by Peter Davidson
For Peter Scupham
I first saw the Congreve monument on its island in the lake at Stowe, on an autumn morning thirty-five years ago. I was with my friend Alan Powers and we were looking at this eighteenth century designed landscape in the way that we saw everything then, through the lens of the painters of the mid-twentieth century. We moved through the glades, rides and prospects of Stowe as though we were moving through a lithograph by John Piper, or a grisaille drawing by Rex Whistler. It was all around us: urns in weeping groves, a wash of umber on the October trees, columns and arches on the skyline. When the Palladian Bridge came into view at the bottom of the shelving valley, I thought, quite simply, that I had never seen anything more beautiful.
This was in the days before the National Trust came to Stowe: a visit to what were then simply the grounds of a working school had to be booked in advance and for a precise time. Alan had parked his little car on the gravel, the ends of the great colonnade disappearing into the mist from which loomed an equestrian statue on a high plinth. There was a brass bell-pull, a brusque but not unfriendly bursar sold us two copies of Laurence Whistler’s pamphlet guide book, escorted us through one or two stupendous public rooms, and then turned us loose to explore the gardens for ourselves. I do not think that there was any sort of admission fee.
I remember the grounds, at that point, as gently run down – the townscape even of the later 1970s still contained occasional bombsites, so dilapidation was less noticable then than now. The lower branches of the great trees swept the lawns, the undergrowth was tall and rusty with autumn, there were reeds and silt at the margins of the lakes. There was a little broken stonework scattered in the long grass. We saw nobody for two hours or so, although lights burned in classrooms in the great house and we could hear music from the Queen’s Temple. There were goalposts and white lines on the deserted playing fields of the great lawn.
We walked slowly over acres of damp grass, up as far as the Gothic Temple, down as far as the Boycott Pavilions, making our way eventually to the grassy slopes around the Temple of Ancient Virtue. We crossed the narrow water called the Styx – “If we have crossed the Styx, then where are we now?” – and made our way past the British Worthies and down through the Fields of Elisium to the shores of the lake. Mist moved on the surface of the great water in the bottom of the valley.
We almost missed the Congreve Monument on its island: it is not large and, then, it was almost hidden by overgrown shrubbery. It is a truncated stone pyramid, with a slightly awkward half-urn carved with theatrical masks applied to one of its sloping sides. The very awkwardness of the juxtaposition is typical of William Kent’s rough, overscaled, expressive English Baroque. There was a little, half-visible figure perched on top of the pyramid. Alan read the guidebook description of the comic dramatist being commemorated by the figure of a monkey holding a mirror.
We gazed at the island through the cloudy air – “I can’t see the mirror, it must be broken now” – and I think that we were both near to tears. Two students in tweed coats standing on an autumn morning on the shore of an artificial lake, moved by a complex of emotions only some of which were clear to us. Most obvious was simple awareness of the onward movement of time in the contemplation of this broken memorial to past fashion and dead wit, but, behind that, we were both moved by the very fact of its being the memorial of a minor master, one who achieved a fugitive perfection in a lesser art. I remember that from Stowe to Oxford, we spoke mostly of Laurence Whistler’s brother, the artist killed in the Second World War.
William Congreve was one of the bitter masters whose mature work came early. He wrote nothing for the stage after he was thirty, his dramatic career ended in 1700. His extraordinary awareness of time wasted in a life, and of the undignified power which time has over an individual, was all precocious. Congreve’s plays are suave comedies of manners, but they have a powerful undertow of disquiet: comedy shot through with expressions of regret, hints of violence, sudden impassioned longings for escape to anywhere but elegant London, even “to the other world”. In his later comedies the stakes are extraordinarily high: if the structures of pretence built up by the characters fail, they do not stand to lose only status or reputation. They stand to lose selfhood, subsistence, even life itself.
