Ceilings and serenity

Posted 18th September 2021

The story of Stowe is a tale of rise, fall and rise again but has left us with a glorious house and a beautiful landscape to enjoy writes Laura Malpas.

It’s nearly in Northamptonshire, our county surrounds this prodigious treasure on three sides, so this month I’m visiting Stowe. The house dates back some 350 years and has been shaped by indulgence and towering ambition. Its landscape setting tells tales of vice, virtue and liberty. The estate was nearly lost, but a collaboration between the National Trust who manage the grounds, and the Stowe House Preservation Trust who maintain the house, means we can be inspired and impressed in equal measure.

The visit begins at the coaching inn built specifically to cater for Georgian tourists over 300 years ago. We can visit and enjoy refreshments in much the same way. And then the walk to the gardens, entering through the Bell Gate. There’s an instant ‘wow’ as the massive landscape and the spectacular view to the house is revealed. There are self-guided walks available from the NT which will guide you onto the Path of Virtue (turn right), or more excitingly perhaps, the Path of Vice (turn left), or even the Path of Liberty, described as a ‘vigorous ramble’. Whichever path you choose, there is plenty to discover, temples, statues, monuments and more, telling tales from the past. The gardens are a labyrinth of fantastical discoveries and conceits, with places to sit and contemplate. Not much in the way of blossoming flowers, more the blossoming of ideas. They are remarkably beautiful, clearly expensive to create, and beg the questions who created this lofty vision, and why?

The Music Room

Stowe House began with the ancient Temple family, who proudly traced their lineage back to the Saxon Earls of Mercia. In 1571, Peter Temple acquired the land at Stowe for highly lucrative sheep farming. Within 250 years, the family had become one of the most noble and wealthy in the land, living in a palatial mansion. The family ambitions were clear from the start with ruthless acquisition of adjoining land, and strategic marriages to wealthy heiresses, leading eventually to the lengthy family surname of Temple-Nugent-Brydges-Chandon-Grenville. 

Construction of the current house began in the early 1700s by the 6th generation family head, politician Sir Richard. Many of his friends from the ‘Kit-Cat Club’, a group of the elite who met to talk and to generally show off their cultured tastes, were invited to visit Stowe for their consideration. Architect of nearby Blenheim Palace, Sir John Vanbrugh was behind much of the planning for the epic constructions at Stowe, along with other celebrated designers who contributed their ideas. Sir Richard agreed to many different suggestions resulting in a grand but rather messy appearance. This was sorted out by Sir Richard’s nephew who later inherited, named Sir Richard Grenville, Earl Temple. 

Portrait of Richard Grenville, Earl Temple, in Garter Robes by John Jackson

Earl Temple was vigorously political, and brother-in-law to William Pitt the Prime minister. He was also very wealthy, and happy to spend prodigiously on his grand home at Stowe. The King was quite unimpressed with the Earl and was very unwilling to bestow any honours which were due. Richard was desperate to receive the Order of the Garter, that William Pitt persuaded the king to comply. 

King George so disliked him, that rather than go through the full complexity of the investiture, the King merely tossed the sash to Richard without looking at him and left the room. Still, Richard had his Honour, and making the most of it, decorated the splendid ceiling of the State bedroom with its design, and had his portrait painted in full regalia. 

The Earl invested heavily in the glorification of Stowe beginning to create the appearance we see today, and this was completed by his nephew George Grenville, who inherited in 1784. This young man was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, eldest son of the Prime Minister, heir to one of the largest estates in the country, he soon acquired a wealthy wife, titles and the massive financial advantage of being created a Teller of the Exchequer. This meant that every time there was a payment from a government contract he took a percentage. Initially this was around £3k annually, but with the Napoleonic and American wars it rose to around £23k. George lavished everything on decorating the interior of Stowe. Many of the most glamorous decorative elements of the house date from this time. 

The domed ceiling of the Marble Saloon

George’s son Richard inherited in 1813, but sadly his father’s vast income ceased with his death. Richard married a wealthy bride and continued to enjoy his father’s lavish lifestyle. 

A keen collector, he travelled, sketched and acquired beautiful things to display in his home at Stowe. Living life to the full in every way, he was reputedly the fattest man ever carried to the summit of Vesuvius. Apparently, it exhausted him! And sadly, this lifestyle exhausted the family wealth, with spending reaching a crippling height when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert visited in 1845. 

Three years later the bailiffs were called in, and Stowe faced ruin. Richard fled, leaving his son to recover what he could. The family had gone from being one of Britain’s wealthiest, to that possessing the largest debt. This moment marked the beginning of the decline, and the family diminished. The First World War took the last hopes of salvaging the estate, and by 1921 the family sold the house, and in 1922 it was bought to house a new boarding school. 

Stowe School Library

Stowe School opened with 99 schoolboys, with the innovative J F Roxburgh as headmaster. Roxburgh believed in an all-round education with emphasis on the arts and sport, believing that the setting of the school would ensure that every student would “know beauty when he sees it all his life”. Roxburgh wanted to develop students with good character and moral courage, young men that would be “acceptable at a dance and invaluable in a shipwreck”. This modern approach was an appealing change from the traditional system of rote learning, corporal punishment and fagging, and very soon the school started to grow. Now it is one of the foremost co-ed schools internationally, with many famous alumni. 

View towards the Gothic Temple

The Stowe House Preservation Trust is doing a marvellous job in restoring the damage to the fabric of the house inflicted by time and teenagers. The decorative elements, especially the ceilings, are just spectacular, so when you visit, look up! And look out too. The views from the doors, windows and rooftops are unbelievable. 

One can easily spend the whole day here, with comfy shoes and a picnic, the whole family can explore as the paths are good. Book tickets to see the house for either a tour or a wander on your own. It’s an enjoyable respite from reality.

> For more information, to visit the house www.stowe.co.uk/house
and for the gardens www.nationaltrust.org.uk/stowe