Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown at Compton Verney
In 1768, the important landscape architect Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was employed to lay out the grounds in keeping with the new taste for more naturalistic landscape.
Brown’s account book shows that £120 was received on 19 November 1768 after he had visited Compton Verney and provided plans.
He eliminated all trace of the earlier formal gardens, including the canal on the west lawn and the avenues running east to west. To replace them came grassland and trees, with the planting of cedars and over 2,200 oak and ash saplings.
The Park at Compton Verney contains all the elements typical of a Brownian design which exploited the Georgian love of hunting, shooting and fishing.
- Carefully planted belts and copses provided cover for game birds
- A large lake which could be used for fishing and boating and
- Carriageways offering freedom to young ladies from the controlled environment of the country house and the ability to impress guests as magnificent views were glimpsed at key points en-route around the Park.
As a result, Brown’s landscape effortlessly accommodated the economic and sporting needs of a landowner within an aesthetically pleasing estate.
Such experiences show that Brown’s landscapes were designed as a sequence of pictures that darted into view from a speeding carriage or languidly held the eye from a drifting boat. They were never static, and they were enjoyed in a variety of ways that are denied to today’s visitor.
At Compton Verney Brown turned a series of pools into a lake. He created this single expanse of water by removing the dam between the Upper Long Pool and the Middle Pool to make way for his Upper Bridge.
‘Capability’ Brown was renowned for rolling a grassy lawn gently downhill to an irregularly shaped lake bordered with a woodland backdrop. Visitors could walk or take carriage rides on trails along the edge of artificial lakes, across scenic bridges, and through woodland belts. The trails provided experiential entertainment as a person moved from the calm serenity of a lake to the wild woods, and back to the tidy lawn around an estate.
We have chosen to keep some of the reed beds around the lake as a wildlife habitat which Brown would not have abided in his time.
Robert Adam and ‘Capability’ Brown worked at Compton Verney at the same time; so which of them provided the designs for the two bridges, the foundations of which were laid in 1770?
The Upper Bridge, with its four sphinxes, has been stylistically attributed to Adam, but the design could equally have been Brown’s, or a construction by Brown to Adam’s design.
The existing plans for the Lower Bridge are undated and unsigned, but the 1772 accounts – labelled ‘Mr Brown’s Work’ – record a payment to ‘John Maunton, Carpenter’ for the work on the Lower Bridge, suggesting a possible Brown attribution.
As with any ‘Capability’ Brown landscape, the mansion house was an integral part of his carefully composed landscape. It sat at the centre of his design to create an ideal parkscape suitable for leisure, profit and sport.
The views that Brown created revealed stunning views of the mansion at key points on a visitors approach to it. These were intended to ‘wow’ visitors and demonstrate the wealth and stature of the inhabitants who owned the property.
Today two of the key views can be found along the driveway just as you approach the Adam Bridge and in the clearing at Ice House Coppice which reveals the side view. If you make your way to the top of the Old Town Meadow you get a stunning view back to the mansion across the estate. Brown was very clearly a man with vision.
A Brown landscape is best recognised through its use of planting in the form of pasture, enlivened with tree clumps, perimeter shelter-belts and screens of trees. Trees take time to mature, so in order that his designs could be appreciated during his patrons’ lifetimes, Brown also invented a tree moving machine to transplant mature specimens. The resultant landscape is recognisably English parkland.
Large-scale tree planting is in evidence in the 1818 survey of Compton Verney, which shows serpentine belts at the western edge of the estate. Payments were made in 1769 and 1772 to Robert Patterson, Nurseryman, for ‘trees and shrubbs’, and in 1772 to John Maunton for ‘Paling the Plantation’. Payments for new trees and shrubs continued throughout the 1770s, with 200 elms being bought on 23 December 1776. By May 1770 work priced at £1000 had been completed by Brown and a new contract begun, which by 1774 totalled £2,830 – a princely sum in the late eighteenth century.
Brown planted dexterously so that dark evergreens would be used as a backdrop to highlight temples and other garden buildings, while an alternate use of evergreens and deciduous planting would allow for changes of mood as a visitor walked along paths that threaded through the woodland to catch contrived glimpses of lakes and buildings through consciously planned openings between trees and shrubs.
A new south drive, which revealed the house to visitors from the bridge, was created by altering an early eighteenth-century formal avenue or walk into a serpentine route. The nearby road was moved for a ha-ha to be created west of the house, and views from the house to the south and west opened up.
Today many of Brown’s original pathways have been restored offering delightful walks through the Park at Compton Verney. These are buggy and wheelchair friendly and offer the opportunity for visitors to enjoy the views of the house as Brown intended them from key locations throughout the landscape.
In 2016 new paths, new interpretation throughout the site and a new display in the Welcome Centre and gallery will enable visitors to enjoy and discover more about Brown’s vision for Compton Verney.
1769 – The Greenhouse
In 1769 payments were recorded for ‘digging the foundations and supplying Warwick sandstone’ for a classical greenhouse with Doric columns sited northwest of the house. An unbuilt, undated greenhouse design by Brown has been found in the archives of Ashburnham Place, and was probably used for Compton Verney. This building was demolished in the 1900s.
The Ice House was built in 1772 by ‘Capability’ Brown during the extensive remodelling. Eighteenth century visitors might just have caught a glimpse of the little thatched building from original paths through the ‘perfect’ woodland created by ‘Capability’ Brown.
An Ice House was the ‘must have’ accessory of the day amongst leading gentry, with growing demand among the fashionable set for refrigerated food, sorbets and ice creams. Ice was cut in blocks from the lake during the winter and dragged up to the ice house which is shaped, appropriately, like an ice cream cone. A drain at the bottom allowed water from the melted ice to escape and the whole structure was built mainly underground where the temperature is more consistently cool.
It was originally thatched, the final payments in November 1772 included 15s 2d to William Harris for thatching the roof. After 1817 there are no further records of re-thatching or repair and the Ice House was either abandoned or possibly covered in earth and grass – an approach seen with other Ice Houses – as this was how it was found when the present owners Compton Verney House Trust took over Compton Verney in the 1990s. Clearance of the Ice House started in 2008 and the rubbish removed included wine bottles, a bedstead, a cooker, a few animal bones and a 1981 Royal Wedding mug. A lucky smooth newt was also rescued. The Ice House has now been fully restored for visitors to step inside. It’s also become a popular hangout for very rare lesser horseshoe local bats.
Positioned near the Shrubbery, The Shrubbery surrounding the Ice House once featured geometric walks but, by the time of Padley’s 1818 survey, curvilinear paths had been substituted. They were reintroduced in 2008.