Thursday, October 17, 2013

Spirit of Place - a visit to Rousham Park

-  a creation of the English landscape designer William Kent (1685 - 1748)

This is one of my favorite landscape parks which I revisited while staying in Oxford. It is in private ownership and not as commercialized and overrun as many of the better known National Trust properties, but it well deserves a visit. It has hardly been modified over the centuries and preserved its charm and magic. Kent was one of the first landscape architects to heed the famous lines of his contemporary, Alexander Pope (1688-1744):

"Consult the Genius of the Place in all 
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall.... 
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades 
Now breaks, or now directs, th'intending lines; 
Paints as you plant, and as you work, designs."

We do not know what kind of a place Kent found, when he started to design Rousham and what "spirit of place" (lat.: Genius Loci) he encountered there. But we can assume that the topography was similar to what we can see today: a level plateau where Rousham House was built and a gentle slope leading to the Cherwell river below.  Kent ingeniously utilized this slope for his "rising and falling waters", a succession of water features, including lakes, cascades and water channels, which are the most fascinating and intriguing design features of this park. 
my watercolor sketch of one of the cascades

Kent also very skillfully worked with vistas, views towards sculptures or architectural features, which direct the gaze of the walker and arouse his attention. As we follow the call of  the distant sculpture we find ourselves moving in a passage, "varying from shade to shade",  and being drawn  towards the opening of a sunny glade, whose entrance is marked by the sculpture.

my watercolor sketch of the view from Rousham House towards the "Eyecatcher"

The view from the front lawn of Rousham House is more formal and symmetrical and incorporates a  mock ruin built on a distant hill (which is not part of the Rousham estate) and which serves as an "Eyecatcher", continuing the central axis of the main house to the skyline.
This common device was employed to further integrate the "borrowed" scenery of the distant landscape into the garden, with the effect that the transition from the carefully designed garden landscape to the natural and farming land beyond its borders happens utterly smoothly and without being noticed.

Here are some further photographs of this magic and utterly "romantic" place:

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