Purchased by the 1st Earl of Shelburne (1705–1761) in the mid 18th century, Bowood House and Gardens have been improved by successive generations up to the present day. Many famous architects and garden designers have been employed, including Henry Keene, Robert and James Adam, ‘Capability’ Brown, C.R. Cockerell and Sir Charles Barry.
A visitor to Bowood today will see fine 18th-century architecture and splendid interiors: the Adam Orangery, the Chapel and Library by C.R. Cockerell, the New Hall, the Sculpture Gallery and the Laboratory where Dr Joseph Priestley discovered oxygen in 1774. There is also a series of exhibition rooms with a wealth of fine furniture, costumes, porcelain, jewellery and paintings on display. Outside, the house is surrounded by ‘Capability’ Brown’s stunning park; there are magnificent formal gardens, a ‘Picturesque’ rockwork garden; and the renowned pinetum and arboretum
The first house at Bowood was built c.1725, on the site of a hunting lodge in the former Royal Forest of Chippenham. The house and park were bought by the 1st Earl in 1754, who employed architect Henry Keene to extend the house, including an imposing portico, and to build an extensive E-shaped service wing behind it.
Soon after his father’s death, the 2nd Earl (1737–1805) commissioned the Adam Brothers to decorate the important rooms and to screen the service courts with a grand orangery. An Adam mausoleum for the 1st Earl was also constructed in the park. At the same time, ‘Capability’ Brown was employed to remove the earlier semi-formal gardens and create an open, gentle landscape, with a sinuous lake and belts of trees, all typical of his style. A ha-ha was constructed near the house and a ‘pleasure ground’, for interesting trees and shrubs, was formed behind the house.
In the 1770s, the two parts of the house at Bowood (the ‘Big House’ and the ‘Little House’) were joined together by the building of an enormous drawing room. During the following decade, a ‘Picturesque’ rockwork garden, with a beautiful cascade, grottoes and a hermit’s cave, was formed at the head of the lake.
The 2nd Earl, Prime Minister from 1782 to 1783, was created Marquess of Lansdowne in 1784 for negotiating peace with America after the War of Independence. He furnished Bowood and his London Home, Lansdowne House, with superb collections of paintings, furniture and Classical sculpture.
His father having died deeply in debt, the 2nd Marquess (1765–1809) stayed away from Bowood after the contents were sold. It was the 3rd Marquess (1780–1863), Chancellor of the Exchequer at 25, who restored the house, commissioning C.R.Cockerell to design the chapel and alter the library, and Sir Charles Barry to build the clock tower. The famous terrace gardens also date to this period as do the pinetum and arboretum in the Pleasure Grounds and the first planting of rhododendrons.
A distinguished statesman, the 3rd Marquess served in the House of Lords under eight prime ministers, and formed another great collection of paintings and sculpture, rivalling those of his father. A number of these works are seen at Bowood today.
The 4th Marquess (1816–1866) married Emily de Flahault, granddaughter of Prince Talleyrand and daughter of the Comte de Flahault who was Napoleon’s aide de camp; and it was through this connection that the fascinating Napoleonic Collection at Bowood came into the family. The 4th Marquess was responsible for having the small Doric Temple removed from the Pleasure Grounds to the far side of the lake [illus].
When the 5th Marquess (1845–1927) succeeded, the family fortunes were again in decline. He became Governor-General of Canada and Viceroy of India. On his return to Bowood in 1894, the Big House was used only for entertaining and the family lived in the Little House. The situation remained unchanged during the life of the 6th Marquess (1872–1936) and up until the Second World War.
Both the 7th Marquess and his brother were killed in action in 1944, the title and property passing to their cousin. During the War, the Big House was occupied by a school, then by the RAF. Afterwards, it was left empty, and by 1955 it was so dilapidated that the 8th Marquess decided to demolish it, employing architect F. Sortain Samuels to convert the Little House into a more comfortable home.
The grounds have been developed over the years to become one of the special glories of Bowood, encompassing almost every phase of English garden design from the early Georgian period onwards.
The present Marquis of Lansdowne opened the house and gardens to the public in 1975 and has maintained and improved Bowood’s many magnificent features over the last 39 years. He converted the derelict stables and groom’s quarters into the current exhibition rooms and developed Bowood
House and Gardens into the stunning national visitor attraction it is today. He has planted more than a million trees; modernised all the estate properties and established a commercial business park. He has also introduced hundreds of varieties and many more species in the Rhododendron Walks including countless magnolias.
The park remains much as ‘Capability’ Brown intended, with a fine lake, gently sloping lawns and drifts of trees. The late 18th century ‘picturesque’ rockwork valley remains below the lake dam, incorporating the cascade and caves. Closer to the house are the great 19th-century Italianate terraces: originally lying in the angle between the Big and Little Houses, they now form the south front to the house.
The Pleasure Grounds, including the pinetum and arboretum, can be explored throughout the 7-month open season. TheRhododendron Walks, on the hill to the southwest of the house, now cover some 60 acres and are only open to visitors during the flowering season. All are maintained to the highest standard and little has changed since these great gardens were laid out.
The Home Farm area of the park was developed as a championship golf course in 1992 and the luxury hotel and spa, situated beside the golf course, opened in May 2009.