West Wycombe : the perfect Georgian park?

After last week’s post about Sir Francis Dashwood, outlining the background history of West Wycombe and its wider landscape today I’m turning my attention to the pleasure grounds and parkland of the estate.  Like the house itself these were designed  in stages by Sir Francis  over the course of  his life, beginning after his return from Italy in 1735. However his ideas changed and developed and he often altered earlier features as he went along.  Surprisingly there isn’t that much documentary evidence, or many extant contemporary descriptions but  the grounds are recorded in two sets of contemporary paintings while  the layout and, of course, many of the features he built still survive.

 

I’m going to attempt a walking tour of the pleasure grounds, which means things won’t necessarily appear in chronological order  If you want that then refer to Michael Symes’s article , “Flintwork, Freedom and Fantasy: [full reference below]  The photos are my own unless otherwise acknowledged

These days visitors approach via a long drive from the main road through the village of West Wycombe, which comes in on the western side of the pleasure grounds.  Car parking is in what I’d guess was the walled kitchen garden tucked in a corner just inside the gate.  Walking up the drive there are views on the west, now over paddocks and a cricket field  [the most modern intrusion of all!] to open country,  and on the east  through woodland and then the Broad Walk  to the lake and parkland  beyond.

The Broad Walk and Britannia Column

The lake was originally octagonal, like Stowe’s, while the Broad Walk is probably a left-over feature from the grounds of the earlier house. These days the most prominent feature  is the Britannia Column. Although the lead statue, probably by the workshop of John Cheere,  has been at West Wycombe a long time it was moved here in 1986 by the 11th baronet in honour of the 60th birthday of the Queen.

There’s just an occasional glimpse of the house, until rounding a curve the magnificent western end of the house suddenly fills the view.  Its grand double height portico was based on drawings done in 1762 by Nicholas Revett of the Greek Temple of Bacchus at Teos, now in western Turkey.  These were shown to the Society of Dilettanti on his return and the idea – and Revett himself- was immediately taken up by Dashwood.

 

It is a very early example of a copy of a real Greek building and was  completed in 1771 – the last of the four fronts to be completed.

Each and any of the four, although in completely different styles, would be capable of being  the main entry point. On either side of the portico  are tall yew hedges.  On the right it wraps around a small Temple of Diana and conceals the stable yard, and  would also have hidden the  service wing, most of which was taken down after the war.

 

Looking over the parkland to the left the view is quite dramatic:  the ground drops away sharply down to the lake with the Temple of Music on an island,  although, as can be seen in the painting below,  not as sharply as it did in Sir Francis’s day.

As you take in other details  – such as the little temple in the distance and the bridges across narrow sections of the lake, it takes a little while to realise that what you see is merely the opening scene of the  totality of the designed landscape.

 

Lifting your eyes  to the distant hills outside the park and behind and high above the village,  you   see the extraordinary Dashwood Mausoleum and parish church which I wrote about last week.

They form a central part of many views out from the parkland, especially from the higher ground, and were clearly intended to do so.

All in all that view from  the north terrace is simply  the epitome of the Georgian designed landscape as I’d guess most of us imagine it and there can’t be many other views  that can compete.  Indeed it’s so impressive  that at first you don’t really notice the long north front.  This was probably by John Donowell  and was finished by 1751, with images of it soon appearing  in Vitruvius Britanicus.

At the far corner of the north front is a small but dense clump of trees, which hides the transition to the east front, which as can be seen from the Hannan painting above might otherwise appear to be somewhat awkward.

There is another stand of trees between the east and south fronts too for the same reason. This helps give the double height portico of the East Front – this time Doric – the appearance of being a standalone temple.

 

The ceiling and rear wall are frescoed and there are a splendid pair of lions, in lead but painted white, on the steps. Completed in  about 1755 the portico is a copy of the one at Mereworth Castle in Kent which was owned by Dashwood’s uncle, the Earl of Westmoreland, and itself based on Palladio’s  Villa Rotunda in Vicenza.

From the east front a short ride runs through woodland, before  joining the long drive to and from  the village which was once the main approach to the house.

 

Finally the southern front reached by rounding the corner again is another of Dashwood’s Italianate concoctions.  This was the original entrance front and work on the new facade began shortly after the completion of the eastern front.  Its two tiered colonnade was probably based on drawings in Palladio, although it does not follow the strict use of the classical orders. Its columns are wooden, plastered and painted.  

At the far end stands the Temple of Apollo, a delightful flint-faced and arched folly – akin to a Roman triumphal arch- which was probably intended as a gateway into the stables and other service quarters  which are now, I suspect, private residences.  The upper level housed an aviary. Above the arch is a panel inscribed with the motto of the Hell-Fire Club Libertati Amicitae Sac – Sacred to Liberty and Friendship. It contains a painted lead copy of the Apollo Belvedere.

