Stourhead Landscape Garden in autumn with Radio 4, Eddie Mair and Alan Power

Stourhead is more than a tree garden: it is an important work of art

Listening to Eddie Mair on Radio 4 I often think ‘Eddie is Britain’s Best Broadcaster, ever’. He towers above the entire Dimbleby family as the Shard towers over London. Well, for several years Eddie has been chatting with one of Britain’s nicest gardeners: Alan Power looks after Stourhead. Eddie went to Stourhead Garden today and spent two and a half hours walking round with Alan. It was a vintage disappointment. Alan mentioned several times that Stourhead is a work of art and that it has many temples. Eddie missed the point and was interested only in the trees and the autumnality – so we kept coming back to Tulip Trees and Maples. It was like walking round St Paul’s Cathedral and talking about the materials and the paint colours – interesting enough for specialists, but not the main point for a high profile discussion. Reyner Banham observed that ‘The purely visual aesthetic of Stourhead, free of sentimentality and allusion, is what puts it in the class of European masterpieces… in a manner that escaped Capability Brown for most of his life’. I do not know why Banham thought Stourhead ‘free of sentimentality and allusion’ but he is surely right about it being a masterpiece and a work of art – and there are only a handful of gardens in this category. Don’t get the wrong idea: I am very interested in why, for example, TS Eliot wrote ‘Let us go then, you and I’ instead of ‘Let us go then, you and me’ but if I were going to present Eliot to a mass audience on Radio 4 then I would not take this as the most important point about either him or J Alfred Prufrock.
Let’s hope Eddie Mair returns to Stourhead with a determination to understand its importance as a work of art.

20 thoughts on “Stourhead Landscape Garden in autumn with Radio 4, Eddie Mair and Alan Power

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Stourhead is rightly compared with the work of Claude Lorraine and one wonders which is more ‘important’ as a work of art. One could argue that Claude’s paintings are more sophisticated, intellectually and poetically, but Stourhead has alternative strengths. It is much larger; it is more valuable; its quality of way above any other work in its class; it is alive; it communicates a vital message: the Golden Age can be more than a dream – it can be a reality.

  1. Christine

    Stourhead is rather like a setting for a Claude Lorrain painting! [ ]

    I am not sure how you would go about comparing which work of art was more important. My intuitive thoughts are that it would be necessary to understand the place of Stourhead in landscape architecture and the place of a particular painting by Lorrain in the history of art.

    The of course you would need to consider the importance of the landscape architect and artist to their respective disciplines.

    Is there a situation in which you would be forced to choose/judge between the two? Perhaps in giving government grant money for their conservation?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Good points.
      One problem with viewing Stourhead as a work of art is that its owner-designer, Henry Hoare, was not responsible for any other creative work of this type. One cannot therefore judge his oeuvre, as one can with writers, painters, poets and professional designers. A second problem is that because he was the patron and other designers were involved one cannot be sure about where component ideas originated.
      Stourhead does however fit into a history in terms of why it has its present form and in terms of its influence on visitors and designers.
      ‘Importance’ matters for conservation and also for decisions about WHAT to conserve. There has been a long dispute about the planting of ornamental trees and shrubs in the garden. Most of them were introduced in the nineteenth century and represent a different design idea which is very well represented elsewhere. Purists think they should not be there because of the rarity and significance of eighteenth century landscape classicism.
      I side with purists but agree that the issues are difficult. The case for de-Islamising Hagia Sophia needs to be considered (I think I would leave the minarets but remove the calligraphic roundels from the interior). The names painted on the wooden roundels are: Allah, the first four Caliphs, Muhammad and his 2 grandsons.
      In the case of Stourhead I think the wonderful Eddie is departing from the the BBC’s vaunted impartiality by going on-and-on about the nineteenth century additions instead of about the original eighteenth century character and quality. He made another slip when devoting a 1-hour TV interview to the Mayor of London’s foibles instead of going through his policies (eg on cycling) with an analytical scalpel.
      Right-wing commentators criticise the BBC for left-wing bias, Their journalists become impartial in hotly dispute the charge. I think they represent the ‘left-leaning British establishment’ which, because it is liberal, has a highly partisan belief in impartiality. The BBC is probably ‘speaking for England’ is stressing the horticultural aspect of Stourhead but this does not mean they are right!

  2. Christine

    True. It would not be possible to consider the importance of the ouevre of the owner-designer Henry Hoare in this context. But like the Sydney Opera House the work is obviously in a league of its own as an accomplishment.

