Responding to Louis XIV in the Oxfordshire landscape

On the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV, and the publication of Voltaire’s seminal Siècle de Louis XIV by the Voltaire Foundation, 2015 is a better year than most to search for the legacies and impacts of Louis’s reign closer to the Voltaire Foundation’s home on Banbury Road in Oxford.

Fortunately, responses to Louis XIV are writ large in the Oxfordshire countryside thanks to the gardening exploits of three military men in three different locations: Blenheim Palace, Rousham and Shotover Park. These men were united through shared personal, political and military connections forged during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Blenheim Palace, southern aspect.

Blenheim Palace, southern aspect.

The largest, and most celebrated of these landscapes remains Blenheim Palace. The gift of a grateful nation to John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, the house and landscape at Blenheim narrate his victory over Louis XIV in stone, paint and plaster. Over the kitchen and stable gate, the English lion savages the French cockerel, and over the centrepiece of the south front is a vast marble bust of Louis XIV, which came into the duke’s hands after the sack of Tournai in 1709. Some of this narrative decoration remains, whilst other aspects have fallen victim to the work of the great ‘improver’ Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, who re-landscaped the surrounding parkland between 1764 and 1774, and who will celebrate his own tercentenary in 2016.

The greatest casualty was Marlborough’s military garden to the south of the palace. It covered around 70 acres and comprised a rectangular parterre the full width of the palace’s south front. The military garden was surrounded by a high stone wall with eight large bastions at the angles, each with a basin, and linked by a wide terraced curtain wall.

Blenheim’s buildings – designed by Sir John Vanbrugh – lay heavy on Voltaire’s heart. In letter 19 of Letters Concerning the English Nation, he observed:

“Sir John was a man of pleasure, and likewise a poet and an architect. The general opinion is that he is as sprightly in his writings as he is heavy in his buildings. ’Tis he who raised the famous castle of Blenheim, a ponderous and lasting monument of our unfortunate Battle of Hockstet. Were the apartments but as spacious as the walls are thick, this castle would be commodious enough.”

The Dying Gaul

The Dying Gaul, by Peter Scheemakers, c.1743, Rousham.

As in battle, so with landscape, Marlborough led and his campaign staff followed. In 1704 James Dormer was wounded at the Battle of Blenheim as a lieutenant and captain of the 1st regiment of foot guards, before serving at the Battle of Ramillies in 1706. By 1711 Dormer had become a brigadier-general. He employed Charles Bridgeman to draw up a plan for a new garden at his country seat, Rousham, in 1725, and employed William Kent from 1737 to his death in 1741.

As with many early to mid-eighteenth-century landscapes, Rousham can be read on a variety of different levels. Peter Scheemakers’s statue of the Dying Gaul, for example, whilst a knowing reference to ancient Rome, may also nod towards Dormer’s own martial background.

Shotover House and Garden,

Shotover House and Garden, by George Bickham the Younger, 1750. The British Museum Collection online.

William Kent provides the link to Oxfordshire’s third military garden, created by General James Tyrrell at Shotover. Tyrrell, like Dormer, served under Marlborough during his European campaigns before serving as a Groom of the Bedchamber to George I between 1714 and 1727. It seems likely that Dormer and Tyrrell shared not just military experience but architects too. William Kent was employed to create two buildings for the west of the gardens within a wilderness setting.

Arguably the most famous of these ‘battle gardens’ was that created by Laurence Sterne in The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1760-1767). Tristram’s uncle, Toby, is a veteran of the siege of Namur (1695) where he was wounded in the groin. Toby transforms his back garden into a mock citadel, full of artificial fortifications where he can re-enact every siege of the Duke of Marlborough’s campaigns during the War of the Spanish Succession.

Somewhat ironically, it is Toby’s fictional garden, immune to the power of shifting fashions, that has endured to this day.

Oliver Cox, The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities

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