‘Turn your Faces towards Rousham’

Posted on September 7th, 2011 by Charles Boot

Mavis Batey

This was the advice of Clary, the proud Rousham gardener who had laid out William Kent’s garden for General Dormer in 1737; it was also my advice to the Historic Buildings Council, over two hundred years after Clary’s letter, when acting as Secretary of The Garden History Society. We had approached them to consider giving protection to historic gardens as well as buildings. Thanks to Jennifer Jenkins, who was then Chairman, an unofficial Gardens Committee was set up to consider criteria for listing and grading historic gardens. The GHS had already produced a pilot scheme for my own county of Oxfordshire and Rousham headed the list. The provisional text as submitted was;

‘One of the earliest of English landscaped gardens, embodying the poetic and philosophical ideas of the age. As it stands it is entirely the work of William Kent, with no later additions; his ‘most engaging’ according to Horace Walpole’.

Following a site visit when ‘Faces’ were set towards Rousham , it was unanimously given provisional Grade I status; this was confirmed after the 1983 National Heritage Act empowered English Heritage, which replaced the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, to compile a Register of Gardens and Parks of Special Historic Interest; the term listing now being abandoned as that implied statutory control. Rousham was the first entry.

I should now like to give due thanks to Alun Jones with whom I worked on the Oxfordshire CPRE, which had been concerned about the lack of protection for its historic parks even before the GHS entered the fray. I accompanied him on many happy surveys at a time when he was producing map guides to historic landscape in the Oxfordshire countryside and succeeded in persuading him to extend this to historic gardens. Although we took many Oxford students to Rousham, as a study document, the map guide was not published until 1980, and then because the famous Clary letter showing the way to view Kent’s garden had just been discovered and to encourage more visitors to ‘turn your Faces towards Rousham’. At the time it was not clear whether this was in 1750 or 1760 and so no date is given on the map guide, but when the full letter was published in Garden History (Vol 11:2, 1983 pp125–32) the date was given as 1750. Now, however, Angela and Charles Cottrell-Dormer have studied it again, and can date it definitely as 1760, and this has greatly added to its interest, particularly as the first garden historian, Horace Walpole, was shown Rousham by Clary in 1760. Walpole was so impressed by Kent’s planting instructions to him, at the very time he was planning his own garden, now that his gothic villa at Strawberry Hill had been completed.

Walpole writes in July 1760 that his greatest pleasure had been in visiting Rousham and we now realize that it was Clary the gardener who showed him round in the absence of the owner. Admiring ‘the sweetest little groves, streams, glades, porticoes, cascades and river imaginable’, he goes on to say ‘if I had such a house, such a library, so pretty a place and so pretty a wife, I think I should let King George send to Herrenhausen for a Master of the Ceremonies’. The Cottrell family had been Master of Ceremonies since the days of Charles II, but it became a more onerous task with the coming of the Hanoverians as they spent their summers back in Herrenhausen.

The reason for Clary’s recent letter was to give the family a reminder of their gardens. ‘Madam, I am afraid my Master and all of you have forgot what sort of a Place Rousham is, so I have sent you a description of it that it might not creep out of your Memorys’. Walpole clearly commiserated with him, but George II died later in the year and there was no more need for the Cottrell-Dormers to attend at summer courts. The pretty wife, Jane Caesar, returned to being a fulltime mistress of Rousham and promptly fired Clary.

However, not only has Clary’s guided tour become a gem of garden history, his description of Kent’s romantic planting clearly delighted Walpole. ‘You see deferant sorts of Flowers, peeping through the deferant sorts of Evergreens, here you think the Laurel produces a Rose. The Holly a Syringa, the Yew a Lilac and the sweet Honeysuckle is peeping out from under every Leafe’.

By 1765 Walpole at Strawberry Hill could write ‘the honeysuckle dangles from every tree in festoons, the syringas are thickets of sweets’. When Walpole later came to write his history of modern gardening, he could see it all in perspective.

It was Pope who had influenced Kent, and it was Pope who was held in such high esteem at Rousham, where a special ‘Pope’s room’ had been set up for him. Although Pope was dead when Walpole moved to Twickenham, he said that his ghost skimmed by his windows.

General Dormer, who never recovered from wounds received at the Battle of Blenheim, liked nothing better than to sit in his gardens reading Pope’s verses, enjoying ‘the ‘philosophic retirement’ Walpole said Kent had planned for him.

Kent had learnt from Pope a great love for Spenser’s The Faerie Queene and one of his illustrations is of Phaedra’s island clearly showing Rousham’s arcade Praeneste, the place to which celebrated Romans retired to regain their health.

At Rousham are two of Kent’s drawings, one of the view across the Cherwell, ‘calling in the country’ as Pope advised, and the other of Venus Vale, the best example of his ‘practical poetry’.

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