    In terms of the history of landscape architecture it is possible to ask – what came before it (is it influenced by prior developments in landscape architecture? ) and what came after it (has it influenced developments in landscape architecture?).

    Or like the Sydney Opera House has it become a worldwide symbolic short hand for a city and a nation? ( This would be true of Big Ben! being identifiable with London and the UK and the statue of liberty with NY and the US).

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      ‘What came before Stowe’ were Chiswick House, Stowe, Castle Howard etc and ‘What came after Stourhead’ was probably beyond the English Channel. Within England, taste moved on to the more abstract (ie less symbolic) work of Lancelot Brown. But his style did not catch on outside England so when ‘English landscape gardens’ became symbols of liberty and enlightenment outside England they drew, I think, more from Stourhead than from Brown’s many projects. My names for the two phases are Augustan (for the symbolic, Claudian, Stourhead-like gardens) and Serpentine for the more abstract Brownian gardens. Some of the best non-English Augustan gardens are in Russia eg Tsarskoe Selo and Pavlovsk. So I think Stowe had more progeny than the Sydney Opera House has had to date.

  3. Christine

    Yes! The children of the Opera House do not look like their parents.

    There is Charles Jencks Disney [ ] and Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim Museum [ ]

    The children do however look like siblings!

    It is interesting that Utzon is Danish, probably the most famous Danish architect and his most famous work is in Australia.

    It makes the conservation of his ouevre and legacy a little more challenging for the Danish government.

    Thinking about this issue a little more it seems Effiel has trumped everyone with the Eiffel tower (although his providence as the designer is contested).[ ]. It was intended that the structure be temporary. And it is named after its author making him world famous in history.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      I had not thought of Gehry as a child of Utzon but I see it now.
      Re the Eifel Tower, I see it as a big risk. One has to take a few of them in life but they should not become a habit. And, luckily, the Tower did not have too many children.
      The Shard was another risk. I find far more people love it than hate it. I did not give it much thought before it was built and am ashamed to confess that if I had been asked ‘Should we build it?’ I would probably have said ‘No’. But in the case of the Walkie Talkie I hope my answer would have been ‘Only if…’ and that I would have completed the sentence by asking for more thought to be given to (1) its location (2) the effect of its mirror on the possibilities for frying eggs (3) its relationship with the streets. But I would also have wanted something scarcely possible: a vision for how it might relate to future buildings.

  4. Christine

    The Eiffel Tower has ‘adoptive’ children. This is probably a typological relationship of which maybe the Eiffel tower was first.

    Black mountain tower is one of the children. Communication towers never seem to be popular as elements on/in the landscape.[ ]

    Then somehow they become familiar parts of the landscape and even loved by the residents.

    Yes, sometimes the answer to whether something should be built is yes or no. While sometimes it is a question of yes, but with conditions.

    This is a little like what happens when planning decisions are reviewed on merits.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      Great photo of the Black Mountain Tower. It reminds me of the Hill of Sanchi. They should have integrated the design with that of a stupa. I could not find a distant view of the Hill but this is a medium view
      As they successes have many children and failures are orphans.
      These days, and even for left-wing boroughs, the main consideration in London planning considerations is ‘how much money and how many jobs will they generate?’

  5. Christine

    Perhaps we should be evaluating the communication towers via a landscape visual assessment and consider them in the same way as minarets when they are part of an urban landscape? [ ]

    How much money and how many jobs are admirable questions. But it does not seem to me that a bad design will generate any more money or any more jobs than a good one. Perhaps someone could crunch some numbers on this?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      My impression is that aesthetic quality was a significant consideration in the design of the Black Mountain Tower but that ‘aesthetic quality’ was an abstract consideration, divorced from meaning, symbolism and the world of ideas. Unless those who see the Black Mountain Tower are mainly Muslim then I doubt if minaret symbolism would the right choice – and this leads to the difficult question of what would be the the right choice for a multi-faith or secular society.
      I hope bad design generates LESS money and FEWER jobs than good design but if they design team and the planners have sticky fingers and grubby palms, and are in a rush, then they are not likely to produce high quality designs.

  6. Christine

    Yes, it won technical and architectural awards. [ ] However, during the approval process “protests arose on aesthetic and ecological grounds. Some people felt that the tower would dominate other aesthetic Canberra structures due to its location above Black Mountain and within a nature reserve.”

    The development was contested in the High Court on constitutional grounds, however, it was decided in favour of the government.

    Apparently Black Mountain tower became part of the World Federation of Great Towers in 1989 along with the Blackpool tower in the UK.

