Design, In the Garden

Inspiring Garden Design: Wm. Kent’s Rousham Landscape

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On my last trip to the Cotswolds, I chose to include Rousham House in Oxfordshire. While it doesn’t receive the kind of attention that Hidcote, Sissinghurst and Great Dixter do, it is considered the masterpiece of Wm. Kent, the 18th century architect who added garden and landscape architecture to his resume’ later in his career. Rousham, created in 1737-1744, is a study in the principles of the new “picturesque” style introduced by Kent, a welcome contrast to the symmetrical precision in vogue at the time. You feel a comfort in the fact that everything is not manicured to perfection and it is this sense of comfort that prepares you for the pleasures of moving amongst the varied topographies approximating exactly how an eighteenth century visitor might have felt.

Once there, and strolling by myself at a zen pace, I became immersed in the palpable magic of this old landscape, so unspoiled and just as Kent had created it; not overlaid with changes in garden fashion over the centuries. This celebrated talent also brought his sense of drama and stage design to the task using the landscape’s natural features and taking advantage of borrowed views.

With great anticipation, you move from open pastures to dark enclosed woodlands, where curving paths lead to cascades and pools, classical buildings and a haha. Adding a sense of the designer’s wit, classical statues greet you at a turn in the path…

and a Palladian folly nestles into a grove of woodland trees.

Turn the corner and there is the River Cherwell down a steep hill, snaking its way through the landscape.

You’re then drawn up a path to discover the Praeneste arcade with its ancient Roman features nestled into the hillside.

Other discoveries await you…a meandering watery walk snakes through part of the garden, neat and tidy in comparison to other parts of the landscape, looking almost contemporary in its simplicity…

and empties into the octagonal pool overlooked by a small grotto under a grass lined path. The matched pair of trees on either side of the grotto, and the old backdrop of trees, provide the perfect example of a “framed view” which was also one of Kent’s signatures.

Breaking out of the woods, you immediately come upon another folly, fronted by a formal urn on plinth in the midst of a meadow. The low sunken stone wall to the left is a good example of a haha, an eighteenth century necessity created to give the viewer the illusion of an unbroken, continuous rolling lawn, whilst providing boundaries for grazing livestock.

I’ll close with images of the house, built in 1635 and still owned by the same family–a quirky, but fascinating facade that started out in the Jacobean style and later was graced with Kent contributions of Gothic details and Georgian references.

The walled gardens, a rare example of a 17th century country house garden, provide a contrast to Kent’s later designed landscapes. Aged contorted apple trees line both sides of the path to the potager garden…

while a massive yew hedge draws your attention with its scale and wonky shape…

and the boxwood parterres that are a bit ragged from years of pruning somehow in the setting add a charm to the experience. Centering this enclosed garden is the circular dovecote with espaliered fruit trees trained against its old walls.

And tulips, so ever present in English May gardens, luxuriating in the courtyard of the stable block designed also by Wm. Kent. What a finish to my day!

While Wm. Kent was the spirit behind the new picturesque movement in England, it was his protege’ at Stowe, Capability Brown, who would go on to true fame in the three hundred plus gardens he created in his lifetime.

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

4 thoughts on “Inspiring Garden Design: Wm. Kent’s Rousham Landscape

  1. As ever, inspirational, educational,..always a joy to travel thru your elegant eye to embrace great beauty. Thank you!

  2. Magnificent report! I wish I were able to stroll through that garden; I feel sure I would feel like a Jane Austen heroine.

  3. OoLaLa – Those lovely old apple trees and immense tulips in pots! Glad to see some little-known examples of how English gardeners so often “get it right”. Hope your 2022 trip to the UK is still ON.

  4. There are many less traveled gardens in England. I will have to check my notes to see if I’ve been to this garden. The photos seemed very familiar. Some private estates but a lot under the National Trust. Make me want to return very soon

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