It was supposed to rain the whole week I was in Oxford. Fortunately for me, it didn’t. So each day, my friend Jill would pile us into her car and take us sightseeing. Living in Oxfordshire, she suggested a “side trip” to nearby Blenheim Palace, where Winston Churchill was born, and a variety of gardens could be seen.
A small bit of background: The palace was constructed around 1705; but the 2000 acres of parkland surrounding it did not come into their current glory until the arrival of Lancelot ’Capability’ Brown in 1764. He was responsible for the creation of a giant lake, man-made undulations and a series of water cascades. Churchill himself wrote that Blenheim’s unique appeal lay in its perfect adaptation of English parkland to an Italian palace. The “Italian palace” reference seems peculiarly relevant to the part of gardens I saw – the western water terraces, designed by the French landscape architect Achille Duchêne.
On a second terrace below the upper terrace were placed two great fountains in the style of Bernini, modeled after those in the Piazza Navona.
The water terraces took five years to build, from 1925 to 1930, during the stewardship of the 9th Duke of Malborough. The sphinx sculptures seen in the photo above have heads modeled after Gladys Deacon, his second wife. As I walked around, appreciating the late afternoon light and trying to keep stray tourists out of my camera’s viewfinder, I was struck by two thoughts. The first one was how unexpectedly much I liked the lower terrace area, in particular the choice of electric-orange cannas for the large urns anchoring the corners of the pools (who knows what these containers hold in other seasons?). The second was how incredibly different this garden is from Chartwell, Churchill’s personal, country home and garden, with its walled garden spilling over with classically British, lush, herbaceous borders. He loved both, but I like to think he loved Chartwell more.
For more information on the gardens at Blenheim Palace, please visit its website. I’d love to go back and explore the Secret Garden, the Temple of Diana (where the Prime Minister proposed to his wife Clementine), and the wide scope of Capability Brown’s work.