A political landscape: Stowe Gardens
We may fondly imagine that power in Britain has inevitably resided in the hands of monarchs or, indeed, even Parliament. A visit to Stowe House (now Stowe School) and its gardens, however, might gently coax us to revise that notion. The Temple-Granvilles were so rich and influential that even the monarchy looked a poor second by comparison. It was when Richard Temple (1st Viscount Cobham) decided to retire from politics in 1733 that the gardens, as we know them today, were developed. His dislike of Robert Walpole and his supporters prompted Temple to use his garden design as a voluble statement about current political affairs. He saw an opportunity to take a side-swipe at political opponents, and he embedded in his landscaped gardens unmistakable commentary about personalities who held
the balance of power.
The formal gardens were swept away by ‘Capability’ Brown in the 1740s, and replaced eventually by a combination of natural landscaping (never losing the ideal of the rural idyll) and adornments of architect-designed temples and monuments. These temples and
monuments were the kernel of political comment at the time. The Temple of Ancient Virtue embodied those virtues that were apparently lacking in Viscount Cobham’s political opponents, and the Temple of Friendship was dedicated to his group of opposition Whigs.
The Temple of British Worthies, however, has to be the boldest statement of political intent by Cobham. In niches, it incorporates the busts of 16 notable people of ‘contemplation’ and ‘action, including poets, philosophers, scientists, monarchs, statesmen and warriors. By their very inclusion we are guided in our estimation of what is held to be good and honourable, and by the exclusion of many others, we are firmly enlightened about those who deserve no respect.
The Temple of Ancient Virtue receives the morning light, the Temple of British Worthies the evening. At sunset during the summer, by a trick of the light and the landscape, shadows fall across the busts in British Worthies from right to left, first across the figures of action (monarchs, statesmen and warriors) and later across the figures of contemplation (poets, philosophers and scientists). A political statement in itself?