The owner of Stowe himself chose the lines carved on his friend’s monument. Lord Cobham’s inscriptions are sophisticated, wise, and alien to us. The first acts as a motto to the representation of the monkey and mirror:
Vitae imitatio Consuetudinis speculum Comoedia
[Comedy is the imitation of life and the mirror of fashion]
The second is an inscription about their friendship, and about the inability of any monument or inscription to serve as an adequate memorial of such “elegance, polished manners, wit, and piercing intelligence” as Congreve’s [ingenio acri, faceto, expolito, moribusque urbanis]. These are all qualities which die with the individual or, more accurately, die a piecemeal death in recollection as that person’s friends die one by one. Cobham’s memorial on its island (the island was the stroke of genius) has a clear-eyed awareness of the individual circumscribed by mortality and time, contemplated with no vestige of sentimentality
In all its immensity and complexity, the designed landscape at Stowe, with its numerous monuments and buildings, is remarkably coherent. Feeling and intellect alike are directed to the contemplation of the passage of time and the commemoration of the dead. The whole landscape and all it contains is an eloquent consideration of the attrition of time, the passing of the greatness of the ancients; a sense of modern translatio imperii balanced by an awareness of the tightrope walked by the great ones of Georgian Britain (successfully for the moment) between puritan revolution on the one hand and Jacobite invasion on the other. The only respite in such a place is in the Temple of Friendship or in The Fane of Pastoral Poetry, just as friendship and literature offers the only respites in the magnate’s life.
The landscape garden was certainly the only art form that Britain exported to the rest of the world, one which was, in its day, universally admired and esteemed. Indeed the English Garden is so widely imitated (the Congreve island was imitated too) that it takes more than a moment to realise that at the very meridian of their triumphs, the great ones of Britain invented an art form that reflected on time, mutability and the possibility of defeat. The changes of season alone shadow these artificial paradises: frost or fog, rain and fallen leaves, are emblems enough of the presence of death in these Arcadias. The moment of Victory is given over to the contemplation of deep time and the limits of the human.
In the light of all this, it seems the more urgent to return to the question of why this monument doubles its poetic and emotional power by being on an island? The monument itself already carries multiple significations, even apart from the inscriptions: the pyramid for lasting fame, the urn for mortality, the monkey for the acute, difficult imitation of “things exactly as they are.” All of this would be infinitely lessened in significance if it were only placed at the end of a grass walk, or in a clearing amongst trees, however beautiful. This monument to the lost master of the present moment depends on its island, on the sense that another element intervenes to keep us at a distance from the grass in front of the pyramid, to keep us from reading the inscriptions. It also creates a whole field of fruitful speculation, viewed from a distance, about what the sculpture at the apex may signify. Most of all, it gives the monument a removedness, it makes of the little lake-island a modest otherworld, a place consecrated tosecret contemplation, a place where time and the air move differently from on the bank. And reflection of the monument in the water of the lake potentially multiplies (and dissolves) these otherworlds.
This holds true even of another, minute, designed landscape – nothing more than two intensely-maintained river islands at Great Amwell in Hertfordshire; the willow-shaded appearance of the islands as they are now is Regency, but the monuments on the islands (an urn and a long inscription) in fact commemorate the New River which was completed in the early seventeenth century to carry fresh water to London. These New River monuments are different – their patron is a corporation, they commemorate a feat of engineering – but they do confirm the idea that artificial islands are of their nature uncanny, too intensely discontinuous with the world of the terra firma to be anything other than disquieting.
On these little islands at Great Amwell the urn and an inscription on the willow-shaded lawn are barely separated from the bank, and with a clearly visible bridge. But the designed island works even on this tiny scale. Standing on the bank, looking at the green shadow and the two pale stones under the willows, there is a feeling of recession in time. There is also the feeling of removedness: the irrational sense that the air on the little islands might be different from the air on the riverbank. That it may not be of the same century as the air of the towpath. The appearance of a figure on the islands, although they would only be feet away, might prove disquieting, as if they were removed from ordinary things onto the stage of a theatre placed elsewhere in time.
Nowhere in a landscape garden like Stowe is a simple space; every designed landscape is full of emotional and intellectual trip-wires. A place intensely allusive to other places is also a representation of places which do not exist in geography of the real – places which embody memories, ideas, moods and aspirations. So the movement through the designed landscape is inevitably a movement within an evolving mental landscape[i].
