Bowood’s Changing Landscape
Our 2023 exhibition is a celebration of the many changes – driven by both fashion and economy – that have occurred over the last 269 years to Bowood’s landscape.
In 1754 John, 1st Earl of Shelburne purchased a fairly standard designed landscape with straight vistas cutting through woodland to give controlled views to and from the house. The newly built house was surrounded by a semi-formal garden with avenues of trees and there was a rectangular lake to the east.
Probably the most significant changes to Bowood’s landscape are Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s redesign of the park with the introduction of the magnificent lake in the 1760s and, more recently, the opening to the public in 1972, and the creation of the championship standard golf course in 1992.
Brown’s ambitious scheme was carried out between 1763 and 1768 and included the commanding naturalistic 35-acre lake (holding the equivalent of 160 Olympic swimming pools of water), lowering the height of a hill, new carriage drives and the planting of thousands of trees. Some of these trees can still be seen, in particular the limes in front of the House and the Cedars of Lebanon in the Pleasure Grounds.
The aim was to construct an idyllic landscape in which the House would appear as a feature of the rural scene, but the landscape also had to be economically viable by providing timber to be sold, pasture for sheep and thickets for hunting and sport.
Some twenty years after Lancelot Brown had transformed Bowood Park, a ‘Picturesque’ rockwork garden was formed at the head of the lake. A valley of caves and rocky paths, dominated by a stunning 30-foot cascade of water, based on the falls at Tivoli, was designed by visionary landscape designer the Hon. Charles Hamilton in c.1785. Local Wiltshire rockwork mason, Josiah Lane undertook the work between 1785 and 1788.
John, 2nd Marquess (1765-1809) chose not to live at Bowood after having sold off everything he could to help settle his father’s debts. When his half-brother, Henry, succeeded in 1809 he commissioned a report as to the state of Bowood Park and House. The flower garden had become derelict. The walks were overgrown, and many of the Oaks, Cedars and Larch in the Pleasure Ground had been cut for timber.
During his long-life Henry, 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne (1780-1863) restored Bowood Park, he was a keen arboriculturist and had a nursery in the grounds that supplied the various trees, many of which still adorn the park today. He introduced new features such as the Pinetum, designed by his agent and head gardener John Spencer, and the Rhododendron Woodland Gardens, on the more suitable acidic soils in Philpot Wood around the 1st Earl’s mausoleum. He commemorated the founder of the family’s fortune, Sir William Petty, with the Cherhill Monument on the east of the estate. Designed by Charles Barry, the 125 feet tall ashlar and rubble stone obelisk was erected in 1846. Barry also designed the new entrance at Derry Hill, now called the Golden Gates, which was primarily erected to provide a grand approach from the new train station at Chippenham, which opened in 1841.