Brenda Colvin at Stowe

Posted on March 18th, 2013 by Charles Boot

Brenda Colvin at Stowe

Michael Bevington

A garden at Stowe by the famous landscape architect Brenda Colvin, CBE (1897–1981), has been identified. According to Trish Gibson’s recent book, one of her first commissions was ‘Mr Roxburgh’s garden’. Stowe School opened on 11 May 1923 with J.F. Roxburgh as Headmaster. His living quarters adjoined the Gothic Library, so his garden would have been outside, on the east parterre behind the balustrade.

The Headmaster’s garden on the East Partere, at Stowe, in the 1930s

The Headmaster’s garden on the East Partere, at Stowe, in the 1930s

Colvin’s Notebook lists her commissions from 1922, when she was aged 25, with J.F.’s garden as No. 7, ‘through Joy Coupley’. Typical of her designs, it featured a square of rough flagstones, with paths stretching out on either side delineated by rectangular flowerbeds, an elegant solution in this elongated rectangular space. In December 1923 The Stoic reported, ‘The eastern half of the Headmaster’s garden has now been laid out. The disadvantages of sowing grass two months too late are admirably illustrated by the condition of the ‘lawns’. The Stoic of April 1924 noted that the west parterre had been sown for the Head’s grass tennis lawn. In 1927 Queen Mary received school guests in the Headmaster’s garden and in 1929 H.R.H. Prince George took tea at its east end, where there was a paved area with a wooden seat sheltered by bushes.

From the left: J.F Roxborough, Lord Gisborough, HRH Prince George, who had just opened Stowe Chapel, and Rev. Percy Warrington, at the east end of Colvin’s garden, 11 July 1929

From the left: J.F Roxborough, Lord Gisborough, HRH Prince George, who had just opened Stowe Chapel, and Rev. Percy Warrington, at the east end of Colvin’s garden, 11 July 1929

A view up the Headmaster’s maturing garden, 1926

A view up the Headmaster’s maturing garden, 1926

At about this time Colvin wrote that her work also included ‘restoring landscape at Stowe’, making her the first of many restorers in recent years. Of equal interest is No. 55 in her Notebook, dated 1924: ‘Roxburgh — Stowe (New House)’. This was presumably Chatham House, designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. She may have introduced the path, bank and formal fencing to the south and the pair of trees flanking the portico.

She doubtless also advised on the siting of Chatham, the school’s first major detached building, perhaps because Williams-Ellis’ Sanatorium and old Gymnasium appeared unrelated to existing buildings. Chatham, ‘set with its back to the belt of great trees and overlooking the lake’, and the old Hostel were, however, aligned with the nearby Temple of Bacchus; they thus re-created the anachronistic east-west alignment of the former Great Cross Walk, long obliterated.

Two years later, in 1926, to provide space for a chapel, Sir Reginald Blomfield proposed extending the western axis of the main House, replacing the Temple of Bacchus with the Chapel. This then created the clash of angles with Chatham.

Brenda Colvin, Sylvia Crowe and Geoffrey Jellicoe formed a ‘landscape triumvirate’, regarded as a major influence on 20th-century landscape design in the UK. Colvin’s work at Stowe, perhaps her first commission for an institution, formed an early but significant part in her visionary contribution both to landscape and to female professionalism in the UK and internationally. Following the magnificent restoration of Stowe’s South Front, Colvin’s Headmaster’s garden could now be re-instated as a fitting tribute to a key moment in Stowe’s development.

First published in The Corinthian, Stowe 2012


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