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Conservation projects at Stowe

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

Subtle gardening and major works have all helped to make the restoration of the gardens at Stowe appear as though they were always the way you see them today. Discover more about the conservation work carried out since the National Trust was gifted Stowe in 1989.

Restoring Stowe

Phase one: the start of something special

Phase one involved the major restoration of the gardens and parkland. Some of the largest temples and monuments were at risk of falling down or were hidden amongst a jungle of trees and shrubs that had taken hold over the years.

Phase two: reinstating the original visitors’ entrance

When we opened the doors for the first time to public visitors, entry was via a little ticket shed by the front gates of Oxford Avenue, which led you up past the parkland and Stowe House, entering the gardens near to Concord and Victory.

In 2003 phase two of restoring Stowe started with the acquisition and restoration of New Inn. In the 1700s, when Stowe was a visitor attraction, tourists drove up Stowe Avenue to the Corinthian Arch and stayed at the New Inn. This entrance was designed to give subtle glimpses of the magnificent temples and house before you walked through and were left with breathtaking views.

Phase three: the landscape programme

2015 saw the start of this phase, comprising 54 tasks taking place over the coming years to return the gardens to their former 18th-century glory as created by Lord Cobham. Highlights included the return of missing statues, monuments, paths and the opening of parts of the gardens not previously open to the public.

Major conservation projects

Restoring New Inn

Built in 1717, the New Inn was a coaching inn that provided rest and refreshment for Stowe’s first tourists. It was the original entry point used by the earliest visitors nearly 300 years ago when they came to marvel at the scale and splendour of the famous gardens.

After falling into decline it went into private ownership and spent many years as a farm. In 2005 the National Trust were able to purchase the New Inn. The restoration work was part of a £9 million project to transform the way that people visit and enjoy Stowe and it reopened to the public in 2012. Outside New Inn, the nostalgic atmosphere is further enhanced by the recreation of an 18th-century farmhouse kitchen garden, which provides crops and produce for use in the café.

The return of the statue of Pastoral Poetry

In the 1760s, Earl Temple relocated a small open-sided temple called a fane to the Grecian Valley and rededicated it to pastoral poetry. A statue of Thalia, the Muse of Pastoral Poetry, was placed near the temple to act as the guardian spirit of the valley. As the original statue hadn’t survived, a replica was commissioned based on the statue of Heroic Poetry. The statue of Pastoral Poetry was finally returned to its original setting at the end of the Grecian Valley in December 2018.

An appropriate green planting scheme, referencing historic planting, was also created for the statue to sit within the current landscape.

Restoring Apollo and the Nine Muses

Throughout 2019 and 2020, a project took place to restore and replace the statues of the Nine Muses, which had been at Stowe for around 100 years during the 18th century. Archaeology, historical maps, and documents were used to chart the statues' various locations around the gardens, as they had been moved on several occasions.

The creamy stone Doric Arch at Stowe in Buckinghamshire sat between a series of statues in a semicircle on either side
The Doric Arch at Stowe | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

The order and location of the statues

The order of the statues was also considered, consulting several sources, stylistic, aesthetic and iconographical information to make the final decision. Findings showed that there was no one definitive order of the Muses or indeed an example layout of the deities, so a collective decision was reached as a team.

Not many survivors

From the wider group, only the lead statue of Calliope the Muse of Heroic Poetry had survived at Stowe, located on the top of the Grenville Column. Having decayed, been melted down or sold, none of the other original statues remained at Stowe, however two more – Painting and Sculpture – were in the National Trust collection at Anglesey Abbey.

Recreating the Muses

With no suitable set of 18th-century Muses to copy, and to ensure that the recreated statues were of appropriate quality, form, style and size, Cliveden Conservation Workshop was commissioned to create a new set of nine Muses based upon the surviving statues and the body of research undertaken. This body of evidence was used to guide and inform the design and production.

Using research and moulds

The surviving three statues – Calliope, Painting and Sculpture – were part of the original group as depicted on the Parterre, documented as early as 1724. They have a clear provenance to Stowe, are of appropriate form, detail and quality and the proportions are in keeping with the final location around the Doric Arch. Moulds were taken from the original three lead statues.

