The history of Stowe’s statuary and buildings
The wealth of monuments, buildings and statues that adorn the landscape work in harmony with the design of the garden and tell the stories that were so important to the owners and designers of the past. Their locations and placing were as meaningful as the shaping of the lakes and the planting of the trees. Read about each structure to understand its significance and the place it holds in the history of this important garden.
The Rotunda was Sir John 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 eight different views.
The Lake Pavilions stand on either side of the South Front and 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.
The Hermitage sits on the edge of the Eleven Acre Lake with a view of the Rotunda opposite. Built in a more rugged style compared to William Kent's other temples, with its roughly cut stone and dilapidated turret, it is an early example of a garden folly deliberately built as a ruin.
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. When the Fane of Pastoral Poetry was moved to its location in the Grecian Valley, it made way for Caroline to take its place.
The temples at Stowe
The Temple of Venus
The Temple of Venus was completed in 1731 and looks out across the Eleven Acre Lake towards Stowe House. It is 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 appetite 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.
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 shell-covered 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 final of William 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 the late 1700s, long after he left Stowe, it was covered over by the new owners, creating the cave appearance seen today. 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, William Kent also designed a small seating area beside the newly expanded Octagon Lake. Known as the Pebble Alcove, the building features exactly that – floor, ceiling and walls completely covered and decorated in pebbles. The style is similar to the Hermitage, with a curved seating area. The walls are covered in a detailed mosaic showing the Cobham coat of arms and the family motto which appropriately translates to ‘how beautiful are thy temples’.
Apollo and the Nine Muses
This statue group has been the focal point for three different areas of the gardens, where they formed an integral part of the iconographical incidents within the designed landscape. From the early 18th century they were placed on the Parterre; by the 1750s they were moved to the lower part of the Elysian Fields where they were associated with the Spring of Helicon, and in the 1760s the statues were relocated around the Doric Arch at the entrance to the Elysian Fields. It’s this third and final position that was recreated as the last and most significant of the design phases.
Named after a long-lost local village, the Boycott Pavilions were among James Gibbs’s first additions to the parkland. The first to be built was the Eastern Pavilion in 1729, serving as the end point to various paths in the gardens. The Western Pavilion was added in 1734 as a residence for a friend of the family. The pavilion also went on to house 'Capability' Brown and his family during their time working on the estate.
The designs of the buildings have evolved over time with the original plans including a steep pointed roof which doubled the height of the buildings. These were changed in 1758 to the current domed roofs with cupolas giving an appearance which was more in keeping with the rest of the estate.
Fane of Pastoral Poetry
The current location in the Grecian Valley and appearance of the Fane of Pastoral Poetry is slightly different from the original plan by James Gibbs. The original temple was built in 1729 in the site currently occupied by the Statue of Queen Caroline in the western gardens.
James Gibbs returned to Stowe in 1737, nearly 10 years later, and started work on a bridge crossing the far end of Octagon Lake linking two sides of the Hawkwell Fields. The bridge is based on a similar one built at Wilton House in Wiltshire a year earlier. Gibbs observed the construction but altered the design slightly. The bridge design used at Stowe was adapted to be lower and wider, allowing for carriages to cross on tours of the gardens. The bridge would later form the Path of Liberty, the longest walk through the gardens, which also takes in most of the additions by Gibbs.
The Chinese House
The Chinese House dates from around 1738 and is believed to have been designed by the architect William Kent (1685-1748). Kent was working on several garden buildings at Stowe at the time. The pavilion originally stood on stilts in the middle of a pond near the Elysian Fields. (The pond no longer exists.) Italian artist Francesco Sleter painted the decoration.
The pavilion was moved to Wotton House in Buckinghamshire until 1959 then went to Kildare in Ireland until 1992. In 1998, after a fundraising appeal and extensive restoration by the National Trust, the Chinese House was returned to Stowe.
With so much money to develop the gardens, temples and monuments were constantly moved, sold, and replaced with many being demolished. '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.
Here are some other features that are no longer part of the garden’s design.
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 remodelled in 1773 and finally demolished in 1797. A small grass mound is all that remains.
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.
Unravel layers of history with a broad look at Stowe throughout the centuries, as well as the people who made it into the grand Georgian estate you can see today.
Discover how five people shaped the layout, design and structures we still enjoy today. Over less than 30 years this world-renowned garden took shape during their tenure.
Discover the stories behind the paths of vice, virtue and liberty that run throughout Stowe Gardens and the individual beauty and significance of each area.
Take the kids on an outdoor adventure this autumn and half term as you explore a world of lakes, magical woods, enormous temples, colourful reflections and twisted trees.
Read our report on colonialism and historic slavery in the places and collections we care for and discover how we’re changing the way we approach these issues.