A new exhibition at the National Trust property Stourhead shines a light on the women who shaped this stately home over the past three centuries

The year ‘2024’ marks three hundred years of Stourhead as a home. This milestone birthday is being celebrated through a series of exhibitions and special events, the first of which is titled ‘300 years of Stourhead as a Home’ and has been launched to coincide with International Women’s Day on March 8th. It will shine a light on the women who shaped this iconic place. Journeying back in time from Alda Hoare, who gifted Stourhead to the National Trust in 1946, to Jane Benson who was the first lady to live in the house in the 18th century. The Stourhead story is told through the eyes of the women who played a part in making it into a special place, some left diaries, allowing us to know their thoughts and feelings, others left only a single letter or photograph.

The earliest point of the story starts in 1724 when King George 1st was on the throne. Henry Hoare nicknamed ‘Henry the Good’ by his friends because of the generous founding and funding of charitable institutions, married his cousin, Jane Benson, and with their children they planned a Palladian villa overlooking a spectacular sweep of countryside. The mansion took seven years to build and was named ‘Stourhead’ to reflect the source of the river that flowed through the land. Two centuries later, Alda Hoare (nee Weston) moved into Stourhead with her family. She was a prolific reader and over 450 books in the beautiful library are thought to be hers, many are annotated with her scribbles.

Great British Life: Jane Benson, Mrs Henry Hoare (d.1741) by Jonathan Richardson the elder Jane Benson, Mrs Henry Hoare (d.1741) by Jonathan Richardson the elder (Image: National Trust)

Alda corresponded frequently with novelist Thomas Hardy. She was a friend of both his wives and was frequently invited to visit Hardy at his home Max Gate in Dorchester. Alda exchanged numerous letters with the writer, and they even sent each other gifts. Hardy would send her a signed first edition of his latest book, while Alda’s gifts were a little more old-fashioned. In a letter to Lady Alda Hoare on June 11th 1918, Hardy writes. ‘My dear friend: I must write & thank you for the quaint & attractive birthday presents. I remember candlesnuffing in my boyhood, & these snuffers recall those long-gone times.’

Alongside the exhibition, the house is beautifully set dressed, with the Music Room, Library and Garden Hall each showcasing a different era. Featured pieces include special items from the collection alongside exquisite replica dresses. Other pieces on display include a fine oil painting by Angelica Kauffman, one of the most celebrated artists of the 18th century as well as becoming one of Europe’s most influential painters. She painted queens, countesses, socialites, and actors, focussing on women from classical mythology and history. House and Collections Officer, Jennifer Parker describes the exhibition as ‘a wonderful opportunity to really shine a light on the contribution of women to the house.’

Great British Life: Alda Weston, Lady Hoare, (d. 1947), by St-George Hare, born 1857 at Stourhead.Alda Weston, Lady Hoare, (d. 1947), by St-George Hare, born 1857 at Stourhead. (Image: Charlie Waite)

Over the centuries, artists, makers, and creators have found inspiration to shape Stourhead into the magical place it is today. It is a sublime landscape garden, created by the Hoare family who built a mansion designed by Colen Campbell and began to create their paradise here. When Stourhead first opened in the 18th century, it was described as ‘a living work of art’. The world-famous landscape garden has at its centrepiece a magnificent lake reflecting classical temples, mystical grottoes, and rare and exotic trees.

Later in the year, a second exhibition coincides with the Great Big Green Week in June. 'The world today' will be looked at through the eyes of photographers with a stunning outdoor exhibition called ‘Earth Photo.’ The Royal Geographical Society and Forestry England established Earth Photo in 2018, to encourage conversations about our world, its peoples, environments, and the changing climate. Continuing the themes of making and creating, this exhibition aims to convey the world around us and make us think differently, just as the makers and creators have done through the past three centuries. Looking three hundred years to the future, a third exhibition in the Stable Yard is being sponsored by the British Council. It will explore the conservation and climate adaptation work being conducted by the expert teams at Stourhead and the National Trust, to ensure that our future generations can enjoy the magnificent landscape as much as we do today.

Great British Life: The Temple of Apollo reflected in the lake at Stourhead in May. The Temple of Apollo reflected in the lake at Stourhead in May. (Image: Clive Nichols)

Stourhead is looked after by the National Trust and is open to visitors to enjoy its nature, beauty, and history. It has 2650 acres of beautiful country estate to explore, across the Somerset and Wiltshire borders, taking in pasture, woodland, and chalk downland. From White Sheet Hill to the much-loved landmark, Alfred’s Tower, which reopens at Easter; along with an Easter Trail, and an Outdoor Active programme, which includes a series of walks and a monthly 10k run through the Stourhead Estate.

To mark this milestone birthday, the team at Stourhead have a vision to help Stourhead be forever for everyone and to enable access for all. Welcome Manager, Julia Colquhorn says, ‘We are thrilled to be opening an Accessibility Hub in the Spring. The new building will be a beacon of information and support. A stair climber can be pre-booked to enable wheelchair access into the house to see the new exhibition, whilst mobility scooters and mountain wheelchairs are available to hire to explore the garden, along with sensory bags, braille, and large print guides.’ . Find out more about Stourhead and how to join the celebrations at nationaltrust.org.uk