Richmond Gardens and 'Capability' Brown
In 1760, George II died and George III became King. As was usual
with the landed classes, the passing of the generations was marked
by changes to the inherited buildings and landscapes.
In 1764 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown was appointed George III's
Surveyor to his Majesty's Gardens and Waters at Hampton Court. Following
this appointment, George III commissioned Brown to transform his
late grandmother's Richmond Gardens.
'Capability' Brown is recognised as one of the leading exponents
of the English Landscape Movement. In a letter written in 1775,
Brown said, "Placemaking, and a good English Garden depend
entirely on principle and have very little to do with fashion".
He made great use of the three-dimensional curve called "The
Line of Grace". The sweep of a lake's edge was never exactly
parallel to a planting of trees or curve of a drive. Approach roads
did not follow rigid directions, but rose and fell naturally over
existing contours. His vision allowed him to bring out the full
potential of a place - its 'capability' - correcting faults and
improving its beauty.
However, he was anything but a disciple of his predecessors and
so rapidly set about radically altering the designs and removing
most of the follies Bridgeman and Kent had installed at Richmond.
His own style of broad sweeping open vistas and informal plantings
gradually replaced Bridgeman's carefully contrived garden with its
variety, contrasts and associated features.
Brown's grand scheme for Richmond included visually uniting the
Gardens with Syon Park across the Thames, which he had already landscaped.
This visual unification of lands on either side of the Thames was
not a new feature of the Richmond landscape as, at the turn of the
16th century, Henry VII had extended his hunting grounds into lands
on the other side of the Thames.
The 1764 plan attributed to Brown shows the Richmond landscape
as a whole. The dramatically altered design bears precious little
resemblance to the gardens that existed then. Virtually nothing
is known about his discussion process with King George, nor how
he carried out the designs that were eventually agreed. What is
clear, though, is that his initial vision of vast areas of open
parkland, bordered and punctuated by slim sinuous strips of woodland,
and curvaceous clumps broken by delicate groves, was not entirely
implemented. Instead, the design that emerges on Burrell and Richardson's
1771 map is far more solid, restrained by pre-existing woodland
and retaining many existing features.
Brown retained Bridgeman's Hermitage and the Grass Plot, and Bridgeman's
landscape influenced Brown in other subtle ways. Instead of clearing
away and starting again, Brown took The Wood, the mature woodland
that pre-existed Bridgeman, together with Keeper's Close and other
early Bridgeman plantings, and turned them to his advantage. He
completely redesigned the wilderness walks, removing all offending
symmetrical lines, replacing them with more serpentine paths. At
the edges of the woodland, he combined the judicious removal of
trees with carefully sited replanting to create the characteristic
curving edges that can be seen on the 1771 map. In this way he kept
the mature woodland to lend age and maturity to his designs.
Brown also planted a new strip of woodland adjacent to the Keeper's
Close to connect it with the Diagonal Wilderness, which lost its
formal paths. He discarded most of the classic Bridgeman features
of the Amphitheatre and the Great Oval, except for the southernmost
portion of the Amphitheatre which was retained to finish his design.
An area of woodland at the northwest corner of the Great Oval became
a section of his large circle of woodland beside the Hollow Walk,
which he excavated by the side of the Thames.
The trees removed had been Bridgeman's most recent plantings, so
were the youngest of all the Gardens' trees. It is highly likely
that they would have transplanted elsewhere within the Gardens,
rather than being discarded. However, there would not have been
enough to satisfy Brown's plans, so some new trees would have been
The removal of the Amphitheatre and the most of the Great Oval,
together with the planting of the Hollow Walk woodland, are important
aspects of Brown's work at Richmond Gardens. The creation of the
open space at the centre of the Gardens is one of the more enduring
aspects of his design, and it later enabled the 19th century building
of the Lake and Syon Vista.
Although the loss of Bridgeman's River Terrace was widely decried,
Brown's new path with its ha-ha actually maintained Bridgeman's
innovation of visual riverside access. Both men made the Thames
central to their designs to allow appreciation of the river and
its changing moods. It is the blurring of sharply defined boundaries
and the incorporation of the wider landscape that unite the designs
of Bridgeman and Brown in the philosophy of the English Landscape
The now classic open parkland created by Brown divided contemporary
public opinion. The 'waving lawns' he put in place of the more formal
River Terrace were decried by some. The Middlesex Journal in 1774
cried, "nor is there a person who can recollect the beauty
of the lengthened terrace, but censures the innovator – Mr
Capability Brown". Others, such as one Arthur Young in
1771, praised them as "[hanging] to the river in a most
Richmond Lodge was demolished in 1772 and the royal family moved
to the Kew White House, recently vacated on the death of Princess
Augusta. However, Brown continued to work on Richmond Gardens and
a c.1794 plan of the Gardens shows two sections landscaped in Brown's
style: the area north of Queen Caroline's Cottage, and the southern
area between the Observatory and the Thames. As Brown died in 1783,
it is safe to assume that a third planned section, surrounding the
old Richmond Lodge, never received Brown's attentions.
to: 1700-1772: Two Royal Gardens