Tim Knox’s Guidebook suggests the whole south front  with its faded frescoes resembles a temporary stage set. In fact I’d go one stage further [no pun intended!] and suggest all four facades and many of the garden buildings could also easily be said fit that description.  Dashwood had a flamboyant turn of mind, and not as much money as he might have liked. Other buildings apparently have  columns made of concrete or brick which were then plastered and painted.  Lead statues are painted white to resemble marble, although that’s a fairly common 18thc conceit. Similar visual deceits such as faux marble paintwork occur in the interior decor too. He was also a bit of a magpie buying up second-hand garden items such as statues, urns and tools where  he could, including for example in 1746 from a sale at nearby Bradenham following the death of its owner.  But to be honest so what, as so often the art of the garden is the art of deception.

Somewhat unusually the south front  faces into the gentle slope of the hill.  There is a wide level  terrace cut about the level  of the first floor of the house  to give a good view looking down at the full frontage.  But climbing up there reveals another surprise: another part of the wider West Wycombe landscape.  Across a deep brick-sided ha-ha with a series of urns on top,  is agricultural land running into the distance on both east and west, with blocks of woodland on the rise and top of the hill.

On the summit of a broad ride that cuts through the wood is an equestrian statue.  This is not, as one might expect George III or some contemporary great military hero in lead but Imperator Dashwoodus Rex  an ex-film prop made of fibreglass and apparently swapped for a case of champagne by  the 11th baronet in 1984. He obviously had a great sense of humour!

At the western end of the terrace, nearest the house, is small temple-like structure which dates from the 1770s.

It is not another of Dashwood’s follies but  a practical building in disguise. The back half conceals a water tank and a dovecote, although the front section does have a nice bench to take a rest.

The terrace curves going east along the line of the ha-ha and at the other end, not visible at first, is one of Dashwood’s finest idiosyncratic buildings: The Temple of the Winds.

The temple is, like the west portico, based on an early engraving [1755]  of its Athenian namesake, by Nicholas Revett and James “Athenian” Stuart. The design was adapted by Donowell, to take advantage of the steep drop from the terrace down  to the former main approach drive  to the house.

The Tower of the Winds from Antiquities of Athens by Stuart & Revett, 1762

It stands on top of a flint-work  arched screen  which hides the entrance  to an icehouse dug under the terrace.  Donowell recycled the door-case of the original mansion which was removed as the alterations of the house got under way. It’s great fun as a structure and commands extensive views,  back over the parkland and down what used to be the main entrance drive.

the view out across the park from the Temple of the Winds

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The former  approach  is mainly treelined and leads directly downhill to the cascade at the end of the lake, passing the right angled turn that leads to the east front.

The lake was created by damming the river Wye in the mid-1730s. It  may well have started life as a formal octagonal basin but by 1752, when a survey of the estate was carried out by a French designer named Jolivet, it had been informalised.  One theory is that Dashwood tried to redesign it in the shape of a swan, Buckinghamshire’s emblem, and it’s just possible to visualise that from aerial views, although it would be a pretty strange looking swan.

The canalised river making the swans neck

 

 

These days the drive passes the very edge of the lake  via a narrow walkway over the  cascade – obviously not suitable for carriages – and  no handrails either! In the past, however,  the roadway took an elegant semi-circular path through the meadow so that passengers would see the house   over the cascade and the lake. It remains a stunning view.

 

The cascade is flintwork and was another of the earliest features dating from around 1735.  Originally it was a much more complex structure, with large stones forming a jagged arch round a reclining river god statue. This had gone by the 1780s with only underlying structure and two flint plinths carrying statues of water nymphs  surviving.

detail from West Wycombe Park with Walton Bridge
William Hannan

The lake itself was the scene for another of  Francis Dashwood’s hobbies. He was  a great fan of naumachia or  mock sea battles and he even had a 60 ton brig loaded with captured cannons permanently there with a resident captain, as well as several smaller boats. This was a tradition reinvented by the 11th baronet in the 1980s.

The lake has three islands, with the Temple of Music on the  the largest. A simple Doric structure, it was one of the last features to be built by Dashwood, dating from the late 1770s, and was described in a 1781 inventory as a theatre presumably because it was used for performances, which apparently it still is.

Nearby on another island is a Gothic boathouse, based loosely on Kings College Cambridge,  which was only put up by the 11th baronet in 1988.

