A river runs through: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown at Syon and Kew

Chris Sumner, Planning and Conservation Working Group Chairman

For all that Lancelot Brown lived near the River Thames for much of his professional life, at Hammersmith and then, after his appointment by George III in 1764 as the King’s gardener, at Wilderness House, Hampton Court, Brown’s landscaping of the banks of the Thames west of central London was never very extensive and now, 250 years later, needs a little detective work to rediscover.

Standing on the top of Richmond Hill, admiring the famous view protected since 1902 by Act of Parliament, it is hard to believe that the master landscape designer did not in fact have a hand in the disposition of the woods and meadows, the distant hills and the curve of the river – disappearing westwards beyond Ham House and Marble Hill, and interrupted in its gentle flow by the willow-covered Glover’s Ait.A few miles upstream at Garrick’s Villa at Hampton, however, the riverside lawn, Temple to Shakespeare and grotto tunnel under the road all certainly exemplify the influence of Brown, who was a friend of the famous actor manager – as was the architect Robert Adam, whose name is also associated with Ancaster House on top of Richmond Hill, where Brown received a small payment for works to the modest garden at the gates to Richmond Park. Another small Richmond property, one long lost to redevelopment, was the house in Hill Street of Frederick Nicolai who, in a charming letter quoted by Dorothy Stroud, begged the advice of Brown in laying out his half acre: ‘I hope it is no offence to wish for a Miniature Picture from a Raphael.’

Much more significant was the remodelling of land on both banks of the river at Brentford and at Kew, carried out for Sir Hugh Smithson (later Duke of Northumberland) at Syon House from 1754 and for the king at Richmond Lodge from 1764. Brown’s work at Syon is outlined in Susan Darling’s article in London Landscapes No. 38 (‘Lancelot “Capability” Brown and his involvement at Syon: a work in progress’), and it clearly impressed the King, who like his grandparents eschewed Hampton Court as a royal residence and chose, when not at St James’s or Windsor, to live at Richmond Lodge, a relatively modest house with gardens laid out and embellished for George II’s queen Caroline by Charles Bridgeman and William Kent.

Syon House

Hugh Smithson (1714–86) was created Earl of Northumberland in 1750, appointed Lord of the Bedchamber to George III in 1760, and created Duke of Northumberland in 1766 and, as a member of the Privy Council and Lord Lieutenant of Middlesex, was a key figure in the King’s court as well as a close neighbour across the river in the mansion built on the site of the Bridgettine Abbey of Syon, suppressed by Henry VIII. Built in 1547 by the Duke of Somerset, Syon House was extensively and sumptuously remodelled by Robert Adam, who was commissioned by Smithson in 1761. In 1764 Smithson’s son married the daughter of the Earl of Bute, George III’s mentor and occasional Prime Minister, a keen and knowledgeable botanist, and patron of Brown at Luton Hoo. The Countess, subsequently Duchess, of Northumberland, was Lady of the Bedchamber to George III’s queen, Charlotte.

Richmond Lodge

Richmond Lodge, demolished in 1772, stood in what is now the Royal Mid-Surrey Golf Course in the Old Deer Park, just south of the boundary with the current Royal Botanic Gardens, and its grounds were originally separated by Love Lane from Kew Gardens, embellished for George’s mother, Princess Augusta, by William Chambers with the famous Pagoda and many other exotic and extravagant follies.

Brown ‘vandal rather than visionary at Kew’

John Rocque’s An Exact Plan of the Royal Palace Gardens and Park at Richmond… is undated; [Fig.3] but the date of 1754 traditionally attributed to it appears too early, since it shows, on the Middlesex bank of the Thames, Brown’s lake, serpentine paths and clumps and specimen trees at Syon, works and plantings that Susan Darling’s researches indicate were undertaken between 1754 and 1757. The plan demonstrates clearly the contrast between the up-to-the-minute informal landscaping of the Northumberland estate and the relatively stiff transitional style of the royal estate, which still contained strong formal geometrical elements, as in Bridgeman’s canal and the axial avenues aligned on Richmond Lodge. Within the formal framework, however, were incorporated small arable fields and meadows for grazing, and blocks of woodland with both straight and meandering paths. The plan also shows vignettes of the classical Dairy, the thatched Merlin’s Cave, and the rustic Cyclopean Hermitage, and it was the destruction by Brown in the 1760s of most of these and other follies built by Kent for Queen Caroline only thirty or so years earlier that has earned Brown the reputation of vandal rather than visionary at Kew.

