Figures in a landscape: sculpture in the British garden

Editorial Staff Furniture & Decorative Arts, Magazine

This article was originally published in the 1987 October issue of ANTIQUES.

Pl. XIII. At the end of the beech allée at Chatsworth in Derbyshire is a colossal marble bust of William George Spencer Cavendish (1790 – 1858), sixth duke of Devonshire, on a marble column from the Temple of Minerva Sunias in Greece.

No English country-house garden would be complete without the well-placed statue terminating a vista–Thomas Gray’s “storied urn and animated bust”1 –giving a classical and literary reference to the landscape and subtly humanizing the wildness of nature. The origin of this, as of so many other aspects of British garden design, can be traced to sixteenth-century Italy. There the need to set man at the center of an ordered universe had received one if its clearest expressions in the sculpture garden, where nature was not only tamed but actually dominated by representation of the human form.

Pl. XIV. A neoclassical carved stone orator emerges from a sea of yew in the garden at Chatsworth.

  • Pl. XVIII. Iatlian copies of Greek and Roman statues in the water garden at Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. They were designed early in this century by Achille Duchêne (1866 – 1947) for the ninth duke of Malborough. The features and long neck of the sphinx are said to be those of the duke’s first wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt (d. 1964).

  • Pl. XII. An English eighteenth-century lead copy of the Belvedere Antinoüs (in the Vatican Museum, Rome) at Powis Castle in North Wales.

Donato Bramante’s Belvedere Court at the Vatican, begun in 1505 for Pope Julius II, was perhaps the first garden to revive the principle since the ancient world. The architect’s use of excavated Greek and Roman statues emphasized the link with the gardens of classical antiquity and illustrated the Arcadian visions of Virgil, or the empathy between different forms of life found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Gardens of the early English Renaissance were more likely to be furnished with heraldic imagery, like the painted wooden statues of heraldic animals called the King’s Beasts at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace. But a number of columns and obelisks from the garden at Nonsuch Palace in Surrey are illustrated in the famous Lumley Inventory of 1590,2 and their brightly colored marbles suggest that some at least may have been brought back from Lord Lumley’s embassy to Florence in the 1560’s.

The first true sculpture garden in England was the creation of Lord Lumley’s great-nephew Thomas Howard (1585? – 1646), second earl of Arundel, who took Inigo Jones (1573 – 1652) to Italy, and acquired there the first important collection of classical antiquities to reach Britain. While some of the finest statues were displayed in a sculpture gallery overlooking the Thames at Arundel House, others were arranged on plinths and balustrades in the raised parterre between the house and the Strand, as depicted in the background of the earl’s portrait now at Welbeck Abbey in Nottinghamshire.3 Francis Bacon, who felt that “Statua’s, and such Things” added “State, and Magnificence, but nothing to the true Pleasure of a Garden,” was presumably being sarcastic when he visited Arundel House and “coming into the… Garden, where there were a great number of Ancient Statues of naked Men and Women, made a stand, and as astonish’d cryed out: The Resurrection.”4 On the other hand, Charles I was so struck by the idea that he sent Hubert le Sueur (fl. 1610 – 1651) to Rome to take molds of the most famous classical sculptures for the gardens at St. James’s in London, while Nichols Stone’s (c. 1587 – 1647) rather lumpish statues of Venus and Cupid, Diana, and other deities, which still survive at Wilton House near Salisbury in Wiltshire, show how native sculptors were quick to take up the theme.

Pl. XI. An English late nineteenth-century lead version of Andrea del Verrochio’s (1435 – 1488) Putto with a Dolphin (now in the Palazzo Vecchio, Florence) at Crathes Castle, Aberdeenshire, Scotland.