Below the cascade is yet another part of the West Wycombe landscape. Once a kind of half-way house between the pleasure grounds and the more utilitarian part of the estate, it is not part of the National Trust land and not open to the public.  Nevertheless its importance is clear. In the distance across the meadow there is an eye-catcher of a building.  Now a house it was originally the estate sawmill, built of brick and flint, powered  by the water which run underneath,  and apparently modelled on a Roman aqueduct.  Also visible is the Temple of Flora, also now converted into a house which Michael Symes calls ” an elevated gazebo” its original open loggia now filled in.  There was once a mock fortress on an island there too, another part of the mock naval fun and games!   More recently a fretted bridge was built to celebrate the current baronets 21st birthday.

detail of St Crispins, by Thomas Daniell, 1781 from the NT guidebook

Out of sight  the furthest part of the landscape is also home to several other buildings, this time in Gothic style, also by Nicholas Revett. They include a castellated farmhouse known as Don Quixote’s Castle,  the Round Lodge on the back entrance drive and  a diminutive “church” known as St Crispin’s after the patron saint of shoemakers. This was originally the village shoemaker’s house designed as a church because  he had, as Shakespeare joked – ‘the cure of souls’. Finally at the point where the river Wye leaves the estate there is the little Pepperbox Bridge  with its sentry boxes. Michael Symes thinks these are all echoes of buildings at Stowe.

The drive continues down to the the main road through the village  and there Dashwood built two lodges.

Skirting the lake on the opposite side to the house, and heading into the woods on the way back to the carpark – and maybe tea in the  cafe in the village – paths lead the visitor over a rustic almost hump-backed flint bridge to the most famous [or perhaps infamous] of West Wycombe’s follies. Venus’s Temple and Parlour.  The Temple, unusually oval rather than circular, and  topped by a figure of Leda and the Swan was in place by 1748.

Sir Francis, the 11th baronet portraying his ancestor in front of the rebuilt temple.
Reading Evening Post – Tuesday 17 June 1986

It stands on a mound under which is Venus’s  Parlour – about the most sexually explicit garden feature imaginable: a  kind of pornography in stone. What John Wilkes described in the Public Advertiser in May 1763 as “what wits have called the door of life.  Lord Bute, George III’s Prime Minister suggested that Dashwood  build “an erection in a Paphian column to stand at the entrance.”    A statue of Mercury, stood over the door, which of course had a double meaning as mercury was also the contemporary cure for syphilis.  Another group of statues stood around a clearing in front.

The whole thing clearly shocked Dashwood’s successors and the Temple was demolished, the statuary dispersed and the mound partially levelled before being allowed to get overgrown.  The 11th baronet enlisted Quinlan Terry to help recreate it and the new version, housing a copy of the Venus de Milo  rather than the  Venus de Medici as in Dashwood’s day, went up in 1982.

 

West Wycombe Park and its  pleasure grounds and park remain very much as Sir Francis left it – in spirit at least – but so does its wider context. It demonstrates in very clear terms the importance of the great intangible in the conservation of historic designed landscapes: its setting.  That’s defined by Historic England  as ‘the surroundings in which a place is experienced, its local context, embracing present and past relationships to the adjacent landscape’ It includes not just the immediate surroundings and the views in and out of it but the extended environment too– including land use, and factors like noise.

I had to search hard for anything that intruded.  That in itself is extraordinary, as so many designed landscapes have the paraphernalia of modern life visible somewhere but apart from the things I mentioned earlier the only signs of the modern world were a dome and a single aerial on the horizon in the direction of High Wycombe – and even then you almost needed a telescope to see them – and they’ll soon be hidden by trees.   Let’s hope West Wycombe can survive equally untouched for  future generations too.

For more information on setting and its importance in conservation  see the Gardens Trust advice pages, particularly “The Setting of Historic Designed Landscapes” 

 Plenty has been written about West Wycombe and the Dashwoods but the best  places to start is  Michael Symes, “Flintwork, Freedom and Fantasy: The Landscape at West Wycombe Park, Buckinghamshire”, Garden History Summer 2005.   Other good sources are The Dashwoods of West Wycombe, by Sir Francis Dashwood, the 11th baronet, 1987;  Patrick Eyres “Gardens of Desire: Sexuality and Politics in the Georgian Landscape Gardens at Medmenham Abbey and West Wycombe”, New Arcadian Journal vols 49/50 2000;   Gervase Jackson-Stops, The West Wycombe Landscape, Country Life 20th & 27th June 1974;  Richard Wheeler, The Gardens of Stowe and West Wycombe: Paradise and Parody, Apollo, April 1997;  Giles Worsley, West Wycombe Park, Country Life, 6th Sept 1990; and finally Tim Knox  West Wycombe Park, the current National Trust guidebook last revised in 2018.  

 

 

 

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