The Gardens at Rousham

Rousham is one of the great gardens of Britain, a national treasure of international importance. The manor house was built around 1635 and the grounds originally developed by Charles Bridgeman were remodelled by the gardening genius William Kent in the 1730s. It has remained in the ownership of the original family since first built and is presently in the care of Charles and Angela Cottrell-Dormer who continue the gentle philosophy of keeping things as they have always been.

The gardens at Rousham have delighted, confused and amazed me. It is a garden where one is lead unwittingly along a predesigned route by the creator and by the design of the garden. William Kent and Rousham had magicked me as it has many, many others over the years since its creation. I could not quite understand the genius of the garden but I had certainly felt its spirit and I was completely enchanted by the experience.

I had only turned a few pages of this book on Rousham when I felt this genius again and that the garden had found the author and artist most perfectly suited to tell its story. Magic again! Francis Hamel had been brought to Rousham in his student days and had returned years later on his brother’s prompting when a chance meeting with the owner lead to his living on the estate for the past 25 years. He has travelled and painted far and wide but – thank you Covid for one of your very few blessings! – the days of confinement during the pandemic focused his attention on the beauty which surrounded him. His paintings of Rousham embellish the book lavishly in a volume which balances text and illustration perfectly.

The artist at work in Rousham

While Francis Hamel’s writing is at the heart of this volume there are essays from three others, Joanna Kavenna, Tom Stuart Smith and Christopher Woodward which add a wonderful richness of insights and of reactions to the garden and which also add greatly to the reader’s understanding, enjoyment and appreciation of Rousham. Though each contributes significantly to the text, I was taken by these lines from Christopher Woodward for I feel they capture the essence of this book: “no one claims to own the genius of Rousham: no historian, designer, or artist believes that he or she has the key to its secrets. Hamels’ eighteen month of lockdown are the most intensive analysis of its effects yet undertaken.”

Joanna Kavenna writes, “Kent conceived of Rousham as a series of paintings in landscape…he devised his garden as a series of scenes, each one waiting for the observer to enliven it” though I feel each scene was waiting for an artist to capture it in all its magical wonder. I must immediately confess that I am one least qualified to comment on the work of an artist but I view the works presented in this book as I did the gardens at Rousham. I gaze at the paintings in much the same frame of mind as I have while walking the gardens – I don’t need to understand the genius to enjoy the results – and I experienced and enjoyed them with that same sense of wonder. After a while I realised that the artist, through his work, had made no claim to understanding the genius of the garden but that he was equally in awe with it and that after living there for 25 years he still  found it a magical place. I think my most honest comment on his works from Rousham is that I find them magical, that they capture the spirit of the place, that they leave me wondering and entranced and longing to visit once again. Although he does not imagine nor claim to have captured the soul of Rousham, for he knows that is an almost impossible task, I believe nobody else could come closer to doing so. What treasures – garden, paintings and book!

[The Gardens at Rousham. Paintings by Francis Hamel. With essays by Francis Hamel, Joanna Kavenna, Tom Stuart-Smith & Christopher Woodward. Clearview Books, London, 2021, Hardback, 160 pages, £30, ISBN 978-1908337-610]


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