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History of the house


Sir Richard Temple (1634-97)

The Temple family were the first significant builders at Stowe having acquired the estate in 1590, and they spent the following half-century as Parliamentarians consolidating their standing largely through juggling debts.

After 1677, Sir Richard Temple, third Baronet (1634–97) built a brick house as his new family seat which remains the core of the current mansion. Nothing now remains of the seventeenth-century gardens due to the redevelopment of the site by a second Richard Temple (1675–1749), who inherited Stowe in 1697, aged 21.

He was a soldier, known as ‘the greatest Whig in the army’.

At the turn of the eighteenth century he served under the Duke of Marlborough and rose to the rank of Lieutenant General, finally becoming Lord Cobham. A good friend of Alexander Pope, Cobham was enthused by the arts and upon marrying Anne Halsey, a Brewer’s daughter in 1715, he invested much of her £20,000 dowry in the mansion as well as a curious brand of green politics: landscape as propaganda.

Cobham concentrated on developing the gardens into a great French-styled parterre which, between 1714–19, saw the introduction to the site of John Vanbrugh, his Kit-Cat club friend, and also Charles Bridgeman the royal gardener who would pioneer an informal style of landscaping. His formal gardens were bounded by a new ‘ha-ha’, the first in Britain, and involved levelling the village of Stowe. The gardens grew to just over 200 acres by 1748.

There were many sound reasons for Cobham to transfer cash into masonry and shrubbery. Throughout the course of the eighteenth century, the family were political leaders of a Whig faction, and generated two Prime Ministers. The ever-developing house was more than a conspicuous family home, serving also as an effective seat of power and the centre of the family’s commercial interests in managing a surrounding estate of 50,000 acres.

The South Front of Stowe as built in about 1663 (c.RCHME)

The South Front of Stowe as built in about 1663 (c.RCHME)

Vanbrugh, Kent and the Arcadian Garden

Vanbrugh added a north portico whilst covering the house in render to harmonise the seventeenth-century brick core with its additions, and between 1731–3 a two-tier portico was added to the south front.

Plan of the 'piano nobile', 1848

Plan of the ‘piano nobile’, 1848

Over £1200 was spent on improvements between 1732–4. The multi talented designer William Kent arrived during this time, coincident with the appearance of new pavilions with fashionable Palladian windows. From the 1730s, the Temples’ liberal politics were displayed to a steady stream of visitors through the revolutionary language of landscape gardening – the Jardin Anglais – sometimes referred to as the ‘Arcadian garden’.

Each example was a three-dimensional interpretation of landscape scenes by artists such as Claude Lorrain that the British milordi encountered on the Grand Tour, but dressed with temperate planting and more densely packed with temples and follies. Along the well-worn circuit were threaded fifty buildings, some the size of a house in themselves. Thirty-two survive today.


From Earl Temple to John Soane

The shortcomings of the long façade were fixed after Cobham’s death in 1749, by his nephew Richard Grenville, who soon became Earl Temple. In 1760 he was made a Knight of the Garter and was described as ‘the richest man in England’. He used his wealth to transform the north and south fronts of the mansion. The north side received its curving colonnades to form an embracing road entrance for coaches; in 1771 the unfortunate façade of the south front was redesigned by Robert Adam. His vision was found to be too fussy, however, and was improved by Thomas Pitt, Earl Temple’s cousin into its present appearance. The interiors were all handsomely refurbished. Chief amongst them is the Marble Saloon of c. 1774, replacing the old Great Parlour with an astonishing 57′ high dome, in all costing £12,000. Work continued into the nineteenth century under John Soane, who in 1805 designed the beautiful Gothic Library, (originally the Saxon Room, but now the Headmaster’s Study) based on the late medieval tracery and vaults of Henry VII’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey (c. 1503–12).

The Temple-Grenvilles soon fell from grace through squandering the estate’s fortunes. The second Duke, known as ‘the greatest debtor in the world’ owed £1.1m, and the estate and furnishings were dispersed in two notable auctions, in 1848, and eventually 1921. Somehow the house and many of the garden buildings survived as an entity and in 1923, it became home to Stowe School. Most of the house was by then over 150 years old, and during the twentieth century, time and weather have taken their toll. Today its preservation and public presentation are central commitments of WMF Britain, in a full and open working partnership with the Stowe House Preservation Trust.

J.F. Roxburgh 'reading over' in assembly, 1923

J.F. Roxburgh ‘reading over’ in assembly, 1923