Stourhead – a great utopian masterpiece

The Enlightenment masterpiece of Henry Hoare, Stourhead has an aura of calm serenity.
Here Robin Powell recounts her recent visit to one of the Stour Valley’s garden treasure

We’ve seen this image thousands of times. It’s surely one of the most familiar views in the history of English landscape. Yet I was still surprised, and deeply moved, by the beauty of Stourhead and its aura of calm serenity.

Stourhead is the Enlightenment masterpiece of Henry Hoare. Henry’s father, also Henry, was a partner in the private bank established by his father, another Henry, and when Henry made a fortune in a stock crash he used the proceeds to buy himself a property in the Stour valley of Wiltshire. He died soon after the mansion was built, and in 1741 the younger Henry moved in and got serious about the garden.

 

 

A new utopian spirit of rationalism was lighting up Europe in the middle of the 18th century, looking to the values and virtues of Classical Greek and Rome for its models. Henry’s new garden was to be in the Classical style and he modelled it after the paintings of the influential landscape painters of the previous century, Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin.

Henry had the funds to make his Arcadian dreams a reality. He employed architect Henry Flitcroft and 50 gardeners and dammed a small river to make a three-pronged lake around which he constructed a treed walk punctuated by vistas across the water to classical temples.

 

 

Henry’s great utopian masterpiece survives thanks to the Henry Hoare who moved in two centuries later, with his wife Alda and young son Harry. When the young family arrived In 1895 the house had been empty for a decade, and the garden’s temples and follies were crumbling, its trees overgrown. They embarked on a great restoration, and the lake and its buildings became a blissful childhood playground for young Harry. Reality hit in the awful form of the Great War. Harry was killed fighting in Palestine and Henry and Alda were alone at Stourhead.

Some of Alda’s journals are reproduced in the Gothic Cottage on the lake edge. She describes sitting here and looking across the water, remembering times of laughter and fun. You can feel her being both nourished and distressed by the happy memories of her son in this beautiful – now quiet – place.

 

 

Henry gave the property to the National Trust in 1946, which still maintains it. (So here’s a tip – if you’re travelling in England to visit gardens, join the National Trust here before you leave. Australian National Trust members have reciprocal visiting rights in the UK, which includes free car parking! You’ll save enough for a splash-up dinner, and help our National Trust at the same time.)

Several of the intervening Henry Hoares were great plant collectors, and there is a fabulous collection of mature and majestic trees in the park, as well as many rhododendrons and hydrangeas. Some of these violated the ambition of the original Henry for a garden of subtle greens. “The greens should be ranged together in large masses as the shades are in painting,” he wrote, “to contrast the dark masses with the light ones, and to relive each dark mass itself with a little sprinkling of lighter greens here and there.”

 

 

The National Trust asked the great garden restorer and plantsman Graham Stuart Thomas for advice about returning to Henry’s vision. He removed many of the more luridly coloured rhododendrons, but left the maples and copper beech which colour the autumn views. The day we visited, the garden was a picture of greens, with subtle hydrangeas in the shadows and the gorgeous fragrance of a richly scented huge white rhododendron drifting over all.

Walking around Henry’s idealised landscape, through trees and into open areas with the views constantly changing and the features appearing and disappearing as the path turns and twists, is an uplifting experience. The centuries of love and loss that have played out here seem to have permeated the landscape, and the result is an overwhelming sense of peace.

Come with us

Stourhead features on our Chelsea Flower Show tour of England in May. This tour always books out fast so call Ros or Royce to register your interest on 1300 233 200.

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