William Kent

Gardener 1730-1748, Stowe

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William Kent - Gardener 1730-1748

Born in Yorkshire in 1685, William Kent came to Stowe in 1730 and created some of the most atmospheric areas of the gardens.

Head Gardener

In his 18 years at Stowe, Kent contributed to many areas of the gardens. For the owner at the time, Lord Cobham, Kent formed a landscape used to entertain, show off and most of all, impress. Between 1730 and 1748 he worked on areas both inside and out of the main house. In 1735 he became Head of garden design when he created the landscape and some of the temples within the Elysian Fields.

What did Kent create at Stowe?

The Temple of Venus

His first creations for the estate were the Temple of Venus and The Hermitage. Completed in 1731, the temples completed the Western Garden, originally started by James Gibbs.

The Temple of Venus looks out across the Eleven Acre Lake towards Stowe House. It's dedicated to the goddess of sex and gardening. Four busts overlook the Eleven Acre Lake representing Cleopatra, Faustina, Nero and Vespasian, all known for their appetitie for lust. Inside, the temple featured murals by the Venetian painter Francesco Sleter, one of his many works across the estate. Only a small section of these now remain due to years of neglect.

The temple is full of mystery and intriguing features. During a restoration of the building in 1991, underground chambers were discovered. The true reason for these is unknown, however, it's thought to have housed a slightly temperamental pump for an unused fountain in the temple. 

The Temple of Venus glows in the sunlight at Stowe
A bright sky is above the Temple of Venus at Stowe. The Temple has a centre room with portico and steps, adjoined to two curved wings of colonnades and pavilions. It's finished in golden coloured stone, with four busts in niches.

The Hermitage

The Hermitage sits on the edge of the lake with a view of the Rotunda opposite. Built in a much more rugged style compared to Kent's other temples, it's sordid hidden story gives the style an atmosphere. Rough stones were used to create the building with one of the two towers on front built as a ruin.

A darker place to lurk inside the Hermitage with a rugged exterior stands out against the other golden temples at Stowe.
A darker place to lurk inside the Hermitage with a rugged exterior stands out against the other golden temples at Stowe.

The Temple of Ancient Virtue

Kent moved on to evolve a 40 acre area of the gardens running alongside the South Front of Stowe House into what is now known as the Elysian Fields.

Among Kent's first addition to the area was the Temple of Ancient Virtue. Designed in 1734, the round domed temple served as an imposing focal point for the area. The temple honours four great Greek men: Socrates; Lycurgus; Homer and Epaminondas. Often regarded as the greatest philosopher, lawgiver, poet and Ancient Greek general.

Explore the Temple of Ancient Virtue along the path of virtue
A view of the Temple of Ancient Virtue at Stowe Landscape Gardens, Buckinghamshire

The Temple of British Worthies

Created at the same time but on the opposite side of the river, the Temple of British Worthies features sixteen busts. To the left, Alexander Pope, Sir Thomas Gresham, Inigo Jones, John Milton, William Shakespeare, John Locke, Sir Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon, all famous for their thoughts and ideas. To the right Sir John Barnard, John Hampden, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, King William III, Queen Elizabeth I, Prince Edward and King Alfred, all known for their actions. A final bust of Mercury, god of financial gain, commerce and luck, sits high in the middle.

Exploring the temple further, one final memorial is hidden round the back. It commemorates Signor Fido, 'an Italian of good Extraction'. A poem marks the burial spot of Lord Cobham's beloved greyhound...Signor Fido.

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Designing paradise - William Kent at Stowe

Sample the Arcadian landscape at Stowe and find out more about the man who influenced this little slice of 18th century paradise.

The Shell Bridge

The area of the water dividing the two temples is appropriately called the Worthies River. It's created by a dam dividing it from the upper section, known as the Alder River. Creating a facade and shortcut across the river, the Shell Bridge provides an impressive backdrop to the area. Its style is echoed by the Pebble Alcove further round the gardens.

The Shell Bridge sits subtly in the landscape of the Elysian Fields at Stowe
A wide low bridge cross a lake at Stowe

The Grotto

The final of Kent's additions to the area, the Grotto, despite the cold and damp environment, provided an entertainment venue for royal guests visiting Earl Temple and his gardens. Kent originally designed the feature to stand as a building entirely above ground however, in late 1700's, long after he left Stowe, it was covered over by the new owners creating the cave appearance seen today. Recently restored, the Grotto is still accessible and features a statue of Venus in the main central chamber.

The Pebble Alcove

Moving away from the Elysian Fields, at the same period, Kent also designed a small seating area beside the newly expanded Octagon lake. Known as the Pebble Alcove, the building features exactly that. The style is similar to the Hermitage, with a curved seating area in the central area. The walls are covered in a detailed mosaic showing the Cobham coat of arms. The family motto appropriately translates to "how beautiful are thy temples".

The Pebble Alcove at Stowe allows a short rest whist it's decorated with beautiful patterns
A small alcove with a seat is hidden amongst the trees just off a path. The alcove is covered in pebbles.

Paving the way

When Kent left Stowe in 1748 to work on other gardens, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown took over. Having worked together for almost seven years and Brown already Head Gardener, the similarities in style are clear. The swooping natural landscaping of the Grecian Valley and the scale of the Temple of Concord and Victory continue the styles shown and learnt in the Elysian fields.

You can experience the majority of Kent's work at Stowe by taking The Path of Virtue, one the three original walks through the gardens. They were created in the eighteenth century by Lord Cobham for visitors to his gardens. Pick up a map and explore the Gardens as they were seen 300 years ago or get lost in the scale of it all and create your own route.