To a rising star of British architecture like William Kent in the 1730s, the prospect of restoring a hundred-year-old country house, which was neither particularly large nor distinguished, must not have seemed very enticing. Nor would redesigning its rather modest grounds.
Kent accepted the commission to renovate Rousham Park near Oxford as a favor to his patron, Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington, who was a friend of the estate’s owner, a retired soldier, Lieutenant General James Dormer. Considered eccentric in military circles, Dormer was an avid collector of antiquarian books and bronzes, and a member of a literary set that included the writers John Gay and Jonathan Swift.
His house was much improved, thanks to Kent, but the grounds were transformed into a model of the seemingly “natural” style of landscaping that has influenced garden design ever since. If you visit Rousham Park today, most of Kent’s work on the house has been spoilt by subsequent “improvements,” but the grounds have been magically preserved.
Thanks to his work at Rousham, Kent is regarded as the “father of modern gardening,” as his friend and biographer, Horace Walpole, dubbed him. But when he began work there Kent’s ambitions lay in painting and architecture, rather than landscape design—not that anyone from as humble a background as his could have been expected to flourish in any of those fields.
Kent was born in 1685 as William Cant, the son of a joiner in the northern coastal town of Bridlington. His father enrolled him in a local charity school and encouraged his talent for art. After a stint as a coach painter, Kent, an engaging and enthusiastic character, persuaded a group of wealthy locals to pay for him to study in Italy. He left England in 1709, having changed his name from Cant to the posher Kent, and stayed in Italy for ten years.
By the time he met Burlington in Genoa in 1719, Kent was highly knowledgeable about Italian art and architecture. Burlington was so charmed that he persuaded Kent to move to London, where he commissioned him to work on his homes and urged friends to hire him too. The convivial Kent, who was nicknamed “Kentino” and “little signor” by Burlington’s wife, became a fashionable choice of architect for wealthy people eager to remodel their historic houses or to build new ones.
Kent distinguished himself by the skill with which he reinterpreted the ornate late Baroque style he had admired in Italy to suit British taste. His paintings and buildings had a warmth and subtlety rooted in his sensitivity to the sensual effects of color, light, shape, and texture: an approach to design that proved irresistible in his landscaping, particularly at Rousham Park.
Having studied the grounds, Kent identified how they could be improved, without looking artificial. At Rousham, this involved creating different levels in the land so that the eye is drawn out beyond the rather cramped estate and across the surrounding farmland. Kent achieved a similar effect by building elegant “ruins” on Rousham’s boundaries, suggesting that its land continued beyond them.
He also created visual spectacles from trees, grass, and water as well as strategically positioned statues and more “ruins.” Among my favorites is Venus Vale, where an octagonal lily pond nestles in a hollow of woodland, specially cleared for the purpose. Another is the statue of Apollo, which is clearly visible at the end of Long Walk, a narrow path carved out of more woodland. Kent instructed Dormer’s gardeners to strip away the undergrowth, which would otherwise have straggled around the tree trunks, and to prune the treetops to form a seemingly natural arch above the path.
Dormer loved his grounds, and instructed his gardeners to maintain them exactly as Kent wished. His descendants, who still own Rousham Park, have done the same, making the landscape appear as beguiling as Kent himself imagined.
Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based writer on design. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton.