Wednesday, October 13, 2010

JW’s Strong Feelings about Gardens

Wed 13 Oct 1779: Having so lately seen Stourhead and Cobham gardens, I was now desired to take a view of the much more celebrated gardens at Stowe. The first thing I observed was the beautiful water which runs through the gardens to the front of the house. The tufts of trees, placed on each side of this, are wonderfully pleasant. And so are many of the walks and glades through the woods, which are disposed with a fine variety. The large pieces of water interspersed give a fresh beauty to the whole. Yet there are several things which must give disgust to any person of common sense: (1) the buildings called temples are most miserable, many of them both within and without. Sir John Vanbrugh’s is an ugly, clumsy lump, hardly fit for a gentleman’s stable; (2) the temples of Venus and Bacchus, though large, have nothing elegant in the structure. And the paintings in the former, representing a lewd story, are neither well designed nor executed; those in the latter are quite faded, and most of the inscriptions vanished away; (3) the statues are full as coarse as the paintings; particularly those of Apollo and the Muses—whom a person not otherwise informed might take to be nine cook-maids; (4) most of the water in the ponds is dirty and thick as puddle; (5) it is childish affectation to call things here by Greek or Latin names, as Styx and the Elysian Fields; (6) it was ominous for my lord to entertain himself and his noble company in a grotto built on the bank of Styx, that is, on the brink of hell; (7) the river on which it stands is a black, filthy puddle, exactly resembling a common sewer; (8) one of the stateliest monuments is taken down, the Egyptian Pyramid. And no wonder, considering the two inscriptions, which are still legible: the one,
Linquenda tellus, et domus, et placens
Uxor: neque harum, quas colis, arborum
Te praeter invisas cupressos,
Ulla brevem dominum sequetur!
the other,
Lusisti satis, edisti satis, atque bibisti:
Tempus abire tibi est: ne potum largius aequo
Rideat, et pulset lasciva decentius aetas.
Upon the whole, I cannot but prefer Cobham gardens to those at Stowe, for (1) the river at Cobham shames all the ponds at Stowe; (2) there is nothing at Stowe comparable to the walk near the wheel, which runs up the side of a steep hill, quite grotesque and wild; (3) nothing in Stowe gardens is to be compared to the large temple, the pavilion, the antique temple, the grotto, or the building at the head of the garden, nor to the neatness which runs through the whole.
But there is nothing even at Cobham to be compared, (1) to the beautiful cross at the entrance of Stourhead gardens; (2) to the vast body of water; (3) the rock-work grotto; (4) the temple of the sun; (5) the Hermitage. Here too everything is nicely clean, as well as in full preservation. Add to this that all the gardens hang on the sides of a semicircular mountain. And there is nothing, either at Cobham or Stowe, which can balance the advantage of such a situation.
On this and the two following evenings, I preached at Whittlebury, Towcester, and Northampton. On Saturday, I returned to London.

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