“Stowe is not a garden of flowers or shrubs, it’s a garden of ideas”
– from Gardens in Time S1E2, Stowe.
On the morning of Sunday the 23rd of January (prior to our field trip to Waddesdon and Stowe Gardens) our BCM class undertook an exercise analysing how we imagine nature. We each mentally conjured up images of nature: subjective of course as they are relative to our past experiences. For me, it materialised as a tranquil English countryside scene – complete with meandering stream, numerous imposing oak trees and a collection of beautiful butterflies, chirping crickets and feisty foxes – as this is the idea of nature I have grown up with in the UK (see picture below for an approximation). This image to me reflects the ‘naturalness’ and untouched qualities of nature. However, I was to learn that things aren’t always what they seem with regard to the ‘natural’ world.
The English Countryside. Credit: Natural England.
Upon arriving at Stowe, it became apparent that my idea of nature had actually been constructed in the 18th century, with the development of the landscape garden. Stowe is a demonstration of the changes in this movement, as Cobham uses nature to create a powerful, politically charged, and influential gardens, bringing in examples and techniques from Europe and further afield. By introducing new designs such as the Ha-ha (France) and the Serpentine river (Japan) – as well as plenty of Greek and Roman influences seen in the Elysian fields and the statue of Venus – Cobham demonstrated his political ideology and rebellion against the Tory party.
Ha-ha at Stowe. Credit: Willowbrook Park blog.
The Serpentine River at Stowe Gardens.
Statue of Venus at Stowe. Image released under creative commons.
It was during this time period (17th and 18th centuries) that influential British landowners begun to spatially delineate the English countryside in order to gain more power and control. This can be seen at Stowe, where Cobham inserted a thick treeline on the perimeter of his gardens to block the sight of the nearby village of Lamport, as he regarded it as unsightly and not in keeping with the ‘naturalness’ of the gardens. This reinforces the nature/culture binary, as well as the exclusivity of the property.
Some of the most notable features that appear completely incidental to the untrained eye are the serpentine river (actually designed and constructed by Charles Bridgeman to free the garden from the tyranny of geometry and filled with black sand in order to look like the river Styx), the various trees (managed and arranged to perfectly frame Cobham’s imposing military monuments), and the Grecian valley opposite the Temple of Concord and Victory (created with the intention of forming a man-made lake). Thus Cobham manipulated nature in order to demonstrate his political and military achievements to whoever was deemed important enough to be deigned with an invitation to Stowe.
Lord Cobham’s Pillar.
Grecian Valley. Credit: Mike Jackson.
As a desired result of this manipulation of nature, Stowe became THE venue for important political discussions, and Cobham would invite some of the most well-known and respected figures from the military, banking and political sectors. Henceforth, investments were discussed and decisions were made that would influence the politics of the Whig party for the next 100 years.
Cobham’s gardens at Stowe are a reflection of both his political ideas and military victories. It is here that nature begins to be interwoven into the rich historical and political tapestry of 18th century England, as Cobham incorporates the former (perhaps rather awkwardly) into the latter, disturbing and blurring the boundaries firmly set in place by the geometrical landscape garden previously dominant in Britain. The result is a co-produced ‘nature’ that is both cultural and natural, serving the purpose of amplifying the cultural successes of military victories and a new politics.
But where does this leave us today? I believe this field trip raised many important questions for today’s conservationists:
- To what extent is Nature a cultural construction?
- Will our society ever stop viewing Nature as something to be used and manipulated? And more to the point…
- Should it?