'The Nine Muses' recreated at Stowe after a century of archaeological detective work

Dedicated research unearths the clues that help our best gardens to relive former glories

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The restoration of the nine muses at Stowe Garden
The restoration of the nine muses at Stowe Garden Credit: Hugh Mothersole

In recent years the trends in gardening have been very much on the theme of naturalistic planting design, which sometimes seems to be sweeping all before it. But it’s not all about those “waving Euro-grasses”.

Our historic gardens, too, have been quietly bubbling away, with historic planting styles being realised with much more understanding than ever before, and even the occasional temple, grotto or statue group being reinstated, should funds allow.

There are certainly not as many “blockbuster” restorations going on today, compared with 20 years ago. But that may be no bad thing, according to Richard Wheeler, garden historian with the National Trust. “There has been a lot of tightening of the reins, slowing down and trying to get things right,” he says.

“At places like Hidcote, we are now really trying to get under the skin of the place, and letting the gardeners express themselves.” It’s a view echoed by others in the heritage world, who feel that during the Nineties and 2000s, perhaps too much was restored, and too quickly, and that a slower pace might be better suited to the milieu of the garden, after all. There is as much emphasis, now, on the horticultural as the architectural.

Probably the most famous 18th-century landscape garden, and a place which has long fascinated Wheeler, is Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, where there is much excitement surrounding the Trust’s reinstatement of a statue group of the nine muses (female mythological figures representing the arts), originally added to the garden in the early part of the 18th century.

These figures, which were modelled by London-based Flemish sculptor John van Nost, now stand again in front of the Doric Arch, marking the entrance to designer William Kent’s Elysian Fields. “We ­forget, but there were more than 100 statues in the garden,” says Wheeler. “But most were melted down or sold off over the years.”

The muses did not survive these purges, though one did remain in the garden: Calliope, muse of epic poetry, who ended up being placed on top of a tall column. It is this statue, and two other originals which found their way to ­Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire (another Trust property), that provided the basis for re-creations of all nine made in composite stone by the Cliveden Conservation Workshop.

"The progress of restoration has been slow, because it is run by an independent trust which must raise funds for each project"  Credit: Hugh Mothersole

The poses of the six “lost” muses now restored to Stowe are somewhat conjectural, though Wheeler is confident they are accurate enough: “Our curator has analysed the attributes of statuary of the period and discovered that there were only about half a dozen female figures being made,” he says. “It seems they were varied only by the arms and legs being moved around a bit.”

Now all that is needed to complete the arc of the muses at Stowe is a figure of Apollo to complete the set. But not any old Apollo. “We don’t want a bog-standard Belvedere Apollo,” says Wheeler. “We are looking for a Lyric Apollo [where the god is holding a lyre], like the one at Versailles.” Wheeler says he thinks they have found a rare example in a British garden which they might copy – though he cannot reveal where, as negotiations are at a delicate stage.

At Stowe the emphasis recently has been as much on the historic planting style as on architectural restoration. Mark Laird, a Harvard-based expert on 18th-century planting design, has been advising on this for a number of years at Painshill in Surrey, a stunning 18th-century ­landscape garden.

The progress of restoration has been slow, because it is run by an independent trust which must raise funds for each project. As a result, the garden has been put back together over some 40 years. The most recent addition is the imposing Temple of Bacchus, built to contain a statue which was reputedly the largest ever brought back from Italy by a connoisseur on his Grand Tour. It’s a magnificent and slightly startling addition.

Another exciting reinstatement – though not outdoors – can now be seen at Hestercombe, in Somerset: a massive equestrian self-portrait by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde, creator of the garden in the mid 18th century. The portrait now hangs in the house again on long-term loan from its owners, with the ­addition of a new gilded frame. It is the centrepiece for a season of events at Hestercombe this year that mark the 300th anniversary of Bampfylde’s birth.

The emphasis is very much on historic horticulture at several other private or independent estates and ­gardens. At Chatsworth House, in Derbyshire, Tom Stuart-Smith has ­replanted the vast rock garden for the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, and is now also working on the woodland.

Equestrian self-portrait by Coplestone Warre Bampfylde Credit: Hestercombe

Two arts and crafts masterpieces, Rodmarton in Gloucestershire and Iford Manor in Wiltshire, are both being rejuvenated by a new generation of owners, while the recently restored ­garden around Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, in Twickenham, is in the process of bedding down. Meanwhile, Dan Pearson’s restoration of the huge rose garden at Lowther Castle, in Cumbria, should open to the public this season.

For John Watkins, head of gardens at English Heritage, historically accurate horticultural maintenance is just as important as any built additions to a ­garden.

“We hold regular training sessions on historic garden styles and at several gardens [such as Wrest Park, Bedfordshire] we meet up once a year to argue through not just how we want it to look, but how it should feel – the flair of the period,” he says. “Because if we don’t develop the skills and abilities of the ­garden teams, the gardens will fail. The gardener is the artist.”

Watkins is most enthused about a project at Boscobel House, Shropshire, best known as the place where Charles II hid in the branches of the Royal Oak to evade his enemies after the Battle of Worcester in 1651.

As the king related: “We (that is Carlos and I) went and carried some victuals up with us (only bread and cheese and small beer) for the whole day and got up into a great oak that had been lopped some three or four years before and so was grown out very bushy and thick and could not be seen through. And there we stayed all the day.” The branches created a nest of foliage in which the king was invisible.

The Royal Oak still stands and Watkins’s team has just begun the process of replanting the oak pasture around it, ­before the property reopens in the summer. “This will, over time, give the tree back its setting,” he says.

One unexpected element of the restoration process here concerns farm ­animals. “I never thought I was going to become a chicken expert,” says Watkins, referring to the heritage poultry breeds (along with sheep and pigs) which are taking up residence again.

These are at least more manageable than certain other animals which could be “restored” to Chiswick House, another property in his care: “Unfortunately we haven’t been able to bring back the giraffes to Chiswick,” he jokes. Or perhaps he is only half-joking…?

Where possible, National Trust gardens and parklands will be open free of charge while coronavirus isolation measures are in force.