Walking around the gardens of Stowe reminded me of countless trips to country houses and national trust properties that my mum took me and my brother on as children. At the time these gardens seemed nothing more than huge playgrounds; with trees to climb, bushes to hide in and grass to stain elbows and knees. A slightly older me could appreciate the aesthetics of the gardens as well as the animals and plants that they harboured. Whilst this gave me a great deal of enjoyment, gardens such as the one at Stowe mean more than this.
Battle of Zama by Henri-Paul Motte, 1890
Landscape gardens fit into a long tradition of nature being used as a political tool. Hannibal used elephants to intimidate the Romans, Western colonists excluded indigenous peoples from game reserves and national parks are a key part of nation-building and national identity. The design of Stowe was an act of defiance and rebellion against the perceived corruption of the government of the day.
Turning his back on the straight-edges and expression of dominion over nature that classical formal gardens loved, Cobham began to blur the sharp definition between ‘nature’ and ‘society’. Up until this period, civilization could only occur once nature had been properly excluded and controlled. The transition from a formal garden to one that projected an illusion of ‘naturalness’ was part of this rebellion. The liberation of nature from the strict command that man had placed on it reflecting Cobham’s desire for a freer society and a loosening of the stranglehold that Walpole had established.
The Temple of British Worthies
It seems that as long as humans command aspects of nature, it will always be contorted into a statement. Whilst the stone visages that stare out from the Temple of British Worthies stir up a sense of patriotism and pride, this must be tempered by the knowledge that everything in this carefully designed garden is there to push a political message (if a somewhat outdated one). Translating this to the present, we must be aware the everywhere nature is used in this way and be careful of conservation being used as a vehicle to spread political ideals.