Stowe House was originally the country seat of the Temple-Grenville family. The first house on its footprint was built between 1677 and 1683 for the third baronet, Sir Richard Temple. Over the next century, the family significantly altered and enlarged both the house and its elaborately designed gardens. Stowe was shaped by a parade of famed British architects including John Vanbrugh, James Gibbs, Robert Adam, and John Soane. Meanwhile, well-known landscape designers William Kent and Capability Brown transformed the grounds into Britain’s finest Arcadian garden, with around 50 buildings, an ensemble admired and imitated by many. The family built a magnificent art collection, and displayed it in continually updated and improved interiors, remodeled by European designers such as Giovanni Battista Borra, Georges-François Blondel, and Vincenzo Valdre.
A combination of increasing expenditure and decreasing responsibility eventually bankrupted the family, and in 1827 the first Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, great-great-grandson of Sir Richard Temple, closed Stowe House and took to a yacht on the Mediterranean, over a million pounds in debt.
The family tried to stay afloat by selling off much of their art through a major auction in 1848, but to little avail. The last time Stowe came to the auction block was in 1922, when it was saved from almost certain demolition and transformed into Stowe School, which opened in May 1923.
How We Helped
The Stowe House Preservation Trust (SHPT) was formed over a decade ago with the aim of restoring and preserving the house. The trust has had enormous success in repairing and conserving the façades and roofs, while the National Trust has a 20-year record of restoring the landscape gardens with its temples and follies. Part of the SHPT’s initial response to Stowe’s poor condition was its successful nomination to the 2002 World Monuments Watch, whereupon it received funding for the restoration of the elliptical Marble Saloon, supported by the Robert W. Wilson Challenge to Conserve Our Heritage. This project, set at the heart of the mansion, was completed in 2005 and demonstrated the potential transformation of this magnificent building.
The Wilson Challenge has also supported the restoration of the elegant library with its magnificent ceiling spanning 750 mahogany bookshelves, as well as the conservation of decorative treatments of the Music Room, Egyptian Hall, North Hall, and Dining Room. Additionally, the Paul Mellon Estate supported a skills training program at the site and the conservation of the State Music Room, one of the finest late-eighteenth-century spaces in Britain. Even so, a great deal of painstaking, expert, and expensive work remains.
In April 2013, two eighteenth-century lead lions that had adorned the entrance to the south front until 1921, when they were sold at auction, were returned to Stowe in a long-term lease deal brokered with Blackpool, the city that had acquired the statues 90 years previously. The return of the lions, by famed eighteenth-century sculptor John Cheere, and the installation of some 30 spun copper urns, marked the completion of exterior restoration work at Stowe.
Why It Matters
Stowe’s impressive grandeur and beauty are complemented by a longer history. In the midst of this exemplar of Arcadian gardens whose influence was felt across Europe, Stowe House is a Georgian ducal nearly 1,000 feet wide. Built over a century from 1680-1780, it represents an immense resource of craftsmanship, a former hotbed of eighteenth-century politics, and a story of rags-to-riches-back to rags family tragedy. It twice evaded demolition, in 1848 and 1922, when it was rescued from auction through its new usage as Stowe School. Stowe School has been the custodian through an age renowned for the wrecking of Britain’s country houses. Today, the unpublished archives are in the Huntington Library in California, the chattels dispersed, and the house largely overlooked.
The partnership that is currently assembled the Stowe House Preservation Trust—Stowe School, the National Trust, and the World Monuments Fund—are all committed to improving the condition of the house and its setting while maximizing the public value of the building so that the estate becomes a cultural resource for a broad range of visitors. Skills training, children’s charities and education through theater and arts have all resulted from the collaboration and are set to be perpetuated as a result of our work.