Tag Archive | landscape gardening

Lancelot “Capability” Brown and the Landscape Park

The son of a Northumberland land agent and a chambermaid, Lancelot Brown worked as the head gardener’s apprentice at the estate where his parents worked, Kirkharle Hall, owned by Sir William Loraine. His eldest brother John became the estate surveyor and eventually married Sir William’s daughter. His brother George became a mason-architect.

Oxford Bridge, Stowe

His first landscape commission was for a lake at Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire. In 1741, he became an under-gardener at Lord Cobham’s estate of Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, where he worked under William Kent (see a previous post), a founder of the new English landscape garden. In 1742 at the age of 26, he was promoted to Head Gardener (at £25 a year), where he remained until 1750, at the same time taking freelance commissions from Lord Cobham’s aristocratic friends. His landscape designs were in great demand from the landed gentry, and by 1761 he was making £500 a commission and around £6000 a year. Being an expert rider, he could scope out a property and rough out a design in about an hour. As his fame increased, he would charge more than £3,000 per commission.

Blenheim Palace

It is estimated that Brown was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain. His work still endures at Croome Court (where he also designed the house), Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Harewood House, Appuldurcombe House, Milton Abbey (and nearby Milton Abbas village), in traces at Kew Gardens and many other locations. “This man who refused work in Ireland because he had not finished England” was called “Capability” Brown, because he would characteristically tell his landed clients that their estates had great “capability” for landscape improvement. (Wikipedia)

Brown’s original plans for Croome Court

Brown’s gardening abilities, honed at Kirkharle, were tremendously proficient. His subsequent success depended largely on his position as contractor, both designing improvements and then seeing the work through to its conclusion. He was skilled in all aspects of planting, drainage, dam-building and earth-moving, and possessed a ruthless business sense. This enabled him to manipulate both gentry and under-gardeners alike in order to further his own reputation… Throughout his career, Brown designed purely for the aristocracy. Many of his commissions overlapped with one another, landed as the result of family connections amidst patrons.

In 1751, Brown set himself up as landscaper and architect in Hammersmith. This move to the outskirts of London marked the beginning of a relentlessly demanding thirty years and a spectacularly successful consultancy. It also cemented a fruitful relationship with the Henry Hollands and their family. Holland the Younger (1745-1806) was, like his father, a successful architect and builder. Brown took him on as informal business partner in 1771 and son-in-law in 1773.

Brown’s cascade at Blenheim Palace

The “Park way”

The approach taken by Brown and his followers was to strip an estate back to its basic forms: serpentine lakes, bare lawns and informal planting.

This was a revolutionary break from the artfully contrived landscapes of the gentleman amateurs, and the most ‘natural’ landscaping style the eighteenth century had yet seen… His model for a landscape park superseded anything that had come before it and dominated garden design completely. Arable fields, unsightly outbuildings and walled kitchen gardens were hidden by screens of trees, and any surviving formal features were replaced by great swathes of open pasture. Brown’s landscape minimalism effortlessly accommodated the practical needs of a landowner within an aesthetically pleasing estate.

Croome Court

In creating a landscape park most owners wanted to ‘improve’ on both their estate’s fashionable status and their economic revenue… the initial creation of a landscape park could be expensive, depending on the existing topography and amount of earth-works required. It was, however, remarkably cheaper to maintain. The upkeep of formal parterres or flimsy Rococo buildings required the employment of legions of gardeners, whereas the pastoral appearance of a landscape park could be easily upheld through ranging livestock. This grazing land could even be let out to local farmers to generate further income.

Ha-ha at Croome Court

Just as he had capitalised on his patrons’ desire to consolidate land in order to secure financial and social power, so Brown manipulated their love of hunting, shooting, fishing, and beauty. Brown’s belts and copses provided the perfect cover for game birds. His expansive lakes, such as that at Compton Verney, could be used not just for fishing (as had the formal canal), but rather for boating, other hunting and providing a landscaped site with a measure of visual relief.

Chinese Bridge at Croome Court

Eighteenth-century landscapes were also required to entertain in a less violent manner. To this end, most large estates such as Croome and Blenheim had two circuit drives to choose from. One was suitable for walking and the other for riding around. Ladies would often take a carriage and then the various parties could reconvene at a chosen spot for refreshments… Dainty Rococo layouts were walked around, in order to appreciate fully the changing moods conjured up by exotic temples. But with these garden incidents cleared away, Brown’s carriage-drive was an invitation to explore a landscape park at high speed.

Rotunda at Croome Court

Brown also contrived glimpses of lakes and buildings through planned openings between trees and shrubs. Each view was carefully orchestrated and revealed at a specific point on the route around the landscape… At Croomie, Brown consciously screened Adam’s Island Temple with yews so that it was not visible until the bridge was crossed.

Brown ‘compared his art to literary composition.’

Now there I make a comma, and there, where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject. (1782)

Croome Court

Perhaps his best known house was the Palladian Croome Court, where he was employed by George William Coventry, 6th Earl, from 1751. Croome’s unpromising marshland was drained so successfully that the earl commended Brown. ‘Who by the powers of His Indomitable and creative Genius formed this garden Out of a morass.’ However, his first phase of landscaping was virtually Rococo in style. Chinese bridges, a recumbent statue of Sabrina and a crystal-encrusted grotto were arranged around an inward-looking circuit. The original village and church were demolished and Brown’s Gothick Church of St Mary Magdalene with interiors by Robert Adam (1728-92) was reinstated on the eastern marl ridge to act as an eye-catcher. In the 1760’s a second, outer riding circuit was added. This was in accordance with the growing Picturesque fashion for wilder prospects and took in Adam’s Romanesque ruin, Dunstall Castle, as well as views of the Malverns.