Unless we assume that the island site at Stowe reserved the monument for Lord Cobham’s contemplation alone, we must assume that there were occasions when a boat was taken to the island and that small parties took place in the shadow of the monument. But what mood does the island impose on such festivities? Inevitably, in the mid eighteenth century, these must have been festivals shadowed by recollections of friendship. They must have at some point been led by the monument to conversations about those things which very mature people who retain no illusions can bear as pastime when they are already overwhelmingly aware of the passage of time. Did Congreve’s comedies perhaps fill the place for that generation which Mozart’s operas would later occupy for those of later generations equally clear-sighted about time and its passing, but too stoical to renounce earthly pleasure?
When Lord Cobham himself died, the meaning of the monument changed – it became a memorial for a circle of survivors. When the last person who could remember Congreve was dead, the island changed its meaning again, becoming a memorial, already a little distanced, to a generation of friends. When that generation started to fade from memory, the island and monument become first a monument to the follies and diversions of the past and, finally, a kind of secular memento mori for those with the inclination to read it as such.
The philosopher Jean-Jaques Rousseau visited Stowe in the 1750s and, indeed, his own recollection of the Congreve moument may have played a part in the decision to bury him on an artificial island – L’Île des Peupliers -- in the landscape garden at Ermenonville, on which estate he was staying as a guest when he died in 1778. He was buried by night (torches reflected in the water with the summer night still bright above) on the island on the 4th of July that year. Later his body was removed to the Pantheon, one self-reflexive theatrical gesture following another.
Both these island monuments are about the anticipated death of the patron as the goal and completion of the years of reflection initiated by the death of the patron’s distinguished friend to whom the island sepulchre is dedicated. Perhaps, paradoxically, it is rather easier to accept the commemoration of Congreve than of Rousseau in these circumstances.
The Poplar Island at the “Garden-Kingdom” of Wörlitz (laid out for Duke Leopold III of Anhalt-Dessau in the early 1770s) is simply an imitation of Ermenonville, its tomb a cenotaph[ii]. This Rousseau cenotaph is on the one hand highly decorative, on the other a piece of safe, gestural high-mindedness, mutatis mutandis not wholly unlike European cities naming streets and squares in honour of distant and beleaguered champions of freedom.
Ian Hamilton Finlay’s twentieth century landscape garden in the Pentland hills, Little Sparta, is, in part, a reflection on garden history, on classicism and neo-classicisim. It is almost inevitable that it should incorporate echoes of Stowe and citations of Ermenonville. Finlay pays his tribute to both in a sheltered hillside area with the still water of a little lake under trees. This area is guarded by an inscribed obelisk, a homage to Claude Lorraine’s inspiration of the eighteenth century designed landscape. Claude’s most admired effect, in his landscape painting, is one of otherwordly repose, an effect which is known to historians of aesthetics, as il riposo di Claudio. This phrase itself is the inscription on the Obelisk.
Inevitably, this area too has a minute island with what at first appears to be another Rousseau cenotaph (which would be wholly in accord with the French neoclassicism of the garden) but the inscription on the table tomb commorates rather the career of a wooden boat (another of Finlay’s obsessions), a drifter with the lovely name Silver Cloud. So the minute island becomes a ship, the Silver Cloud,and yet, as a visual citation, it inevitably brings Rousseau to mind. As a ship, it returns the memory to the Tiber Island, the river island which the Romans partly clad with a marble prow, one of the first designed elements in any natural landscape. Like all of Finlay’s allusive constructions, it is adroit and thoughtful – but perhaps almost too much is going on in too small a compass, and the allusions are pulling in different directions. We cannot quite take it in, as we can take in the complex simplicity of Lord Cobham’s statement that his friend is dead, and that, for all his own grandeur which can flood valleys and raise islands in his waters, he will die too. And that he accepts completely that this is so.
All these artificial islands in designed landscapes lead in recollection to the two versions of Watteau’s painting variously titled The Pilgrimage to Cytherea and The Embarcation for Cytherea. This shows a group of men and women, in slightly anachronistic fancy dress as if for a Ducal masquerade, leaving an autumnal glade where they have garlanded a statue of Venus and moving towards a waiting gilded barge. One woman pauses on the turn of the path to look back with a regard of comprehensive and mature renunciation. The other shores of the waters, on which the golden boat is waiting, are ambiguous in both the two versions of the composition.[iii]
This painting shares precisely with the Congreve island at Stowe a sense of sophisticated regret and awareness of the passing of human pleasure. The critic Michael Baxendall once stated memorably that “it is not neccessary to be a fluffy painter to be a rococo painter”. For all the feathery handling of trees and distances, Watteau’s painting is not escapist, but unflinchingly realist, the same way that the Congreve monument is unflinchingly realistic about human life and human expectations. The meanings of Watteau’s painting are, of course, disputed, but it seems clear that (whether or not the moment depicted is a stage on a lover’s pilgrimage, or a moment of realisation and departure) that the progress of the figures carries an unequivocal significance. Reading from right to left they enact a process of turning away from escapism and distraction and heading towards the golden barge which sails (in the Berlin version) into thick mist on the surface of the lake, or (in the Paris version) into a cold mountain landscape where the waterways fade amongst the snowy slopes.