Queen Caroline, patroness of Bridgeman and Kent at Kensington Gardens and Richmond Gardens, is a major figure in the story of the development of the English landscape garden. Ray Desmond, in his comprehensive and authoritative The History of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew 1995, 2nd ed. 2007, quotes some of the contemporary criticism:

‘Richmond Gardens now declare the hand that spoilt them; nor is there a person who can recollect the beauty of the lengthened terrace, but censure the innovator – Mr Capability Brown… When I reflected that he had destroyed the Terrace that Queen Carolina [sic] made at great expence, and pulled down Merlin’s Cave, overturned her Hermitage, filled up her pond, removed her dairy, and drove the plough through her paddock, I own I grieved…’ (Middlesex Journal, 17 July 1773).

It is difficult now to judge the success and the extent of Brown’s work for George III: the scheme was never fully implemented, and the subsequent changes and overlays of the last 250 years have confused the picture; but the map evidence survives in the form of Brown’s plan for re-landscaping Richmond Gardens dated 10 December 1764 [Fig.2] and in the Plan of the Royal Manor of Richmond by Thomas Richardson, 1771. [Fig.4]

Richmond Lodge, rebuilt in 1702 for the Duke of Ormonde, who was forced into exile after the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rebellion, was leased in 1717 by the Prince and Princess of Wales, later King George II and Queen Caroline, and was a relatively undistinguished house. Brown’s proposals plan, prepared for their grandson who came to the throne as King George III in 1760, shows a site set aside for a new, much larger royal palace for which William Chambers drew up a number of schemes, as before him had Edward Lovett Pearce and William Kent for George II. The death in 1772 of Princess Augusta enabled George III to move with his increasingly large family into the White House in Kew Gardens and to demolish Richmond Lodge and abandon, at least for a while, his ambitions to build a more fitting royal residence. However, in 1764 a new palace was still on the cards, and to create an appropriately large park for it the king acquired further farmland and the grand houses forming the village of West Sheen, which were demolished and replaced in Brown’s vision by parkland stretching inland from the river almost from Kew Green to Richmond Green.

The 1771 plan by Richardson shows both Richmond Gardens and Kew Gardens as they then were, still separated by Love Lane and very different in character. Kew Gardens was liberally adorned with exotic buildings, while the only buildings in Richmond Gardens were Richmond Lodge (demolished in 1772), the King’s Observatory erected in 1769 by Chambers in the Old Deer Park on the site of the mediaeval Charterhouse, and the Menagery, which survives as Queen Charlotte’s Cottage, a thatched rustic half-timbered building designed possibly by Chambers – but perhaps by Brown, whose success as a landscape designer and occasional designer of buildings was resented and disparaged by Chambers, the King’s Architect.

A continuous modern landscape

Comparison between Rocque’s and Richardson’s plans shows that Brown suppressed most of the formal elements of the Bridgeman/Kent landscape, but kept much of the existing woodland, softening the outlines while retaining some of the winding paths within. Two major interventions were the lowering of the riverside terrace as mentioned above and the excavation of what is now called the Rhododendron Dell in a previously unwooded area of pasture and arable. The construction of Kew Bridge permitted the suppression of the public road along the river bank and its downgrading to a tow path; the terrace wall was lowered and a water-filled ha-ha substituted to maintain security, thus bringing the river and Syon into the view and creating a continuous modern landscape across the Surrey and Middlesex banks with the Thames flowing through it. The vision was foreseen by the king in a drawing (Royal Collection) said to date from c. 1760 showing a view of Syon House from Richmond Gardens with informally grouped, well-grown trees in the foreground, an apparently lowered river bank, and a barge sailing by on a high tide.

