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The Atlas Fountain
Chris Ridgway
By Dr Chris Ridgway  //  Sat 27th June 2020
Gardens, Landscape, History
Following some routine maintenance & cleaning, the Atlas Fountain is back up and running. The South Parterre at Castle Howard has been dominated by this massive piece of Victorian sculpture and engineering for nearly 170 years. To this day, visitors enjoy the spectacle of multiple water jets along with the pleasing sounds of splashing water.

Castle Howard’s Atlas Fountain was always conceived as the centrepiece to the elaborate parterre laid down to the south of the house in the 1850s. It was a collaboration between four men: the 7th Earl of Carlisle, landscape gardener William Andrews Nesfield, sculptor John Thomas, and engineer James Easton.

Nesfield is famous for his intricate parterres which were best appreciated from a first-floor vantage point within the house; by May 1850 he was showing Carlisle advanced plans for a parterre design, and on his advice the sculptor John Thomas was commissioned to carve the large fountain figures. Thomas, born in 1813, was the leading English sculptor of the day. In 1846 he had been appointed superintendent of stone carving for the new Palace of Westminster; Prince Albert was an enthusiastic patron, and Thomas worked on the gate piers to Buckingham Palace and at Balmoral. His output was prodigious, and he is said to have died of exhaustion in 1861. Although Thomas was more than capable of designing classical subjects it was Nesfield who came up with the figure of Atlas for Castle Howard.


The water source for the fountain is the reservoir on the hilltop in Ray Wood to the east of the house. From here water can be piped in two directions simultaneously, to the Atlas Fountain, and to the Prince of Wales Fountain on the South Lake, the second fountain installed by Nesfield. The fall from the reservoir, through an 8-inch iron pipe over a quarter of a mile distance, is sufficient to generate an enormous head of water. When the water arrives at the parterre it is directed into a large domed chamber directly beneath the fountain: the central manifold directs the water into a principal vertical pipe and four lateral pipes, as well as a series of subsidiary pipes that lead into smaller chambers.