Just as the Elizabethan and Stuart parterre was often conceived as the setting for court masques, so its statues could be seen as actors, enhancing the associational value of the garden. Perhaps the best example of this is Sir John Danvers’s garden at Chelsea, begun about 1622, whose scheme has been interpreted by Roy Strong as an evocation of Arcadia, and thus very much in tune with Samuel Daniel’s masques for Anne of Denmark, the Queen’s Arcadia of 1605 and Hymen’s Triumph of 1614.5 The sphinxes guarding the main entrance to the garden symbolized the search for ancient wisdom, while the flanking statues of Cain and Abel and Hercules and Antaeus represented the search for lost innocence before man’s fall and the defeat of earthly passions, the one Biblical, the other classical. In the garden itself John Aubrey described statues (again by Nicholas Stone) depicting “the Faithful Shepherd, and the Faithfull Shepherdesse… expressing Love-passions in the very freestone: where you read rustick beauty mixt with antique innocent simplicitie”6 –ancestors of Jan van Nost’s lead shepherd boy at Canons Ashby (Pl. IV). Again the inspiration for such complex imagery probably came from Italy, and it is interesting to find John Evelyn (1620 – 1706) visiting the Palazzo Negrone at Genoa in 1644 and finding ” a grove of stately trees, furnish’d with artificial Sheepe, Shepheards & Wild Beasts, so naturally cut in a grey-stone… that you would imagine your selfe in a Wilderness & Silent Country, side-ways in the heart of a great Citty.”7

Evelyn’s travel diaries of the 1640’s show his particular excitement at the amount of statuary in French and Italian gardens, and he drew lessons for its display in the harsher English climate. Thus the “incomparable statues” in the Belvedere Court in the Vatican “are for defense against the Weather shut up in their Neeches with dores of Wainscot,” while at the Villa Medici on the Pincian Hill in Rome, “here is also a row balustr’d with white marble, on which are erected divers statues and heads, covered over with the natural shrubbs, Ivys & other perennial Greenes, as in nices.”8 The disintegration of stone and marble outdoors was a constant problem, however, and it was partly for this reason that leadwork became so popular in the late seventeenth century. The whole point of statues, according to John Woolridge (fl. 1669 – 1698), writing in 1677, was for “Winter diversion… to recompence the loss of past pleasures, and to buoy up hope of another Spring,”9 so the boxing of shrubs and statues, long practiced in colder countries like Russia, was rarely done in England.

Pl. IV. Lead shepherd boy attributed to Van Nost, c. 1713, in the Green Court at Canons Ashby, Northamptonshire. Pl. V. One of two lead figures of kneeling slaves by Van Nost at Melbourne, 1700. Such figures would originally have been painted in bright, naturalistic colors.  Pl. VI. One of the monkeys supporting the Vase of the Seasons. Pl. VII. A lead satyr beckons toward the woods in the Venus’ Vale at Rousham House, Oxfordshire, created in the 1730’s by William Kent (1685 – 1748).

Large numbers of lead figures by Van Nost and his successor, Andries Carpentière , survive in English country-house gardens, but their weathered and lichened appearance which we have come to admire is very different from the sculptors’ original intentions. Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century accounts invariably record them being painted to resemble brass, bronze, marble or other types of stone, or even polychromed. A visitor to John Cheere’s (1709 – 1787) famous statuary yard at Hyde Park Corner in London in the 1750’s described the figures:

cast in lead as large as life and frequently painted with an intention to resemble nature. They consisted of Punch, Harlequin, Columbine and other pantomimical figures; mowers whetting their scythes, haymakers resting on their rakes, gamekeepers in the act of shooting and Roman soldiers with firelocks, but above all that of an Africab, kneeling with a sundial on his head.10

The lead slave trade was evidently brisk, for a number of examples of blackamoor sundials still exists, apparently derived from Van Nost’s pair of kneeling slaves at Melbourne Hall (Pl. V), many of them still bearing traces of red, green, and yellow paint on their feathered skirts and headdresses. The garden at Melbourne also contains Van Nost’s masterpiece, the great Vase of the Seasons (pls. III, VI), supported by monkeys, making it one of the earliest examples of singerie decoration in England.

Pl. III. The lead Vase of the Seasons by Jan van Nost (fl. 1686 – 1729), 1705, at Melbourne Hall, Derbyshire. The vase cost £100 and is still in its original position at the intersection of long grass walks.

The sundial has been thought an appropriate ornament for the garden since at least the beginning of the sixteenth century; the brass founder Bris Augustyn of Westminster, for example, supplied no less than twenty for Hampton Court in June 1534. Perhaps the most spectacular seventeenth-century sundial is that at Drummond Castle (Pl. I). The automata designed by Salomon de Caus for his grottoes at Wilton and at Somerset House in London or the orrery on a column recommended by John Woolridge were aspects of the popularity of science, but the emblematic value of the sundial was still more powerful in the garden, where the cycle of seasons was a constant reminder of the transitory nature of man’s existence:

As Time and Howres paseth awaye
So doeth the life of man decaye
As Time can be redeemed with no cost
Bestow it well and let no houre be lost.11

Pl. I. Stone sundial at Drummond Castle in Perthshire, Scotland, carved by John Mylne (d. 1657), 1630. Mylne was the Scottish master mason to King Charles I between 1631 and 1636. Photographs are by James Pipkin.

