The Temple of British Worthies

Marcus's picture
Submitted by Marcus on Mon, 2012-08-20 08:57
John Locke.JPG
King Alfred.JPG
Sir Isaac Newton.JPG
Temple of British Worthies.JPG
William Shakespeare.JPG

On the weekend I visited the Landscape Gardens of Stowe House in Buckinghamshire.

By chance I happened across "the Temple of British Worthies" built in 1734.

This monument contains the busts and tributes to sixteen British worthies, divided into eight worthies of action and eight worthies of ideas. Scholars suggest that the designer William Kent may have had in mind an Italian model, a series of busts of Roman emperors in niches that form a small circle in the Garden of the Villa Brenzone. Kent's monument contains niches for sixteen busts, eight in either wing, and a central oval niche for the head of Mercury.

Alexander Pope, Sir Thomas Gresham, Inigo Jones, Milton, Shakespeare, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, King Alfred, the Black Prince, Elizabeth I, William III, Raleigh, Drake, Hampden and Sir John Barnard (Whig MP and opponent of the Whig Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole).

There are inscriptions written above each of these fine figure (some examples):

Sir Isaac Newton

the God of Nature made to comprehend his Works;
and from simple Principles, to discover the Laws never known before,
and to explain the Appearance never understood,
of this Stupendous Universe.

John Locke

Who, best of all Philosophers,
understood the powers of the human mind:
the nature, end, and bounds of civil government;
and with equal courage and sagacity, refused
the slavish systems of usurped authority
over the rights, the consciences, or the reason of mankind.

William Shakespeare

Whose excellent Genius open'd to him the whole Heart of Man,
all the Mines of Fancy, all the Stores of Nature;
and gave him Power, beyond all other Writers,
to move, astonish, and delight Mankind.

Sir Thomas Gresham

Who by the honourable Profession of Merchant,
having enrich'd himself, and his Country,
for carrying on the Commerce of the World,
built the Royal Exchange.

This monument is part of what is called the Elysian Fields at the other end of which is the Temple of Ancient Virtue, which contains busts of Epaminondas (general), Lycurgus (lawmaker), Homer (poet) and Socrates (philosopher). The Elysian Fields (Elysium) is what the Ancient Greeks called the place of the Gods.

Is a sad realisation that in today's liberal world such monuments would not be possible. I would expect Liberals to demand that unworthies be included amongst any worthies, just for the sake of equality. And the worthies would likely be those who had overcome adversity rather than those who had truly excelled in their disciplines.

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Olivia's picture

I just found it...

Queen Elizabeth
Who confounded the Projects, and destroy'd the Power
that threaten'd to oppress the Liberties of Europe;
took off the Yoke of Ecclesiastical Tyranny;
restor'd Religion from the Corruptions of Popery;
and by a wise, moderate, and a popular Government,
gave Wealth, Security, and Respect to England.

How brilliant.

My god!

Olivia's picture

What an amazingly beautiful thing, from its title to its design. Did all 16 have inscriptions? Can you remember what was said about Elizabeth?

Interesting Rosss...

Marcus's picture

...I didn't have time to read the link but I read a biography of Cook recently by Vanessa Collingridge. She makes the case in there, that there is a lot of evidence that Cook was not the first European to discover Australia or New Zealand, nor was Abel Tasman.

However that Cook's voyages were a huge achievemt anyway being the first man to get to Antartica, discover Hawaii and to map the South Pacific in accurate detail.

She points out that such is the love of the Australians for Cook that they strongly resisted replacing him as the "first" discoverer in their school history books. Indeed to suggest otherwise was a social taboo up until recently.


Ross Elliot's picture

...was an exemplar.

NZ could have had a worse re-discoverer for sure. He was enlightened in the best sense. His goal was discovery upon the best terms and he lamented any unfortunate misunderstandings between his expeditions and the peoples with which he interacted.

His writings are quite wonderful to read and I have no doubt that they informed the British authorities in their treatment of, particularly, NZ colonisation.

JC Beaglehole did comprehensive work on Cook. Well worth reading.

Here's one example: The Life of Captain James Cook

Another New Zealand connection...

Marcus's picture

I walked past this one without realising what it was.

The Cook Monument

"Cook's profile is sculpted in a medallion on the north side of the Monument, and it can be seen clearly from the benches near the Seasons Fountain, where the visitor is invited to pause a while and contemplate the scene. Both Bevington and the Guide to the Gardens note that the Monument reflects the family's interest in and support of the expansion of the British Empire.

The Globe atop the Monument is decorated with brass strips to indicate latitude and longitude. Around the equatorial band is a quotation, in gold leaf, from Horace's Archytas Ode (Book I, Ode XXVIII): Te maris & terræ numeroque carentis arenæ mensorem, or "you were the man who measured sea, earth, and sand without number." In this passage from Horace's poem, the speaker--a drowned sailor--addresses himself to Archytas of Tarentum, a fourth-century Greek mathematician and astronomer, who had interests similar to Captain Cook's as an explorer and cartographer. Later in the poem the speaker addresses a passing sailor, begging the latter to grant his "bones and unburied head a measure of loose sand." In other words, the drowned man has not had a proper burial, and according to the Greek myth, cannot enter into his rest in the afterlife. A proper burial included a coin placed under the tongue of the corpse with which to pay Charon, the ferryman who carried souls across the River Styx. Without the coin, the unfortunate person would wander the banks of the Styx for a hundred years looking for the pauper's entrance into the realm of the blessed, the Elysian Fields.