Croome Court

He spent the last sixteen years of his life at his own small estate, Fenstanton Manor in Huntingdonshire, which he purchased in 1767. By the time he died in 1783 of exhaustion and old age he had amassed significant wealth. More importantly, he had joined the very landowning classes he had dedicated his life to serving.

St. Mary Magdalene’s Church, Croome

 

Walled garden, Croome

 

Croome Court

 

 

Mayer, Laura, Capability Brown and the English Landscape Garden, 2011, Shire Publications Ltd.

William Kent: His Story

William Kent (1685-1748) was an eminent architect, landscape designer, and furniture designer in the early eighteenth century. He was responsible for introducing the Palladian style of architecture as well as the “natural” style of gardening known as the “English landscape garden” into England.

In his first job as a sign and coach painter, Kent showed so much promise that a group of Yorkshire gentlemen provided the financial backing for a Grand Tour, where he painted, studied art, and was inspired by the palaces of Andrea Palladio in Venice. While his painting career did not flourish, he was fortunate to meet Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of  Burlington, “the architect earl,” who eventually assisted him in obtaining many major architectural commissions. After their return to England, the pair got along so well that Kent lived with the Burlington family for thirty years while they pursued their ideals for bringing the classical arts and Palladian architecture to England.

Richard Boyle, 3rd Earl of Burlington

Kent worked on many public, private, and royal architectural commissions, serving as “Principal Painter in Ordinary” to George II from 1723-1748. Holkham Hall (see below) is “the most complete embodiment of Palladian ideals still to be found” (Wikipedia). His beautiful interiors can still be seen at Kensington Palace and Chiswick House, among others.

Landscape architecture

The Grand Tour, specifically Greece and Italy, proved to be the most significant factor in influencing the fine arts in Georgian England.

Kent, with Pliny’s garden in mind, transformed Stowe, Chiswick and Rousham into “landscapes worthy of an idealised pastoral painting by Lorrain.” Philip Southcote said that the Kent-Burlington partnership was responsible for ‘the fine natural taste in gardening.”

Chiswick

In 1733, Kent took the garden at Burlington’s new villa with its Palladian bathing house, Doric column, and Tuscan portico, and added a semi-dome of

clipped yews, to which he relocated antique statues from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. Most importantly for the development of the landscape garden, however, was the opening up of vistas in the groves to take in contrived views of the temples, statues and urns. This advance in gardening was received with great acclaim, and soon “No nobleman’s Gardens were thought to be of Taste unless Mr. Kent had dispos’d or planted them.’ English estates quickly filled up with similar classical features, as the upper classes rushed to assert their wealth and cultural authority through their choice of patronage.

Chiswick House, cascade

 

Chiswick House

Stowe

For his first ever landscape commission in 1731, Kent created the Temple of Venus, for which he painted provocative scenes Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queen. Cobham, Stowe’s owner, was a leading Whig politician, so for the next several years, Kent embellished the property with political satire. In 1734, he enclosed forty acres of the estate to create the Elysian Fields, where he designed the Temple of British Worthies, which includes busts of famous historical persons such as Elizabeth I and Alfred the Great, and the Temple of Ancient Virtue. Across the water was a view of the Temple of Modern Virtues, with a statue of the decapitated Robert Walpole.

Temple of British Worthies, Stowe

…Kent was primarily employed to soften the rigid formalism of Stowe’s existing grounds, and transformed a disconnected series of garden features into a landscaped Arcadia of glimpsed views. To this end, he thinned the many harsh, axial avenues of trees.

Interestingly, it was Capability Brown who supervised the implementation of Kent’s designs for the Elysian fields, his first major commission. The River Styx “wound its way through a series of irregularly sited buildings and planted groves, furthering the fashion for naturalisation.”

Rousham

The trend toward escapist gardens which idealized “the pastoral bliss of ancient Rome” continued into the 1760’s, in stride with the political dominance of the Whigs. Rousham “is frequently hailed as representing the culmination of Kent’s Arcadian vision.”

The circuit walk at Rousham was a prototype of effective planting. It was designed to reveal different views and buildings in a pictorial fashion, including the Temple of Echo and a suggestively nude statue of Antinous, Hadrian’s boy lover. Arguable, Rousham was predisposed for its transformation into an informal Arcadia as the grounds curved naturally down to the River Cherwell. With its juxtaposition of Augustan values, castellated farm buildings and even a pyramid, Rousham was paving the way for the eclecticism of the Rococco garden. Most importantly, Kent opened out the views across the river y the addition of a Gothick eye-catcher and mill to the countryside opposite. From Rousham, Dormer [General James Dormer, Rousham’s owner]’s gardener John MacClary could enjoy the outward prospect of Carriers, Wagons, Gentlemen’s Equipages, Women riding, men walking.’ The Kentian landscape garden was as much about the enjoyment of outward views as it was an inward looking place of retreat. The fence had been well and truly leapt.

Kent “was a painter, an architect, and the father of modern gardening. In the first character he was below mediocrity; in the second, he was a restorer of the science; in the last, an original, and the inventor of an art that realizes painting and improves nature. Mahomet imagined an elysium, Kent created many.”

Horace Walpole

Holkham Hall

 

Kensington Palace

 

Kensington Palace

Source:

Mayer, Laura, Capability Brown and the English Landscape Garden, 2011, Shire Publications Ltd.