The king was a competent draughtsman, trained in drawing by Joseph Goupy and Joshua Kirby and in architecture by William Chambers, and comparable views were captured by Richard Wilson, and by J Farington in his drawing for JJ Boydell’s History of the Principal Rivers of Great Britain Vol. 2, 1796: ‘The river now proudly flows between the spreading lawns of Sion, and the Gardens of Richmond, which together form a scene of superior grandeur and beauty.’ [Fig.1]

The Syon estate still meets the river with water meadows that are flooded at high tide as far back as the meandering ha-ha introduced by Smithson, apparently before Brown’s involvement. To introduce some sur face modulation of another wise very flat site at Kew, Brown and his agent Michael Milliken employed labourers including the King’s troops to excavate the Hollow Walk, planted with laurels, and the spoil from the excavations was cast up as low hillocks such as the one seen in the Farington acquatint.

Richardson’s plan shows the survival of formal planting and field and property boundary trees around the former village of West Sheen and in the Old Deer Park at the south end of Richmond Gardens where George III grazed his cattle and Merino sheep, the progenitors of the Australian wool industry. The parkland planting indicated in Brown’s 1764 plan was sparse, and the area remained sparsely planted with a few clumps and smaller groups of trees into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Love Lane was closed by Act of Parliament in 1785, but the boundary walls were not removed and the two estates united until 1802, following start of work on the new gothic palace designed by James Wyatt on the riverside close to the surviving seventeenth-century red brick ‘Dutch House’ (now called Kew Palace), to which the King and Queen repaired following the demolition of the White House.

The final decades of George III’s life were overshadowed by periods of madness and retirement from public and political life, and the construction of the vastly expensive and short-lived gothic palace or Castellated Mansion, never completed, and dismantled and finally dynamited on the orders of George IV in 1827, was perhaps a manifestation of his mental derangement.

The Royal Botanic Gardens

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, grew from the botanic garden established by Princess Augusta in 1759 around the White House, and as the RBGK was enlarged and developed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, so the physical evidence of Brown’s work at Richmond Gardens has been overlaid and largely forgotten; except at the west end of the Syon Vista, where Brown’s vision of a pastoral landscape with a river running through suddenly and miraculously comes into view, the Thames has been largely planted out of the scene. The Hollow Walk, however, is still identifiable, albeit now planted with rhododendrons and other acid-loving shrubs and trees and sheltering in a bamboo grove the Minka House, a reconstructed traditional Japanese farmhouse. At the north (White Peaks) end of the Rhododendron Dell, a couple of veteran sweet chestnuts predating the excavation give a clue to the early eighteenth-century ground level, and half-way up the slope a noble London Plane survives from Brown’s planting of the late 1760s, as does an enormous cedar of Lebanon.

A wire fence and a dry ha-ha dug in 1851 now separate the modern Kew Gardens from the Old Deer Park, which in 1848 saw the construction of the railway and in 1933 the much more intrusive Great Chertsey Road and Twickenham Bridge. The King’s Observatory (now a private house with a new lake and landscape designed by Kim Wilkie) is currently wholly hidden from view by the trees that have grown up along the generally nonhistorical boundaries dividing the golf course from the rugby and other sports pitches. Some open parkland with stands of established trees does, however, survive, although much compromised.

Perhaps the last word on Brown at Richmond Gardens should be left to JJ Boydell in 1796:

‘Brown broke the avenues, rooted up the long line of dressed hedges, gave the woods a natural shape; unveiled extensive lawns; destroyed… Merlin and his cave, dilapidated every tasteless building; formed plantations, which are now grown into effect and beauty; and, conducting a gravel path around the whole, gradually displayed the varying scenery of this charming domain.’
Aquatint of drawing by J. Farington
Fig.1 ‘The river now proudly flows between the spreading lawns of Sion, and the Royal Gardens of Richmond; which together, form a scene of superior grandeur and beauty.’ (J. J. Boydell: History of the Principal Rivers of Great Britain, vol. 2, 1796)
Aquatint of drawing by J. Farington
London Borough of Richmond upon Thames

Capability’ Brown’s plan for landscaping
Richmond Gardens
Fig.2 ‘Capability’ Brown’s plan for landscaping Richmond Gardens, 10 December 1764
Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

John Rocque’s plan of Richmond Gardens c. 1766
Fig.3 John Rocque’s plan of Richmond Gardens c. 1766
Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens Kew

Fig.4 Plan of the Royal Manor of Richmond by Thomas Richardson 1771
Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016