The question remains why this effect of intense sadness should attach so much to artificial islands, when, for example, the summerhouses and pavilions on the natural islands and outcrops of the Stockholm archipelago, retain, even on an overcast day, an atmosphere of innocent festivity, temperate and well-used leisure.
Or perhaps they appear so only to the eyes of my own generation, eyes still schooled by the British painters of the 1920s and 1930s, for whom the great designed landscapes in Britain, then mostly seen in a state of romantic delapidation, were an intense focus of sophisticated regret, a constant metaphor for their own world of “the between time” and all that menaced it. That is I think how Alan and I saw it on an October morning in the 1970s: Stowe seen through the lens of Stowe as depicted by John Piper and Rex Whistler (a juxtaposition which seemed far less of a disjunction thirty years ago than perhaps it does now). In the art books owned by my parents, Whistler was more simply canonical – a fine artist and a good soldier – than he was later, in a climate of retrospective visual fundamentalism. It is worth remembering that to visually-aware people who had lived through the last years between the wars, those years had embraced a plurality of artistic styles. These were only divided later in art-historical retrospect into Modernist high art on the one hand and “kitsch and pastiche” on the other. When I went to England for the first time to university (having lived exclusively in Scotland and on the Continent until then) I anticipated an England as Whistler had drawn England, and on that autumn day at Stowe, that England was suddenly about me, and I was moving through the mossy rides and umbered trees of his drawings, and all the columns, mists and obelisks seemed to be mourning for those artists lost in the war
The last true descendent of the landscapes of Stowe and Stourhead is perhaps Whistler’s dining-room mural at Plas Newydd on Anglesey, a large and sumptuous work of last baroque, finished just before the Munich crisis. An imagined world of a grand harbour and fortress islands, of little boats setting forth for blue distances, finished in the summer before the Munich crisis, for a wise and clear-sighted patron in the tradition of the patrons of the great designed landscapes.
Now that the National Trust have cleared the island at Stowe, and repaired the monument, its details can be seen at last. Once more the monkey holds the mirror up to humanity and we can see at last that the knop at the top of the mirror frame is a human mask, its face sombre with sadness and regret. The regret is twice removed: it is a carving of a carving, distanced by time and the waters of the lake. So mannered, so appalling the regret. So stoical, so fully adult the acceptance of death and of the deaths of friends. It epitomises the aching sadness of a sophisticated place of memory that has outlived its day, an emblem in the process of being forgotten (my own generation is the last in Britain that will speak even a pidgin version of Lord Cobham’s symbolic language). It is a thing that is at once ravishing, permanent, transitory and (unvisited across misty water) immensely powerful.
[i] This might cease to be true of Lancelot Browne’s most formulaic works, drained, as they are, of meaning, emotion and autobiography and attempting only to produce an undemanding aesthetic satisfaction.
[ii] The Duke of Anhalt-Dessau also had the strangest island paradise in any landscape garden of Europe. The Stein was an Italian Grand Tour compressed into one rocky island, with a clifftop villa and an artificial volcano. The volcano was operated by means of hidden fireplaces to produce smoke, and a cistern for the manufacture of steam at its summit. These could be augmented with fireworks to simulate an eruption on Ducal Anniversaries, Feasts of Reason, David Hume’s birthday, and that sort of occasion.
[iii] 1717 version in Paris, 1721 in Berlin.
Peter Davidson is Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Aberdeen. His new prose book, Distance and Memory, will be published by Carcanet in June, and his latest text for Paul Mealor's music, Three Pre-War Songs will be premiered by Jeremy Huw Williams at Aberdeen Mayfest this year.