Pillars too were looked on as symbolic and appropriate ornaments, representing justice and strength of purpose. The large column in the center of the Great Garden at Wimbledon House in Surrey was erected in the 1590’s, probably in conscious tribute to the crowned pillar device of Queen Elizabeth I,12 while another in porphyry, thirty-two feet high, was used to support a marble statue of Venus at Wilton, according to Daniel Defoe.13

Pl. VIII. One of Kent’s classical urns, 1730 – 1740, flanking the loggia known as Praeneste at Rousham. The configuration is a conscious evocation of the antique Roman garden in Plaestrina.

Eighteenth-century treatises contain very precise instructions as to the placing of the different deities. In his Ichonographia Rustica of 1718 Stephen Switzer (1682? – 1745) wrote:

It cann’t but be an unpleasant Sight… to view Jupiter, Mars, Neptune, and the rest of the capital Deities of Heaven, misplac’d, and by a meanness of spirit below a good Designer, set perching upon a little Pedestal; one like a Citizen; a second with a Pike in his Hand, like a Foot-Soldier; and the third upon dry Land with a Trident, like a Cart-filler.14

Batty Langley’s (1696 – 1751) New Principles of Gardening, published ten years later, gives detailed lists of the figures suitable for different locations, descending to some of the lower slopes of Olympus for inspiration: thus Flora and Cloris might be attended in the flower garden by Runcina the Goddess of Wedding”; Diana and Actaeon could be accompanied in “Woods and Grooves” by Philomela, who was transformed into a nightingale, and Itys, who became a pheasant; while “small Inclosures of Wheat, Barley, &c. in a Wilderness” might suit “Robigus a God who preserved Corn from being blasted… and Tutelina a Goddess, who had the Tuition of Corn in the Fields.”15 William Kent’s satyrs and maenads emerging from the woods and his bathing nymphs by the pools in Venus’ Vale at Rousham House (Pl. VII) show that he peopled his scenes with equal care.
Lead or stone copies of famous antique statues, like the version of the Belvedere Antinoüs at Powis Castle (Pl. XII), were mostly favored in the mid-eighteenth century, and Italian Renaissance models like the famous Putto with a Dolphin by Andrea del Verrochio from the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, only gained popularity at a later date (see Pl. XI). Animals were another passion of the English country-house owner, from the Medicean lion stalking through the rhododendrons at Kedleston Hall (Pl. XVI) to the sacred cow in the Chinese Garden at Biddulph Grange (Pl. XVII).

Pl. XVI. English stone version of one of the Medicean lions (in the Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence) at Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire on a plinth designed by Samuel Wyatt (1737 – 1807) in the late 1760’s. The neoclassical urn on a pedestal behind it was erected soon afterwards as a memorial to the poet Michael Drayton (1563 – 1631).

Pl. XV. At Castle Howard in Yorkshire, peacocks visit a nineteenth-century version of the famous antique bronze Wild Boar in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

