When I was considering which talks to select for the nine presentations I need for the cruise on board the Boudicca to the Cape Verde Islands in November I was fairly sure that I would include one on gardens and garden designs in the 18th Century. I then started to have second thoughts – after all, it is the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, and every man and his dog seems to be bringing out books on him and his gardens. Rather than jump on the band-wagon I decided to be my usual contrarian self, and do the talk as a hatchet-job on Brown – he was a vandal who destroyed stunning Elizabethan gardens, he was a copyist who merely followed where Bridgman and Kent had gone before, he was not as good a salesman as Humphry Repton with his marvellous little red books….
And then I went to Croome… it is situated just off the M5 motorway south of Worcester, and it really is a fascinating place to visit. Some 670 acres were acquired by the National Trust in 1996. More recently, just a few years ago the Trust was granted a lease of Croome Court after a period of half a century when it was used as a Roman Catholic School and then as a Hare Krishna centre. Neither set of users would appear to have done much to preserve or enhance Brown’s handiwork, and clearly the land surrounding the fine Palladian mansion had suffered from years of intensive agriculture, deep ploughing, timber extraction and so on.
So what we see now, before all the tree planting works being implemented by the National Trust come to fruition, is something similar to what Brown would have seen after he had completed his early rounds of landscaping, drainage and so on, but before his tree-planting scheme had been completed.
What I had not appreciated was that Brown was not just the park-land designer – he was the architect for the main house, designed for the 28-year old Sixth Earl of Coventry when he inherited the title and the estate with its Jacobean mansion house, in 1751. Apart from re-modelling the house, Brown the architect also called for the entire village of Croome to be razed to the ground, and all the inhabitants were moved out of view “round the corner” behind some trees. He didn’t think that the medieval church looked in place – so he pulled it down, and in its place left us a gothic church which to my mind looks slightly odd, divorced as it is from any obvious congregation and some distance from the Big House. Clearly it was seen by Brown as “just another eye-catcher” – almost a folly-on-the-hill. Not content with designing the main house, Brown was responsible for many of the interiors before handing over to Robert Adam in 1760. Perhaps slightly surprisingly, Brown left intact the seven-acre walled garden (one of the largest enclosed gardens in Europe at the time, and now privately owned).
Several of the eye-catchers you can see around the horizon are not actually Brown’s – the Park Seat, the London Gate and the Temple Greenhouse were all designed by Robert Adam, while James Wyatt was responsible for the Panorama Tower and the Worcester Lodge. Between the two of them they also designed the ‘ruins’ comprising Pirton Castle and Dunstall Castle. Brown, however, was responsible for the lake and its bridges and the Island Pavilion, the Rotunda and the grotto. But I think what impressed me most was the realization of the extent of Brown’s powers as a water engineer. I believe he acquired these skills while working in the Fens before accepting the Croome commission.
When the young earl asked Brown to come up with suggestions for the site, it consisted of a boggy morass quite unsuited to farming or gardening. Brown had the skills to know how to drain the site, alter the water tables, construct stone-lined culverts and drains, and to draw the water off into a new pond. He quickly perfected the means to line his ponds with a twelve-inch layer of puddled clay (to stop water leakage).
He then installed what was to become his signature feature – a sinuous serpentine pond resembling a river, which wound its way under Japanese-style bridges before disappearing out of view. In fact of course it isn’t a river – the artificial pond simply ends in a spot hidden from the house by a clump of trees.
The problem with this type of arrangement is that ponds tend to fill up with silt – soil carried down off the land in the rains. I see that when Brown arrived at Burghley he installed special silt ponds – holding-pools where the silt was allowed to settle rather than being washed down into the main pond. That way, each year the labourers could dig out the year’s silt and put it back on the land. But at Croome the silt was able to build up, and by the time that the National Trust came along, they had to shift 50,000 cubic metres of mud and sludge which was silting up the pond. The improvement to the site has settled in immediately and the lake area looks remarkably settled and ‘natural’.
All around the park Brown constructed ha-has (to control sheep and cattle without the need for intrusive walls and hedges). He also introduced carriage ways which wend their way circuitously around the park, so that you get “now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t” glimpses of the main house before, at last, your coach and four pulls up in front of the imposing entrance to Croome Court. It really is well worth a visit, and it has given me food for thought as to whether to include Brown in my next-book-but-one. First comes ‘Petticoat Pioneers’ – about women in the 18th Century who shifted paradigms and made break-throughs in what was a predominately male world, but after that I am going to do one on Georgian Greats. On reflection I think Brown deserves the accolade of ‘great’. After all, any man who persuaded the landed gentry to pay him fees of many thousands of pounds was doing his bit to even-up the inexcusable gap between the rich and the poor. In doing so he helped elevate The Garden to a really significant and important feature of everyday life.
Brown may have designed “only” a couple of hundred gardens but many, many, more times that number were based upon copies of his ideas and designs. His work made him a wealthy man. The customer account ledgers of Drummonds Bank of Charing Cross, London, which are held in RBS’s archives, show that in 1768 alone he had receipts totalling £32,279 and that over the period of his working life he was paid more than half a million pounds. In modern money that makes Brown a multi-millionaire – a tribute to his abilities as a businessman as well as a garden designer. He also deserves credit as a water engineer – his ability to control water, put in dams and drains and to disguise such works so that they are almost totally hidden from view. The fact that he was also a first rate architect surprised me – but I am reminded that Humphry Repton had this to say about him: “Mr Brown’s fame as an architect seems to have been eclipsed by his celebrity as a landscape gardener, he being the only professor of the one art, while he had many jealous competitors in the other. But when I consider the number of excellent works in architecture designed and executed by him, it becomes an act of justice to his memory to record that, if he was superior to all in what related to his particular profession, he was inferior to none in what related to the comfort, convenience, taste, and propriety of design in the several mansions and other buildings he planned.”
For anyone interested, the National Trust are holding a belated birthday party for good old Lancelot, at Croome, on 25th September. You can find details here.