Visit to Stowe

I visited Stowe last week while staying with family. What a fascinating place. The design and choice of figures to include offers a wonderful insight into the mindset of Sir Richard Temple (Lord Cobham) and his circle. It is presented in all the guidebooks as representing ‘Whig’ values, but it is, of course, more complicated than that. In 1733 Temple turned against Sir Robert Walpole (who was then the Whig Prime Minister) and became a supporter of the so-called Patriot opposition that looked to Prince Frederick instead of Walpole and George II to offer a new, less corrupt, politics for the future. Yet, even before 1733 Temple’s politics was already more complex, since one of the frequent visitors to Stowe, who may even have assisted with the design and who was himself one of the British Worthies, was the ‘Tory’ poet Alexander Pope.

photo 2I was particularly keen to see the Temple of British Worthies because I thought that English republicans would figure strongly, but in fact they don’t. John Milton and John Hampden are both included, but Milton is there as one of the eight men of thought (rather than as a man of action) and it is his poetry, rather than his prose, that appears to be important. The inscription above him reads: ‘Whose sublime and unbounded genius equal’d a subject that carried him beyond the limits of the world’. Hampden is one of the men/women of action and is there because of his resistance to the tyranny of Charles I, but since he died in 1643 he was never tainted by the republicanism of the 1650s and was therefore an acceptable patriot for those who remained committed to monarchy. To the extent that Temple and his circle were sympathetic to English ‘republicanism’ they favoured the monarchical republicanism of the commonwealthmen rather than the more vehement anti-monarchism of the revolutionary generation.

photo 1The inclusion of William III as another ‘man of action’ makes this clear and it is reinforced by the inscription above him, which reads ‘Who by his virtue and constancy having saved his country from a foreign master by a bold and generous enterprise preserv’d the liberty and religion of Great Britain’.

The other respect in which it is the ‘republicanism’ of the commonwealthmen that is reflected here is in the huge emphasis throughout the garden on the Saxon origins of British liberties. This is reflected most clearly in the Gothic Temple and in the seven statues of Saxon deities which once surrounded it. Interestingly, this is presented as vehemently anti-Roman. The inscription above the door of the Gothic Temple is a quote from Corneille’s play Horace: ‘Je rends grâces aux dieux de n’être pas romain’ or ‘I thank the Gods that I am not a Roman’. Rome is clearly associated with the tyranny of the Emperors, so it is the Saxons (who through their freedom and bravery overthrew Rome) and the Greeks who are celebrated rather than the Romans. The Temple to Virtue is strongly Greek in both architectural style and content. The figures represented inside are Socrates, Homer, Lycurgus and Epaminondas, representing respectively philosophy, literature, the law giver and the general. Again just as with the British Worthies there are an equal number of men of thought and men of action and this, presumably, is significant.

The choice of figures included in the Temple of British Worthies is particularly striking. What really hit me as I assessed who had been included was the emphasis on the figures and ideals of the early English Enlightenment. The idea of exploration and discovery is clearly valued – with Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh both appearing – but more surprising, perhaps, is the strong emphasis on the new science, with Sir Francis Bacon, Sir Isaac Newton and John Locke all featuring as ‘men of thought’. Once again, the inscriptions above them make clear that it is their scientific approach and discoveries that were being honoured here. Interestingly, the vision of English science offered is almost identical to that presented in Voltaire’s Letters Concerning the English Nation, which includes chapters on Bacon, Newton and Locke. That work is exactly contemporaneous with the Temple of British Worthies: it appeared in 1733, while the temple was being designed 1733-4 (though several of the Worthies were already in the garden before the Temple was built). Voltaire was in England between 1726 and 1729 and though there is no evidence that he visited Stowe, he was friendly with Pope, who was himself a regular visitor to Stowe from 1728. Since ideas for the garden were apparently in circulation from as early as 1710, one can speculate as to whether Voltaire borrowed from Temple or the other way round, but my guess is that it is more a case of this being the particular vision of the circle that both were associated with at the time.