Garden statues could also convey a political message. At Stowe, John Michael Rysbrack’s series of the Saxon gods and goddesses who gave their names to the days of the week recalled the “ancient liberties” of druidical Britain in the same way that his busts for the Temple of Bristish Worthies (Pl. IX) gave an illustrious pedigree to Richard Temple ( 1675 – 1749), first Lord Cobham’s, brand of patriotic Whiggery. As the taste for “picturesque” gardening grew, however, statues began to be thought too artificial as ornaments in a purely natural landscape, and urns or vases were preferred. Some, like those at Petworth House (Pl. X), were based on antique prototypes; others, like a magnificent seventeenth-century pair at Syon House in Middlesex were removed from the parapets of the house itself and re-employed as garden ornaments. In the words of the poet William Shenstone (1714 – 1763), “Urns are more solemn, if large and plain; more beautiful, if less and ornamented. Solemnity is perhaps their point, and the situation of them should still cooperate with it.”16 In the seventeenth century orange and bay tress were set outdoors in summer in gilded lead or blue-and-white Chinese or Delft pots, as can be seen in the famous needlework hangings from Stoke Edith now at Montacute House in Somerset or in the sort of painted tubs used at Versailles, such as those shown in the painting attributed to Pieter Andreas Rysbrack (c. 1684 – 1748) of the Orange Tree Garden at Chiswick in Middlesex.17 But by Lancelot (“Capability”) Brown’s day, these too were considered too gaudy and out of key with the muted colors of nature. Chaste neoclassical urns made of Coade stone and based on celebrated antique prototypes, like the Warwick Vase ( formerly at Warwick Castle and now in the Burrell Collection in Glasgow), were thought more suitable. Latin inscriptions and dedications invoked the world of Homer and Virgil, and urns were dedicated to the memory of friends to provide a tinge of pleasing melancholy. At Shugborough in Staffordshire, the Shepherd’s Monument contains a bas-relief by Peter Scheemakers (1691 – 1770) after Poussin’s famous Et in Arcadia Ego,18 one of the most potent images of the “picturesque” movement, breathing the same air of mystery that haunts Keats’s ode “On a Grecian Urn.”

Pl. XVII. The lead “Sacred Cow” painted in naturalistic colors in the Chinese Garden at Biddulph Grange, Staffordshire, was made in England in the 1850’s.

Humphry Repton’s (1752 – 1818) revival of the terrace in the early nineteenth century also revived the fashion for statues and vases (filled with trailing plants in the Italian manner) lining stone or terra-cotta balustrades. Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt’s (1820 – 1877) new formal gardens at Castle Ashby, in Northamptonshire, dating from the 1840’s, were bounded by balustrades inspired by the Jacobean lettering around the parapet of the house, but instead of the Psalms in Latin, somewhat gloomy quotations from the Bible (including “The grass withereth and fadeth away….”) were rendered in four-foot high terra-cotta letters.

Pl. XIX. Theseus Sarcophagus, dating from A.D. 240 – 250, at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire. It shows scenes from the story of Theseus and Ariadne and was found in 1883 at Castel Giubileo, the site of ancient Fidenae, north of Rome. William Waldorf Astor (1848 – 1919) brought it back to Cliveden and set it with other classical sarcophagi against the dark yew hedges of the forecourt.

A revival of interest in the gardens of the Italian Renaissance persuaded William Waldorf Astor at the end of the century to acquire the famous balustrade from the forecourt of the Villa Borghese in Rome, although the authorities prevented him from acquiring the antique statues that stood upon it. When the balustrade was re-erected below the terrace at Cliveden in the 1890’s, it was crowned with a pair of handmaids of Diana, carved by Claude Poirier (1657 – 1729) and Claude Augustin Cayot (1667 – 1722) for Louis XIV’s château of Marly19 –not perhaps correct from a purist’s point of view but splendid in scale and in their picturesque effect. Both at Cliveden and at Hever Castle, which he acquired in 1906, Astor’s Roman sarcophagi placed against dark yew hedges (Pl. XIX), stone urns silhouetted against the sky, and statues situated to emphasize the perspective of a long walk, can be compared with the work of Harold Peto (1854 – 1933) at Buscot Parkin Oxfordshire or Achille Duchêne’s at Blenheim Palace (Pl. XVIII). The effect is a mixture of formality and romantic yearning that can also be found in Eugène Atget’s (1856 – 1927) famous photographs of Versailles at the turn of the century.

Pl. XX. Stone herma with pan pipes at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, one of a collection of fine English eighteenth-century garden statues acquired in the 1920’s and 1930’s by the American-born Huttleston Broughton, first Lord Fairhaven. Pl. XXI. One of the chestnut allées at Anglesey Abbey, planted to commemorate the coronation of King George VI in 1936. The vast stone urn at the far end is one of a pair made in the 1840’s for Stafford House in London.

One of the most remarkable collections of English garden sculpture is that at Anglesey Abbey (Pl. XX, XXI), in the garden which the first Lord Fairhaven began to lay out in 1926 on an unpromising stretch of flat Cambridgeshire fen. John Michael Rysbrack’s Father Time supporting a sundial in the center of the Herbaceous Garden, the ten Corinthian columns from Chesterfield House in London set around the circular Temple Lawn, or the six Coade stone caryatids from Sir John Soane’s (1753 – 1837) Bank of England in London marking the cross axis of the Great Avenue to a large extent dictated the form of their new settings and can be compared with the antique furniture collected for neo-Georgian interiors in the 1930’s. Since World War II a few notable attempts have been made to create gardens around contemporary sculpture–at Sutton Place in Surrey, for example, where a huge white marble relief by Ben Nicholson (1894 – 1982) is mirrored in a formal lily pond designed by Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (b. 1900). But far the most successful synthesis between art and nature has been achieved at Glenkiln in Dumfriesshire, where Henry Moore’s (1898 – 1986) King and Queen (among other sculptures) gaze majestically over a Scottish grouse moor–not perhaps a garden in the accepted sense, but a return to the “picturesque” and to Edmund Burke’s ideals of the Beautiful and the Sublime.

Pl. XXII. Terra-cotta jars at Hever Castle, Kent, brought back from the Middle East by William Waldorf Astor.

This article is based on a chapter in Gervase Jackson-Stops and James Pipkin, The Country House Garden: A Grand Tour, recently published by Little, Brown and Company.

GERVASE JACKSON-STOPS has been the architectural adviser to the English National Trust since 1975.

JAMES PIPKIN, who took the photographs for this article, is a freelance architectural photographer and an attorney.

[1] From “Elegy in a Country Churchyard” (1768) as cited in The Complete Poems of Thomas Gray, ed. H.W. Starr and J. R. Hendricksen (Oxford, 1966), p. 39.

[2] John, Lord Lumley’s (1534? – 1609) inventory, unique for being illustrated, is discussed in Gervase Jackson-Stops, “Riches of a Renaissance Courtier-The Lumley Inventory,” Country Life, June 5, 1986, pp. 1586 – 1588.

[3] A detail of the portrait is illustrated in Roy Strong, The Renaissance Garden in England (London, 1979), p. 173, Fig. 113. It is wrongly stated on p. 236 of that book that the illustration shows the background of the portrait of Alatheia Talbot (d. 1654), countess of Arundel, by Daniel Mytens (c. 1590 – 1647) now on loan to Arundel Castle in West Sussex from the National Portrait Gallery, London.

[4] Quoted in Thomas Tenison, Baconiana (London, 1679), p. 57.

[5] Renaissance Garden, pp. 176 – 181 and Figs. 115 and 116.

[6] Quoted in A.M. Charles, A Life of George Herbert (Utica, New York, 1977), pp. 61 – 65.

[7] The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. de Beer (Oxford, England, 1955), vol. 2, p. 173.

[8] Ibid, p. 236.

[9] From Systema Horti-Culturae: or the Art of Gardening (1677), quoted in John Dixon Hunt and Peter Willis, The Genius of the Place (London, 1975), p. 91.

[10] From Leaves in a Manuscript Diary (London, 1772) as quoted in Rupert Gunnis. Dictionary of British Sculptors 1660 – 1851, 2nd ed. (London, 1964), p. 99.

[11] Inscription on a seventeenth- century sundial quoted in Stanley Stewart, The Enclosed Garden: The Tradition and the Image in Seventeenth Century Poetry (Madison, Wisconsin, 1966), p. 116.

[12]  Robert Smythson’s 1609 plan of Wimbledon is illustrated in Strong, Renaissance Garden, p. 61, Fig. 29.

[13] A Tour Thro’ The Whole Island of GreatBritain (London, 1724 – 1726; reprinted London, 1983), vol. 1, pp. 210 – 211.

[14] Quoted in Dixon Hunt and Willis , The Genius of the Place, p. 155.

[15] Quoted in ibid., pp. 184 – 186.

[16] From “Unconnected Thoughts on Gardening,” The Works in Verse and Prose, of William Shenstone, Esq. (London, 1764), vol. 2, p. 134.

[17] Illustrated in The Treasure Houses of Britain: Five Hundred Years of Private Patronage and Art Collecting, ed. Gervase Jackson-Stops (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1985), pp. 219 – 220, No. 141.

[18] See Christopher Hussey, “A Classical Landscape Park-Shugborough, Staffordshire,” Country Life, April 15, 1954, pp. 1126 – 1129 and Figs. 11 and 12.

[19] Terence Hodgkinson, “Companions of Diana at Cliveden,” in National Trust Studies (London, 1979), pp. 91 – 98.