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History of the garden at Stourhead

View over the lake Stourhead  on a sunny day with some trees in the foreground
The garden at Stourhead | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

When it first opened in the 1740s, the garden at Stourhead was described as 'a living work of art'. Its designer, Henry Hoare II – or 'Henry the Magnificent' – was one of a small group of 'gentleman gardeners' who used their large estates to create a personal landscape. Henry was inspired by his travels around Europe and, while Stourhead's garden has developed over the centuries, those original inspirations can still be seen today.

Designing the garden at Stourhead

When 'Henry the Magnificent’ started planning the garden at Stourhead with his architect Henry Flitcroft, his vision was to create a classical landscape that would express his hopes and beliefs about the world and his journey through it. Much of his inspiration came from his Grand Tours of Europe, which exposed him to Roman classical architecture and their loyalty to the Gods.

18th-century gardening

The 18th century was a period of intense excitement in the horticultural world, with many plant collectors setting out across the globe in search of new species. As a consequence, an influx of new plants, shrubs and trees found their way to England.

The original planting of the garden at Stourhead was undertaken by a team of 50 gardeners, who planted and tended beech, oak, sycamore, Spanish chestnut, ash and holm oak.

‘The greens should be ranged together in large masses as the shades are in painting: to contrast the dark masses with light ones, and to relieve each dark mass itself with a little sprinkling of lighter greens here and there’

- Henry Hoare II

Volunteer showing a pink plant to the camera in the glasshouse at Stourhead, Wiltshire
A volunteer tends to plants in the glasshouse | © National Trust Images/Trevor Ray Hart

Changes to the garden

When Henry Hoare II's grandson Sir Richard Colt Hoare inherited the garden in 1783, he made changes to the design. These included removing some of the structures in the garden such as the Chinese Umbrella, the Turkish Tent and a Hermitage on the path to the Temple of Apollo.

Large-scale planting programme

On returning from Europe in 1791, Colt embarked on a large-scale planting programme. This meant removing fir trees from many areas and replacing them with broad-leaved trees such as beeches, acers, oaks, tulip trees and limes.

Colt’s impact is undeniable. A look at the Stourhead Tree List reveals that many of the trees were first planted under his watch. He established around 90,000 trees within the space of 13 years.

The rhododendrons

Several of the rhododendrons, for which Stourhead is renowned, were introduced by Colt – including the invasive Rhododendron ponticum, seen then as a delightful rarity. Opposite the Ice House is the magnificent Rhododendron arboreum, planted by Colt and only introduced into Britain during 1810.

Planting pelargoniums

Colt had a great interest in pelargoniums, a long flowering plant with evergreen scented leaves. By 1821, he owned over 600 varieties. Many of these he'd cultivated himself using cuttings and other propagation techniques.

He had a conservatory built parallel to the library at the west corner of the house, in which he could work. The original structure is gone, but his pelargonium house has been revived in the Lower Walled Garden. More than 100 types of pelargoniums are still grown there today.

The domed, white Temple of Apollo surrounded by trees overlooking the lake at Stourhead
The Temple of Apollo overlooking the lake | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Garden landmarks

The Temple of Flora

Dedicated to the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, the Temple of Flora was the first garden building erected by Henry Hoare II between 1744 and 1746.

The Grotto

Grottos were popular in Italian Renaissance gardens as places to retreat from hot weather. In the summer of 1762, Henry recorded his enjoyment of cooling off in the Stourhead Grotto.

The Pantheon

Inspired by the Pantheon in Rome, Stourhead's Pantheon was built in 1753-54. ‘Pantheon’ means a temple sacred to all the gods. The temple is filled with statues of classical deities, including a marble Hercules created by Rysbrack.

The Palladian Bridge

Built in 1762, this five-arched stone bridge was inspired by the work of 16th-century architect Palladio.

The Bristol Cross

Originally located in the city it was named after, the Bristol Cross was brought to Stourhead by Henry Hoare II in 1765, using six wagons pulled by oxen. This restored medieval monument depicts old English kings and queens in intricate stonework.

The Temple of Apollo

Dedicated to the sun god, the circular Temple of Apollo was built in 1765 by the architect Henry Flitcroft, in an attempt to outdo William Chamber’s earlier Temple of the Sun at Kew.

The Gothic Cottage

Also known as Watch Cottage, the Gothic Cottage was originally a rustic building. The Gothic seat and porch were added by Richard Colt Hoare in 1806. Gothic features were popular additions to functional buildings during this period.

The Rock Arch

The Rock Arch was built in 1762. It was possibly inspired by Poussin’s painting, ‘The Choice of Hercules’, which hangs in the house. In this painting, Hercules ponders which path to take. Should he take the uphill path of virtue or the path of vice?

Henry Hoare II may be asking visitors to make a similar choice, to take the steep route over the arch or to pass beneath it?

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