    I am not sure that the minaret is a symbolic reference, possibly only a typological one. Perhaps the Big Ben clock tower would also be within the same typology of communication structures? Although the clock tower is both a visual and a sound communication purpose (ie you both look at the clock face and hear it chime.)

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      For me, the only ‘commandment’ is that the design team MUST explain the relationship with the environment that they envisage. They can make a case for it being indistinguishable from its its environment (eg the equipment is underground), similar to its environment or a sharp contrast with its environment. The Black Mountain Tower is obviously in the third category and for this type of ‘bid’ I think much depends on a relative assessment of scenic quality. If it is an ugly or humdrum place then there is a fair case for a contrast but if it is the most beautiful and admired place in a region then the case should be much harder to make.
      I do not know what case, if any, Vignoly made for the Walkie Scorchie but I think it making a case would have been possible. It most definitely does not relate to the present or past form of the City but he could have made a case for ‘mushroom’ buildings being good – just as the designer of the Empire State Building could have made a case for NYC becoming even more of a city of skyscrapers than it was in 1931.

  7. Christine


    It is definitely worth seeing designers engage in a public conversation about their design that it not confrontational but rather educational in orientation. So that the public can be more enlightened about their thinking and perhaps can make comments with greater pertinancy to the designers thinking.

    The cumulative impact of a single project on the future of a city skyline, as you allude to, is an even more important consideration which perhaps designers give as much thought to. It would be great to hear them speak more on this.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      They need to talk to the public but, even more important, they need to talk to themselves about contextual relationships! One category of sculpture is described as ‘site-related’. By implication, most sculpture is not in this category. But I guess ALL architecture needs to be site-related and I think designers must take this into account. Most probably they would all say they do but this probably little more than thinking that the context is going to benefit from a fine new building. I would like to see a Context Statement forming part of the design process. Then, since they have done it, the statement should form part of the planning permission process.

  8. Christine

    Well yes. They would insist that their buildings are site related and this would be true. But context related is different because it suggests thinking about issues outside of the boundaries of the site. It is not common for clients to consider these things particularly relevant if they are not immediately relevant to their own development ie related to views.

    So yes a Context Statement would be good as well as a Site Statement, so that the two sets of concerns a clearly differentiated.

    If this was so, it would also be necessary for more information to be available to designers on the development pipeline so that the changing context could be better understood. There may be some intellectual property, commercial in confidence and privacy imperatives in this.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      The distinction between Site and Context is valid, though they could be conflated and ‘site’ could be regarded as a subset of ‘context’.
      It would be helpful if planning authorities put more effort into making information available to designers – and less effort into the promulgation of hot air! Here, for example, is the Greenwich policy on public open space:
      SO1 To adopt a positive approach to the use and treatment of open space by:
      i. Maintaining and increasing suitable recreational facilities;
      ii. Improving the environmental quality of open spaces;
      iii. Identifying and conserving sites of nature conservation importance and;
      iv. Recognising the value of landscape, biodiversity and open space features throughout the
      urban environment.

      I do not disagree with any of these policies but they are legalistic – not informative and not inspirational.

  9. Christine

    Hmmm. The policy doesn’t really give a good idea of the definition of public open space. For example, is it land in public ownership or is it private land used for public purposes. I am sure this distinction would have important consequences for design as it would for the subsequent management and use of the spaces. And of course for how the public interest is construed.

    Does the Port Authority have ownership and management responsibilities for the Thames to low tide? Where does private ownership of the land begin?

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      British local government is run, substantially but not entirely, on the principle of Buggins’ turn and, in order for the new Buggins to get their turns, they have to do much what their predecessors did. The amazing Lord Jacky Fisher, who re-formed the Royal Navy as the decisive factor in the First World War, remarked in 1901 that ‘Favouritism was the secret of our efficiency in the old days… Going by seniority saves so much trouble. ‘Buggins’s turn’ has been our ruin and will be disastrous hereafter!’ I do not know how he became First Lord of the Admiralty but, when appointed, his first action was to decommission all the out of date ships. UK local authorities, with regard to public open space planning, never do this. They merely re-hash the work of their predecessors. So they lack, among many other things, coherent definitions of ‘public’, ‘open’ and ‘space’.
      The Port of London Authority has control of the entire tideway (the tidal reach of the Thames). Mayor Boris has the EXCELLENT idea of making the PLA part of the Greater London Authority which he heads. Boris is no Buggins so this could only be good. I am less keen on Boris’ wish to ramp up London’s size by immigration. Most of them seem to be good people – but. as with booze, one can have too much of a good thing!


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