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What is a water garden?

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Image of Dominic Ingram
Dominic IngramHistorian
Looking over the Half Moon Pond and weir of Studley Royal Water Garden from the Surprise View towards Fountains Abbey, North Yorkshire.
The Half Moon Pond at Studley Royal Water Garden | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

‘Water garden’ is a broad term that can be applied to any garden that uses water for ornamental effect, be that a series of cascades or a decorative canal. First popular in England in the 17th century, water gardens have changed in design and function as tastes evolve or neglect takes over. Sometimes a statue is all that survives of a past design. Find out how water gardens have evolved with changing tastes.

European influence

Water gardens could be found on the Continent since the Renaissance, such as at the Villa d’Este in Italy, but it was the construction of Louis XIV’s elaborate waterworks in the gardens of Versailles during the latter part of the 17th century that led to water gardens becoming increasingly admired in Britain.

The fashion for canals and fountains could be seen in the great gardens of royal palaces as well as gentlemen’s country seats.

Growing popularity

Important contributors to the development of water gardens in Britain included the landscape designer Stephen Switzer (1682–1745) who in 1729 published his Introduction to a General System of Hydrostaticks and Hydraulicks.

‘Wherein the most reasonable and advantageous methods of raising and conducting water, for the watering noblemen’s and gentlemen’s seats, buildings, gardens, &c., are carefully (and in a manner not yet publish’d in any language) laid down.’

– Stephen Switzer’s Introduction to a General System of Hydrostaticks and Hydraulicks (1729)

Distant view of the house at Stowe across the lake. The house is framed by large trees on either sides.
View of the house across the lake at Stowe | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Changes in style

As wider gardening tastes changed, so did the nature of water gardens. For example, the 1720s saw the creation of the formal Octagon Lake at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. As more naturalistic gardening became more fashionable later in the century, the shape of the Octagon Lake was softened and altered between the 1750s and 1820s until it became today’s irregular body of water.

Other outmoded water gardens were simply allowed to deteriorate such as the elaborate water features of Dyrham Park in Gloucestershire, constructed for the politician William Blathwayt in around 1700. Described in 1779 as ‘much neglected and going to decay’, surviving traces of this lost water garden include a statue of the god Neptune.

Water gardens today

The legacy of historic water gardens, many of which do not survive, can be seen in ornamental water features in today’s back gardens and public parks. Those historic gardens that do survive are invaluable evidence of the development of the water garden in British garden history.

The statue of Neptune in Westbury Court Garden with the Tall Pavilion in the background, Gloucestershire
Statue of Neptune at Westbury Court Garden | © National Trust / James Dobson

Celebrated water gardens in our care


The oriental water garden at Cliveden was created at the beginning of the 20th century by the American-born William Waldorf Astor, who acquired Cliveden in 1893. The centrepiece of the garden is a six-sided Chinese pagoda brought by Astor from France in 1900.

Dyrham Park

Dyrham Park was once home to a grand 17th-century Dutch water garden. Since then it has undergone several transformations, the most significant of which saw the East Garden become open parkland.

Studley Royal Water Garden

The great Georgian water garden at Studley Royal was developed over the course of the 18th century by John Aislabie, Chancellor of the Exchequer 1718–21, and his son William. The Aislabies created stunning water features, garden buildings and vistas, and the water garden survives now much as it was on William Aislabie’s death in 1781.

Westbury Court Garden

This Dutch-style water garden was laid out between 1696 and 1705 by a member of the local gentry, Maynard Colchester. Westbury Court is a rare survival of a formal garden from this period, others of which were altered or destroyed as tastes changed later in the 18th century.

Trusted Source

This is a Trusted Source article written by Dominic Ingram, a historian specialising in architectural and cultural history in 18th century Britain.

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