Sir John Vanbrugh

Architect 1720-1726, Stowe

Sir John Vanbrugh - Architect 1720-1726

Sir John Vanbrugh's work at Stowe was fundamental in laying the groundwork for the monuments, landscapes and temples that were to come in the earliest phase of the garden design.

A view across a lake with bright sky reflections of clouds in the water to golden style temples at Stowe

Architect by nature

Whist Vanbrugh was never Head Gardener at Stowe, his innovations during his six years still paved the way for the future developments. He's first known to have visited Stowe in June 1719 with an impressive resume of past work to demonstrate to Lord Cobham. Stowe was one of his smaller commissions, compared to other country houses where he was contracted such as Blenheim Palace.

What can I see today?

The gardens were created with a mix of conultants over the years, you can enjoy many areas where Vanbrugh left a legacy that you can see today.

Lake Pavilions

The Lake Pavilions are likely to be the first temples you meet on your visit. Standing on either side of the South Front of Stowe House, the Pavilions frame the view from the House down towards the Corinthian Arch. The East and West Pavilions are nearly identical; the only differing feature is the number of steps. Hidden out of sight behind the East Pavilion at the bottom of the Ha-ha is a small gatekeeper’s house next to Bell Gate. The accessible areas of the temples are both open with views up towards the house.

Take a seat in one of the two pavilions or on the grass between. The view is very different from the view Vanbrugh would have had. The Octagon lake was exactly as described. Eight sided with a small stream coming in from one side. It also featured a large Vanbrugh designed pyramid feature in the centre. In the early 1750's, the shape of the lake was made more natural to further move away from the formal garden designs. In the 1760's the lake pavilions were moved further appart to their current position and the central lake feature moved to form Wolfe's Obelisk in the parkland.

Queen Caroline Monument

Built in 1726, this monument honoured Queen Caroline while she was the Princess of Wales. When it was originally constructed, it stood in a location nearer to what would later become the Elysian Fields. A similar monument to King George II was also constructed (the original was sold so a replica now stands on the South Front of Stowe House). 

Caroline was moved in the 1760's during an effort to change the landscape and expand Octagon Lake into a more natural shape. When the Fane of Pastoral Poerty was moved to it's new location in the Grecian Valley, it made way for Caroline to take its space.

Quirky fact: When Earl Temple felled Abele Walk (part of his uncle's work) to widen the South Vista in 1762, the Queen lost her woody backdrop. Since they didn’t want her rear view on show to his most important landscape, she was moved to her present position.

The monument also features an ice house in it's basement. Ice would be harvested from the lakes in winter and used to preserve food through the summer months. Venture around the back to find it's hidden entrance.

The Statue of Queen Caroline surrounded by autumnal leaves
A large statue of Caroline of Ansbach stands on 4 fluted Ionic columns surrounded by trees
The Statue of Queen Caroline surrounded by autumnal leaves


The Rotunda was Vanbrugh's first addition to the gardens when he arrived in 1719. It was designed as a temple to Venus and was located much closer to the Ha-ha. The building houses a gold statue of Venus which opens up to 8 views.

Visitor at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire
Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire.
Visitor at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire

What can't I see today?

With so much money to develop the gardens, temples and monuments were constantly moved, sold and replaced with many being completely demolished. As the first architect for the garden, some of his additions have been lost as tastes and fashion changed with later garden developments. 'The Temple of Bacchus', 'The Sleeping Parlour' and 'The Cold Bath' all took pride of place in the early Stowe gardens but were removed for various reasons. Two others include...

Nelson's Seat

Nelson's Seat was created in 1720. It sat at the end of Nelson's Walk, an avenue of trees running across the top of the gardens near where Stowe School buildings now sit. Both the path and monument were named after one of the gardeners at the time. It was a small temple sitting close to Stowe House with views down the avenue of trees. It was remodeled in 1773 and finally demolished in 1797. A small grass mound is all that remains.

A 1750 image of Nelson's seat at Stowe which no longer exists
A black and white engraving of a square building with two urns on the top corners is Nelson's seat which no longer exists at Stowe
A 1750 image of Nelson's seat at Stowe which no longer exists

Vanbrugh Pyramid

Built in 1726, Vanbrugh's Pyramid sat in the north eastern corner of the gardens. It would have been one of the first buildings seen by visitors on their way to the house and stood 60 feet high. The pyramid featured an inscription on the side dedicated to Vanbrugh after his death. It was demolished in 1797 to make way for further development in the area.

As part of the Landscape Programme, we're working to create a version of Vanbrugh's pyramid returned into gardens for the first time in 200 years.

A 1750 drawing of the Egyptian Pyramid at Stowe, no longer standing.
A 1750 drawing of the Egyptian Pyramid at Stowe, no longer standing.
A 1750 drawing of the Egyptian Pyramid at Stowe, no longer standing.

The story continues...

Vanbrugh stayed at Stowe until he died in 1726. His work paved the way for James Gibbs to take over and for the transition of Stowe from a formal garden to the pioneering landscape seen today. Venture down the Path of Vice to see the work of Vanbrugh and the see how he inspired the gardeners and architects who took over after him.