Let Bowood take you away...

  • 12 May 2020
  • Article

Quintessentially English, Wiltshire’s Bowood (between Calne and Chippenham) has been home to the Lansdowne family since 1754. Bowood House (characterised by its Robert Adam-designed façade) and its 100 acres of Pleasure Grounds - set within 2,000-acres of Grade 1 listed Capability Brown parkland – first opened to the public in 1975. Since then, and with an Adventure Playground added into the equation, Bowood attracts some 120,000 visitors each year, with the five millionth welcomed in summer 2019.

With 2020’s lockdown having temporarily grounded plans for the House & Gardens’ spring re-opening and while visitors remain at home, let Bowood take you on a whistle-stop tour of overseas locations with which it enjoys some fascinating links. Looking around the globe to points where Lansdowne ancestors have spread their influence, returning home with mementoes and inspiration, is a teaser towards further exploration of artefacts and features that will once more be on display when Bowood House & Gardens re-opens.

United States:

As Prime Minister (1782-3), the 2nd Earl of Shelburne negotiated peace with America after the War of Independence. Seeking financial support to help end the war, Shelburne called upon Baring Brothers bank. It had been set up in 1762 by one of his closest advisors, Sir Francis Baring and it is his 1804 portrait by Benjamin West that currently hangs above the fireplace in Bowood House’s Library. In recognition of Shelburne’s achievement he was created Marquess of Lansdowne in 1784. His embroidered court suit is displayed in the Georgian section of the Exhibition Rooms.

The 9th and current Marquis was born in Santa Barbara and is half-American through his maternal family.  As a child in 1974, his elder daughter Lady Arabella Unwin planted a Low’s Fir – from the mountains of Oregon and California – continuing the family tradition for tree planting in Bowood’s arboretum down the generations. The fir now stands some 19 metres tall and has a diameter of approximately 75cm.


From 1883-88, the 5th Marquess of Lansdowne served as Governor-General and proved to be an adept statesman during politically turbulent times in Canada. During the North-West Rebellion of 1885 he travelled extensively throughout western Canada meeting with the country’s indigenous Indians. These travels and experiences, his enjoyment of fishing, winter sports and the wilderness all led to his great love of the Canadian outdoors. Photographs of the family while in Canada are displayed in the Stables Restaurant within Bowood House.


Planted around 1900, the distinctive Irish Yew trees on the Terraces fronting Bowood House were originally discovered in County Fermanagh in 1780. Their distinctive angle has taken form due to the plants leaning towards the sun.

The High Seas:

Grandfather to the 4th Marchioness, Admiral Lord Keith (1746-1823) made his name campaigning with great honour during the Napoleonic Wars. In the Georgian section of the Exhibition Rooms, his cabinet that was specially devised for use on board ship can be seen. Its ingenious design sees a desk, washbasin and commode come together in one piece of furniture.


The marriage of the 4th Marquess of Lansdowne (1816-66) led to a number of Napoleonic treasures entering the Bowood Collection. His wife Emily was the daughter of Charles, Comte de Flahault who had been aide-de-camp to Napoleon during his later European campaigns. The Comte’s portrait is on view in the Orangery while upstairs in the House’s Exhibition Rooms you will come upon miniatures of a young Napoleon and Empress Josephine. Showcased too is a set of Sèvres porcelain that Napoleon took with him.

into exile on St. Helena. There’s also his bronze death mask – which made an appearance on the episode of BBC TV’s Antiques Roadshow that was filmed at Bowood in June 2015.


‘The Retreat from Russia’ in the Orangery (painted in oils by Horace Vernet in 1818) depicts Flahault’s dying servant David being carried shoeless across a snowy landscape in the aftermath of Napoleon’s failed military campaign.


Carlo Bossoli’s watercolour of Almeria (painted c.1855) is within the Bowood Collection thanks again to the 3rd Marquess and is to be spotted on the wall of the first-floor staircase of the Exhibition Rooms.


The two majestic zinc stags guarding the steps between the Upper and Lower Terraces were designed by Moritz Geiss of Berlin in 1852. Prince Albert had purchased a pair of these sculptures after seeing them in the Prussian section of the 1851 Great Exhibition. The 3rd Marquess may also have seen them there; he paid £14 (c. £1,500) more for his stags than Prince Albert!


A Chancellor of the Exchequer at 25 and a confidante of Queen Victoria, the 3rd Marquess of Lansdowne (1780-1863) built up an outstanding art collection for Bowood. One particular item is the oil painting of Venice’s Grand Canal (c.1833) by Clarkson Stanfield that hangs in Robert Adam’s ‘Diocletian’ Orangery. The large semi-circular windows in this wing of the House are characteristically ‘Diocletian’, named after the Roman emperor and recalling the public baths of Ancient Rome. The Orangery is entered from Italianate Terraces laid out on two levels, fronting Bowood House. Dating back to the 1800s, they were designed to remind the 3rd Marquess of Italy.


Romantic poet Lord Byron’s Albanian dress – worn in the famous 1813 portrait of him by Thomas Phillips – was acquired while he was on his Grand Tour of the Mediterranean in 1809. Having described the costume as ‘the most magnificent in the world’, he later gave it to Margaret Mercer Elphinstone (with whom he conducted a flirtatious correspondence) suggesting she use it for fancy dress. Margaret went on to marry the Comte de Flahault and their daughter Emily married the 4th Marquess.


A popular 18th century import, the ‘Cedar of Lebanon’ with its distinctive horizontal shape is undoubtedly a favourite of legendary landscape designer Capability Brown. These trees are one of the star players within Brown’s encircling belts of trees and punctuating arboreal clumps across the Bowood parkland. Indeed, Bowood is home to the tallest Cedar of Lebanon in Europe.

India and Burma:

Having served as Canada’s Governor-General, the 5th Marquess was then appointed Viceroy (1888-1894). His tenure and travels across the continent are recalled within the Indiana section of the Exhibition Rooms where the visitor is greeted by a lacquered papier mâché Burmese Buddha. Further showcases contain heirlooms such as a miniature ivory palace given to Lord Lansdowne’s 13-year-old daughter from the Begum of Bhopal; watercolours of Government House in Calcutta and the Viceregal Lodge at Simla; embroidered and sequined textiles; many addresses of welcome - one of which is contained in a silver casket supported by elephants - and inlaid sandalwood furniture from Mysore.

The 5th Marquess also returned to Wiltshire from India with a greater knowledge of rhododendrons, having discovered wide-ranging species and colours in the Himalayas where they originate. His enthusiasm for the genus saw him greatly expand the Woodland Garden that was originally laid out in 1854 by his grandfather, the 3rd Marquess. A mile away on the Estate from Bowood House, the 30-acre Woodland Garden (in bloom annually from late April-early June) and the further plantings by subsequent Lansdowne generations draw greatly on the 5th Marquess’ Indian inspirations.

These various fascinating elements of the Bowood mosaic – and many others that also recall far-flung destinations down the ages  -  await the time when they can be discovered at first-hand once the House & Gardens is able to re-open to the public. In the meantime, keep following Bowood’s social media platforms for added insights into what makes Bowood unique.


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