Outdoor ornaments—specimen plants, statues, structures— beyond being decoration in themselves (A), serve among other things to (B) frame views, serve as focal points (C) and reference points (D), and (E) announce gateways.

Outdoor ornaments—specimen plants, statues, structures— beyond being decoration in themselves (A), serve among other things to (B) frame views, serve as focal points (C) and reference points (D), and (E) announce gateways.

The writer Horace Walpole saw these repeated forward attractions— “to make the richest scene more enchanting by reserving it to a farther advance of the spectator’s step”—as Kent’s greatest success at Rousham.

Of course, Kent’s manmade features do much more, including:

  • Adding visual interest to every scene, by being focal points or landmarks.
  • Conveying the landscape’s narrative themes of life, death, and the hereafter through classical references. (I’ll delve into that more deeply in an upcoming post.)
  • Stitching the landscape together. The to-and-fro views from pairs of features—the Praeneste to the Colossus, the Colossus on to Heyford Bridge—serve as strands knotting the circuit walk together. They also serve to foreshadow and recollect the route.
  • And connecting Rousham’s grounds to the wider landscape. The Bridle Bridge expressly served that purpose by crossing over the River Cherwell to farther fields. Kent also designed The Temple of the Mill near the village and the faux ruins on the farthest ridge to serve as invariant reference points from many places along the path.

In addition and not least, Kent faced the difficulty that Rousham’s site contained only minor natural features—level farmland, a small river, a flat valley, a slight riverside bluff, and far hills. How could he fashion these into a memorable stroll? In part, by strategically placing seats along the bluff line, locating statues to draw us there, and clearing the best views to the far hillsides and placing his eye-catchers there.

Drawn forward by the striking Peter Scheemakers’ statue on the bluff above the river, visitors espy the high ruins and the village Temple of the Mill, eye-catchers Kent had placed as reference points and off-site attractions.

Drawn forward by the striking Peter Scheemakers’ statue on the bluff above the river, visitors espy the high ruins and the village Temple of the Mill, eye-catchers Kent had placed as reference points and off-site attractions.

If I add that Kent inserted niches with statues of Greek gods into the exterior of Rousham House, crenelated its roof, and refashioned its interiors, might you agree that, all told, Kent’s use of ornament at Rousham can be considered a comprehensive clinic on the subject?

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