Plaster copies made from these moulds were used, along with stylistic details taken from other relevant 18th-century and Classical statues, and sources to inform the creation of a set that respected the form, scale, style and details from the original statues.

Designing the Muses

The original body of research was translated into artistic representations of the Muses to both inform the design and the final sculpting process. Various iterations of drawings were made where clothing, movement, hair style and expression were developed to ensure each Muse was correctly represented in terms of her iconography.

Recreating the attributes

The iconography of each Muse is also shown through the items that they are holding (their attributes). The attributes of the Muses were liable to change at different periods, making identification difficult.

Research was undertaken on these attributes with information gathered from art (sculpture, painting, drawing, etc.) along with physical survivals in museum collections, and this was used to underpin and inform the design of the attributes.

In their final setting

In February 2020 all nine Muses arrived safely at Stowe. Thanks to your generous support and donations, they stand proudly on display on either side of the Doric Arch, to be admired by many generations to come. Apollo joined them in April 2023.

Mission complete as Apollo lands at Stowe Gardens

The arrival of Apollo completes a group of ten statues located around Stowe’s Doric Arch, which stands at the entrance to the area known as Elysian Fields. Apollo’s Nine Muses have been in situ since March 2020. They, like the rest of us, spent lockdown in isolation, patiently awaiting Apollo’s return.

Apollo is considered the most handsome and most Greek of all the gods. He’s certainly been the most elusive of all Stowe’s original statues to replace. It’s taken many years of research to reimagine the lead original, attributed to sculptor van Nost, which is known to have been at Stowe in 1735, but an 1848 auction catalogue for the estate notes the statue of Apollo had ‘long since been melted’.

Apollo was the Olympian god of the sun and light, music and poetry, healing and plagues, prophecy and knowledge, order and beauty, archery and agriculture. As God of just about everything good, he was clearly a very busy chap and consequently has many guises. Stowe’s Lyric Apollo was mainly concerned with music and poetry. He lived on Mount Parnassus with nine ethereal female muses who dedicated their lives to the Arts by supporting and encouraging creation, sparking imagination and providing inspiration.

Through research and archaeological excavation, it’s understood that, like many other statues at Stowe, Apollo and the Muses were moved around the garden, but their final location was around the Doric Arch which is where they’ve been reinstated. If you’re a fan of Dr Who, the Nine Muses are the perfect spot for a selfie or two with Stowe’s very own group of weeping angels.

Led by National Trust curator, Gillian Mason, who worked with Cliveden Conservation and stonemason, Jem Hobbs, the long-lost Apollo has been recreated. The new Stowe Apollo has been informed by other surviving versions and has been created with the assistance of Historic Environment Scotland. Finally, after decades of work, a statue of Apollo created in the spirit of the original arrives at Stowe.

The return to Stowe may only be a small step for a Greek God, but it’s a giant leap in the restoration of Stowe’s Grade 1 listed landscape gardens.

A small timber building highly decorated in green, red and gold with an oriental design
The Chinese House at Stowe | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Chinese House Restoration

The Chinese House is a tiny folly, intricately decorated with Chinese scenes, flowers and calligraphy, located in the Pheasantry near the Palladian Bridge at Stowe. Dating from around 1738 and believed to be designed by the architect William Kent (1685-1748), the Chinese House returned to Stowe in 1998 following a long stint in other locations.

Despite being protected in the winter, the paintwork had badly deteriorated and specialist conservators stabilised the paint layers to protect it for the future.

Under attack from the elements

Despite being protected by a canvas awning during the winter months, the condition of the exterior painted decoration had deteriorated over a few years. The heat from the sun caused the timber structure to expand and contract. The paint had also been under attack from wind and rain.

Conservation treatment

Treatment to the exterior included consolidation of flaking paint layers, surface dirt removal, reforming of the existing varnish, gap filling, in-painting losses to the decorative scheme and applying a final varnish layer.

There was also minimal treatment of the late 18th-century decoration on the interior, including removing the facing tissue, light surface dirt removal and a trial of varnish removal and re-varnishing of one panel.

The Doric Arch at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, flanked on either side of the recently returned statues of the Nine Muses


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