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The gardeners that made Stowe

A view across the landscaped garden of the cream stone Temple of Virtue at Stowe in Buckinghamshire
The Temple of Virtue at Stowe | © National Trust Images/Ian Ward

In the greatest period of its development, focused over a period of just under 30 years, Stowe was formed with the skills of world-renowned gardeners and architects. Throughout these decades, lakes were created by hand, mature trees planted, and countless temples and monuments built. Take a closer look at the people that shaped this famous landscape.

Charles Bridgeman, garden designer, 1711-1730s, Stowe

As Stowe's first garden designer, Charles Bridgeman kick-started the transformation from formal gardens to famous landscaped splendour. He created a whole new style of garden design, which would eventually lead him to work on other famous gardens, including prestigious work for the Royal family with the creation of the Serpentine in Hyde Park and the gardens at Kensington Palace.

A new type of gardener

Bridgeman came to Stowe in 1711 at an early stage in the development of the estate. With a newly constructed house and various small walled gardens, Viscount Cobham had big ambitions.

Bridgeman worked alongside architect, Sir John Vanbrugh to begin work transforming areas of the gardens. Initial alterations included the creation of the Octagon Lake and other formal ponds, the planting of trees along the South Front and formal pathways to create a walk around the gardens. His collaboration with Vanbrugh as architect allowed for fast building work whilst keeping up with the vast expansion of the estate by over 400 acres.

Though still formal, their ideas and creations in the garden had a much more modern take on the classic designs.

Some of Bridgeman’s most notable contributions to the design of the gardens include:

The Ha-ha

One of Bridgeman's most famous additions was a pioneering new system to border the gardens. The expansive deer park and farmland surrounding the estate created issues in keeping animals out of the gardens. As a solution, Bridgeman created England's first ha-ha, a sunken wall designed to keep the livestock out. It meant views would not be disrupted whereas the use of a hedge, fence or wall would be a visible barrier on the horizon. The idea has since been used around the world.

Eleven Acre Lake

Whilst Bridgeman didn't add any buildings, he did design much of the early landscaping around the additions by Vanbrugh and Gibbs, towards the south end of the gardens. This included the creation of the original Eleven Acre Lake and walks constructed to take in the new additions.

Wick Quarter

A further area designed by Bridgeman is the small woodland area known as Wick Quarter near the Gothic Temple. The area has evolved over the decades and provides a secluded walk-through between the Gothic Temple and Queen's Temple. It features the Saxon Deities, an isolated circle of statues representing the seven days of the week. In the early 1730s they stood in an impressive open-air temple of elm trees close to Nelson's Seat.

Sir John Vanbrugh, architect, 1720-1726, Stowe

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. Venture down the Path of Vice to see the work of Vanbrugh and how he inspired the gardeners and architects who took over after him.

Architect by nature

Whist Vanbrugh was never Head Gardener at Stowe, his innovations during his six-year tenure paved the way for future developments. He's first known to have visited Stowe in June 1719 with an impressive resumé 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.

The cream stone circular Rotunda at Stowe in Buckinghamshire with columns holding up a domed roof
The Rotunda at Stowe | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

What can I see today?

You can still enjoy many areas of the garden where Vanbrugh left a legacy. These include the Rotunda, which was Vanbrugh's first addition to the gardens when he arrived in 1719, the Lake Pavilions and the Queen Caroline monument.

For more details about Sir John Vanbrugh's buildings visit the history of the statuary and buildings page.

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.

James Gibbs, architect 1726-1729, 1737-1748, Stowe

Gibbs joined the staff at Stowe in 1726 just after Sir John Vanbrugh’s death. He had two stints at Stowe, in which time he started off small before creating the largest and most imposing temples and buildings you see today.

Monumental buildings

Following on from architectural designs of Vanbrugh, James Gibbs came to Stowe for his first period in 1726 and again in 1737 to create the gardens most imposing buildings. His additions at Stowe sit within a large portfolio of architecturally significant work across the country and local area, including other aristocratic houses, monuments and university buildings in Oxford and Cambridge.

What did Gibbs create at Stowe?

James Gibbs was responsible for a number of the larger buildings. These include the Boycott Pavilions, which were among his first commissions in 1729, the Fane of Pastoral Poetry, the Palladian Bridge, the Temple of Friendship and the Queen’s Temple.

For more details about James Gibbs’s buildings visit the history of the statuary and buildings page.

William Kent, gardener, 1730-1748, Stowe

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

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 as a commissioned designer. Kent was the pioneer in a new, more informal style of landscape gardening that took hold in the 1730s, of which the Elysian Fields is a prime example. The principal buildings here were all designed by him, and he may also have conceived the landscape setting.

The golden Statue of Venus at the centre of the Rotunda at Stowe in Buckinghamshire
The Statue of Venus in the Rotunda at Stowe | © National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

What did Kent create at Stowe?

Many of the buildings seen today are attributed to William Kent. They include the Temple of Venus, which was one of his first creations completed in 1731, the Hermitage, the Temple of Ancient Virtue, the Temple of British Worthies, the Shell Bridge, the Grotto and the Pebble Alcove.

For more details about William Kent’s buildings visit the history of the statuary and buildings page.

Paving the way

Kent died in 1748 and Lancelot 'Capability' Brown continued the informal style Kent had started, but on an even more ambitious scale. Having worked with Kent for almost seven years and Brown already Head Gardener, the similarities in style are clear. The sweeping 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.

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, head gardener, 1741-51, Stowe

Rising through the ranks, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown learnt his trade experimenting at Stowe, making his mark on the landscape before moving on to transform the English countryside and many aristocratic estates. Strong personal connections to his life and patronage by Lord Cobham cemented his place in Stowe's history.

What did Brown do at Stowe?

Starting as under-gardener to William Kent, Brown rose through the ranks to Head Gardener. He sculpted the large Grecian Valley with views out to the parkland, with monumentally large temples sitting atop the high points whilst naturalising the shapes of the Octagon and Eleven Acre Lakes. Looking out to the parkland, Brown created a trick of the eye by using hidden and sunken ha-ha walls to keep the livestock out of the main garden whilst creating views that appeared as one ongoing scene.

A place he called home

Stowe was also his home for 10 years and witnessed many life-changing events; he married at Stowe Parish Church in the heart of the gardens and started a family here. Lord Cobham’s patronage allowed Brown to travel across the country to wealthy estates, advising landowners that their estates had ‘capabilities’ and suggesting changes. Following Cobham’s death, Brown began as a consultant, making Stowe his first and only ever place of employment.

A lasting legacy

A real gem for those on the trail of Brown’s gardens, Stowe is still defined by the style of the 18th century; having been protected from further fashion changes in the following decades and centuries, due to the decline, fall and bankruptcy of the Temple-Grenville family in the 19th century. Since acquiring the gardens in the late 1980s, the National Trust has been working to restore Stowe to its 18th-century gardening heyday.

A little girl is sitting on her father's shoulders with the house at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, in soft focus in the background.

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