Rousham: England’s most influential garden?
Designed by William Kent in the 18th century, the gardens at Rousham House in Oxfordshire continue to inspire today. Garden critic Tim Richardson discusses why, and top garden designers to explain its special draw. Photos: Andrew Lawson.
If someone were to ask you the question, ‘What is the most influential garden in Britain?’, you would probably answer, correctly: Sissinghurst, with Hidcote a close second, and perhaps Great Dixter in the mix as well. But in recent years another name has loomed large in the minds of professionals and amateurs alike. That garden is Rousham.
The name comes up constantly in any discussion of meaning in gardens and usually elicits a wistful little sigh from those familiar with it. More than any garden I know, it inspires in people the feeling that one has a personal relationship with the place – that it is yours, somehow. This arises from the fact that a visit to Rousham can be an intensely intimate experience.
Rousham is the most delicate and witty landscape of shadow, reflection and silhouette, which fits brilliantly into its landform. Combined with the longhorn cattle and serpentine rill, it is one of my favourite places in England.
History of the garden
Rousham is an early 18th-century landscape garden that is in no way dependent on its horticultural glories. The garden was made for General James Dormer, a superannuated soldier who had fought with the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim (where he was badly injured). He appears to have poured all his efforts into the garden, asking William Kent to redesign it.
Rousham is restful, spacious, time-worn and beautifully paced. Whatever season you visit, the garden always reveals something afresh. It is a magical landscape, an exercise in restraint and classical narrative, where anything seems possible. It has been hugely influential.
The garden sits poised above a relatively flat landscape, with the River Cherwell snaking its way obligingly through the scene, as the visitor experiences a sequence of glades and sculptural set-pieces of pulsating strangeness – one moment Gothic gloom, the next sun-dappled Arcady. Longhorn cattle animate the scene, much as they might in a Cuyp, Ruisdael or Constable painting, while architectural ‘eyecatchers’ in the distance do not so much give an impression of a demesne of great extent, but rather haul the landscape into the garden scene so that the Oxfordshire countryside takes on a quasi-mythical air, incorporating elements of the Roman campagna, olde England and even Arcadia itself.
The many wandering walks through the gardens are full of delicious surprises, a sudden meeting with a dying gladiator, a glimpse of Apollo, or a long view of a Gothic mill, an ancient bridge or distant trees, or arrival at an unexpected seat in an alcove.
The key at Rousham is the palpable sense of magic, the idea that this garden really is peopled, somehow, with nymphs and presided over by the spirit of Pan and the other immortals, who pop up as statues in the corners of glades or along tree-shaded walks. The tone arises from Kent’s own mythic sensibility and his ability to impart it. Here was a man steeped in classical history, as so many were in the 18th century, but his learning was not dry or academic – he had received little formal education, being the son of a Bridlington coach painter. For Kent, the nymphs, swains, gods and goddesses of the classical world of myth were a living cast of characters whom he ‘met’ during his decade working in Italy. He went on to deploy them in the theatrical experiences that were his landscape gardens.
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Rousham is an intensely psychological landscape and one that provokes as many different emotional responses as there are individual visitors, and this is an important part of its extraordinary appeal; that within the confines of this relatively small plot there is scope for such myriad interpretations.
A near perfect example of how ‘sense of place’ should govern the layout and features within a garden, Rousham provides me with an important reference point from which to draw inspiration – from the meandering rill that leads you, as if by the hand, through the garden to the wonderful use of structure and colour.
Rousham is open to visitors every day of the year. Children under 15 are not allowed, but picnicking is. There is no gift shop or tea room and the lavatories are pleasingly old-fashioned.
Please note: children under 15 will not be admitted unless by prior arrangement. No dogs.
Rousham House and Garden,
Bicester, Oxfordshire OX25 4QU
Tel 01869 347110