Classical Influences on Georgian Stourhead, Stourton Memorial Hall, 11 & 12th November 2015

By John Harrison, PhD student in Classical Studies at The Open University

I’ve noticed over the past few years that some PhD students cunningly organise conferences based around the themes of their research. As I am just at the beginning of my 4th year as a part-time PhD student, and in the midst of writing up, I thought I would take my cue from them. Here is my blog account of last week’s ‘Classical Influences on Georgian Stourhead’ conference.

About 2 years ago, the National Trust Garden Specialist, Richard Wheeler, and I strolled around Stourhead gardens comparing notes. He was of the view that the gardens owe a heavy debt to the Aeneid. I took the view that each of the garden buildings is best interpreted as independent tableaux. Unable to agree, at the end of our walk we decided that the time was right to organise a conference at which classical influences would be considered. Last Wednesday and Thursday this idea was fulfilled.

At the beginning of this process Helen King warned me that whilst money and time would be in short supply for such an endeavour, there would be an abundance of goodwill. She was entirely right on all three counts and it was the goodwill that carried us through. The most obvious manifestation of this goodwill was the willingness of the invited speakers to agree to present. I wrote out a ‘dream’ faculty and sent invitations, hopeful that perhaps one or two would agree to participate. Prof Roey Sweet and Richard Wheeler were my first choices for keynotes, with Michael Symes, Oliver Cox, Dudley Dodd, Susan Deacy, Susie West, Alan Power, and our own Jess Hughes, as invited speakers. To my delight they all accepted, and after the Call for Papers, were joined by David Jacques, David Noy, Alan Montgomery, Danielle Westerhof, Caroline Barron, Nicky Pritchard-Pink and Gina Muskett. We had the good fortune to get from the OU financial sponsorship of a keynote speaker and an evening reception. The run of goodwill extended to agreement from the National Trust to hold our reception in Stourhead House, with access to the Picture Gallery, Entrance Hall & Cabinet Room. Local providers were hired to provide canapés. Soft drinks and sparkling wine were arranged and provided by Mrs Rachel Harrison, ably assisted by our children Seb & Cordelia.

Our plan for the conference was to spend Day 1 considering classical influences on Georgian Britain. After a welcome from Mac, the Stourhead General Manager, we began with session 1, ‘Classical Influences in the eighteenth-century garden’. Roey Sweet’s ‘Hoares, tours and country houses’ was an excellent start, and David Jacques account of Lord Burlington and his circle offered us further context. Michael Symes then helpfully took us through ‘Greek’ and ‘Grecian’ influences, which are not, as we might suppose, the same thing.

After lunch we began our ‘Theoretical approaches to studying classical influences’. Susan Deacy offered us a consideration of the importance of Hercules, Jess Hughes the connection between reception and memory, with Susie West offering an explanation of how we understand garden design as art. For me this was one of the very best sessions, with the content of all three papers overlapping on topics such as reception theory, sensation and possible iconography.

The final academic session of the day was themed ‘Beyond Stourhead: Classical influences at other Georgian country houses’. Another great session, with presentations on Penicuik House, Delian artefacts, Herriard House and Kedleston Hall. From 6.30 to 8.00pm we were in the house supping our drinks and munching our canapés, all whilst viewing the fine art of, amongst others, Maratta, Mengs & Poussin.

Day 2 focused on Stourhead and we began with an enthusiastic account from Richard Wheeler in which Stourhead gardens were considered from the standpoint of book 1 of the Aeneid. I followed with a presentation designed to correct the view that the gardens were based on a Claude painting and then by Oliver Cox, who put the voice of the eighteenth-century visitor in the forefront. Dudley Dodd then took us on a wonderful tour of the work of Rysbrach at Stourhead. Lots of information in this session – and some very different points of view. In an attempt to reach a consensus we had an impromptu panel discussion, refereed by Roey Sweet. Perhaps predictably, no such consensus emerged. Caroline Barron also thrilled us with her fascinating account of inscriptions at Stourhead and beyond.

After lunch Stourhead Head Gardener Alan Power took us through the challenges of conservation at Stourhead, littering his presentation with anecdotes and references. After some thanks and cheering the delegates left for a tour of the garden and we got to the important business of tidying up. The conference was a wonderful experience and we have high hopes of publishing the proceedings. A host of people gave unselfishly of their time to make this happen and I would like to thank them all. Key amongst the group deserving thanks were the attendees themselves. When we began this endeavour my benchmark for attendance success was to have as many attendees as faculty. This turns out to have been very unambitious, as we sold out all 80 places on Day 1 and had 74 attendees on Day 2.

There has been some very public wrangling about the National Trust’s attempts to balance broader membership needs with providing visitors with accurate and interesting information. It was therefore a delight to be part of an event at which so many people expressed such a clear interest in recent research and scholarship. It seems to me that good scholarship and greater accessibility to Trust properties have a rich future. The challenge is to find ways to engage a wider public with the rich history and fascinating stories that were the classical influences on Georgian Stourhead.

John Harrison

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