Captain Cook's Monument offers an insight into the particular way in which Earl Temple, like his uncle Lord Cobham before him, designed the gardens to present an idea in three dimensions and to invite the garden visitor to participate in the process of interpretation. Captain Cook suffered a violent death at the hands of the Hawaiians: his body was dismembered and his flesh burned before his bones were returned to his crew. His remains were buried at sea. In this, he is like the drowned sailor in Horace's poem, unable to cross the River Styx to enter the Elysian Fields, and it is fitting that his monument should be placed on an island in Stowe's River Styx, rather than on one side of the river or the other. In addition, as the National Trust staff will point out to visitors to Stowe's Elysian Fields, in order to read the Latin inscription on the Monument, one must start on the western bank of the river, cross the Shell Bridge, and end on the eastern bank--that is, one must wander the banks of the Styx as the soul of Captain Cook might have wandered."

Temple of Unworthies

Marcus's picture

In 2010, this article appeared in the Guardian.

Temple of Unworthies

"Indeed, where Stowe is concerned, no temptation should be resisted, for this is a truly exceptional place: a (very expensive) public school housed in a grand mansion set among some 400 acres of 18th-century Elysian fantasy.

The grounds of most public schools are mainly populated by rugby posts, but here cunningly plotted vistas in every direction are arrayed with lakes, bridges, statues at the top of high pillars, and above all temples: the Temple of Ancient Virtue, the Temple of Venus, the Temple of Concord and Victory, etc – the whole show devised and directed by Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham (1675-1749), who can be found looking down with a justified appearance of satisfaction from the highest pillar of all. Since Cobham's family name was Temple, filling his grounds with temples might be taken as some kind of wildly extravagant visual pun.

But the National Trust guide to Stowe deduces a deeper philosophical-political purpose. Lord Cobham was a devoted Whig. He saw his handiwork as a celebration of essential Whig values: the pursuit of liberty, and opposition to arbitrary rule such as that practised by monarchs before the great Whig revolution of 1688 put a curb on them.

The most eloquent demonstration of that is the Temple of British Worthies: an array of 16 of the heroes of the Whigs of Cobham's day, though in some cases – for example, King Alfred or Queen Elizabeth I – their subscription to Whig values seems elusive. Edward Prince of Wales (the Black Prince of the 14th century) is meant to be a surrogate for a man Lord Cobham did not quite dare to put here: Frederick, Prince of Wales, son and dissident heir of George II, who was supported by a group gathered around Cobham. They called themselves Patriots. The line-up at Stowe, eight picked for their ideas and eight for their actions, consists of Alexander Pope, Sir Thomas Gresham, Inigo Jones, Milton, Shakespeare, John Locke, Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon, King Alfred, the Black Prince, Elizabeth I, William III, Raleigh, Drake, Hampden and, tucked away at one end with his nose almost in a bush, Sir John Barnard.

You will surely have heard of the rest, but whatever is Barnard doing in this gallery? A city merchant, lord mayor of London, deviser of an ingenious scheme for reducing the national debt, which ought to commend him to the Britain of 2010 (though his reputation for using his place in parliament to defend the interests of business associates has a less enticing ring to it); but fit to rank with Shakespeare and Milton? To the exclusion of, to name but a few, Becket, Simon de Montfort, Chaucer, Caxton, Thomas More?

To come across Barnard in such illustrious company is as jolting as finding Centrepoint in a compendium of great British buildings, or Alan Titchmarsh flanked by Capability Brown and Gertrude Jekyll in a pantheon of gardening virtuosos. Barnard's is one of two busts (the other is Pope's) put here not by Cobham but by his successor at Stowe, the first Earl Temple. Services rendered perhaps? Though the guide book says that Barnard qualified because of his talent for roughing up Robert Walpole.

One can't help feeling that comparable assemblies of worthies would add an extra piquancy to some other National Trust venues. Indeed, if you go to Stowe as a group, you can while away the journey home by compiling your own rival teams of general or specific worthies: a temple of British philosophers, scientists or poets, perhaps; or rock stars, giants of British tennis, or outstanding figures from reality television; but including in each case one Barnard – definable perhaps as someone seen in elevated company who plainly doesn't belong there."

Indeed Ross...

Marcus's picture is about time I read John Locke. I've had his essays in my bookshelf for years, but have never read them.

We also saw a tree in a sheep paddock that definitely looked like a Pohutakawa. It wasn't flowering so we weren't 100% sure.

However having discovered the tenth Viscount of Cobham was Governor-General of New Zealand it seems far more likely it was.

How appropriate it was placed in a sheep paddock as well.


Ross Elliot's picture

I like this:

Who, best of all Philosophers,
understood the powers of the human mind:
the nature, end, and bounds of civil government;
and with equal courage and sagacity, refused
the slavish systems of usurped authority
over the rights, the consciences, or the reason of mankind.

I like Locke's bust. The tangled hair, the downward brows, the strong face.

The Gothic Temple...

Marcus's picture

I also walked past this not realising its relevance until later.

It was designed by James Gibbs in 1741. It is now available as a holiday let, a nice one at that.

It is Dedicated 'To the Liberty of our Ancestors'.

To quote John Martin Robinson: 'to the Whigs, Saxon and Gothic were interchangeably associated with freedom and ancient English liberties: trial by jury (erroneously thought to have been founded by King Alfred at a moot on Salisbury Plain), Magna Carta, parliamentary representation, all the things which the Civil War and Glorious Revolution had protected from the wiles of Stuart would-be absolutism, and to the preservation of which Lord Cobham and his 'Patriots' were seriously devoted.'

Richard Temple (Viscount of Cobham, 1675-1749) was the original owner of these grounds which now belong to the charity, the National Trust. Interestingly, the tenth Viscount of Cobham served as Governor-General of New Zealand from 1957 to 1962.

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