Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Returning to Buckingham I passed by Stowe and stopped. The longest (it's got to be two miles), and straightest, drive leads you up to a triumphal arch and then in the distance lies the house.

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Stowe (1)

Stowe (3)

STOWE. A wonderful place it is to come upon, even in our countryside of wonder, for it has that famous house to which so much genius has paid tribute - Sir John Vanbrugh, Sir John Soane, Robert Adam, and Grinling Gibbons; and it is a rich experience to come to it by the three mile avenue from Buckingham or the avenue with broad green verges from the village of Water Stratford.

If We come from Buckingham the stately arch designed by Lord Camelford brings us into the park of 800 acres with classical buildings dotted about - an obelisk in memory of General Wolfe, an ornamental bridge across a lovely lake, a column with the prows and sterns of Roman galleys projecting from it and a Roman lady crowning it. On a small hill is what is known as the Queen’s Temple, now restored in perfect taste as a temple of music, with a fine Roman mosaic eight feet square in the floor.

Stowe House has saved itself from the disaster of these days by becoming a great public school, in many ways one of the luckiest in
England, for it has no space problems. Its front must be about a quarter of a mile long, and its gardens (in which Capability Brown learned gardening) seem to have no end.

The house is impressive on either side and marvellous indoors and out. On both sides are great colonnades and sculptures; on one side a statue of George the First and on the other a central colonnade of six huge columns is approached by 30 steps, guarded by a lion. Great columns flank windows to right and left, and everywhere are statues and sculptures and plaster reliefs. The colonnade leads us into an immense round hall, impressive with columns of coloured marble. Above them runs a frieze with hundreds of figures in a triumphal Roman procession, and above this rises a dome with diamond-shaped panels. To right and left of the hall are the common rooms of the school; where the society gossips of the Georges whispered scandal, we find today a splendid library, a great reading room, and dining halls. On the walls are portraits by Peter Lely and Godfrey Kneller.

A little apart stands the chapel designed for the school by Sir Robert Lorimer, creator of the national memorial in Edinburgh to the Scots who fell in the Great War. The west front of the chapel has four great columns, and over the door is a square tympanum with a relief in wood of David killing the lion. The lofty interior has fluted columns on each side, with stalls between them richly carved and bright with painted shields. Here is panelling from the old chapel, some of it originally from the home of the Grenvilles in Cornwall, and let into the panelling are some little masterpieces of Grinling Gibbons. Every chair on the floor is carved with the name of a scholar. High on the walls are angels in stone, all looking to the altar, and high above the altar is a small round window glinting with rich glass.

Surprising, it seems, to come upon a medieval church in this great park, but here remains the 13th century shrine at which worshipped the village folk of Dadford, Boycott, and Lamport, hamlets round the park. The tower is 14th century, and over its doorway is a 14th century crucifix. We come in through a 15th century porch guarded by a statue of a man removed from a tomb and set up here on his feet.

It was in the 16th century that the owners of Stowe built their chapel here. In it is a lovely altar tomb on which lies Martha Penystone, with her feet resting on a hound appearing ready to spring. On a shelf at the foot of the tomb, her small hands loosely laid on her dress, her mouth about to break into a smile, lies Martha’s little daughter Hester, born in the summer of 1612 to die in a few short weeks. The portrait of another little child, an Elizabethan boy, shows him in complete Tudor costume as if he were grown up, and the brass is curious for its inscription which tells us that he was born on October 31, 1592, and died on January 1, 1592. It is quite correct for New Year’s Day was then in March. On another brass is Alice Saunders in the butterfly headdress fashionable about 1480.

Above the altar of the chapel is a window in memory of the last Duke and Duchess of Buckingham, who passed away towards the end of last century. The light of the window falls on to a reredos standing out with all the beauty given to it by a Jacobean craftsman; it appears to have been an overmantel, and has two arches carved with bearded figures having cloaks over their shoulders.

The Procession of Life in a Great House.

STOWE has seen a remarkable procession of men within its walls. It was Sir Richard Temple who built it, the forgotten inspirer of a never forgotten line in English poetry. Who but for Pope would ever recall him now? To his own generation (he died in 1749) he was a sturdy patrician, turning from peace to war, and from war to government, with brave integrity. Today he owes the fact that he is remembered to the poet he housed and befriended at Stowe. As a wealthy young baronet he shared in the campaigns of Marlborough, and distinguished himself in battles of which posterity, like little Peterkin, asks what they were all about. He deserves to be held in remembrance for having revolted against the corruption of Walpole’s ministry, for having endured dismissal from high military command, for demanding the prosecution of the ring-leaders of the South Sea Bubble, and for having lifted up an unappeasable voice against the subservience of British interests to the Hanoverians, and the sending of English soldiers to fight in Hanover’s quarrels.

All this tumult and vexation happened in 1733, which explains the significance of the date set out in heavy type above the dedication of the first of Pope’s Moral Essays, inscribed to Temple. The dull but fiery poet had a genuine aflection for the soldier-statesman, and added to his own reputation by having so considerable a national figure among his intimates. The political storm passed, and Temple was made Viscount Cobham and a Field Marshal and died beloved and widely mourned. The public memory is short, and the Cobham of social and political history receded into oblivion, so that today it is only in Pope’s lines that we remember him:

And you, brave Cobham! to the latest breath
Shall feel your ruling passion strong in death.

Of the three Dukes of Buckingham who lived at Stowe the first two exhausted their resources in collecting treasures, bringing about a bankruptcy for the third to redeem. Richard Grenville, elder son of the Marquis of Buckingham, was born in 1776, and for a quarter of a century was known as Earl Temple, by which title he sat for 16 years in the House of Commons, sometimes supporting and sometimes opposing his cousin Pitt. He married the only child of the third Duke of Chandos, and at 46 was created Duke of Buckingham and Chandos. He poured out wealth on pictures, statues, books, and manuscripts, entertained the royal family of France. with princely munificence, and impoverished himself so much that he had to seek seclusion abroad. Returning after two years, he wrote an account of his travels, became Steward of the Household, and spent his declining years among his treasures, grieved at having to sell many of them to keep the wolf from the door.

His son Richard Grenville was the second duke, known for many years as Marquis of Chandos. He so consistently opposed Free Trade as to gain the title of the Farmer’s Friend. The rent-roll of his estate was £100,000 a year, but the property was deeply encumbered; yet he continued to buy land, and to entertain like a prince. While owing his creditors over a million, he added to his liabilities by prodigal hospitality to Queen Victoria; it was on a visit here that the Queen first met Disraeli privately. Two years later bailiffs took possession of the house, and dealers from all parts of Europe attended the 40-day sale of pictures, china, plate, and furniture. The library was dispersed, the manuscripts were sold, and the duke was censured by The Times as a spendthrift. He died in 1861.

The third duke, an upright and honourable man, laboured to repair the ruin of the family fortunes, and succeeded in paying off the bulk of the debts. He was a humane and brilliant Governor of Madras during a period of terrible famine, a successful railway chairman, and chairman of committees in the House of Lords. He died in 1889.


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