Capability Brown and Bishops Stortford

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

2016 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth in 1716 of one of England’s greatest landscape designers, Lancelot “Capability” Brown.  There are local connections which should be celebrated as part of the wider CB300 celebrations.

Brown rose from relatively humble beginnings, the son of a yeoman farmer in Kirkhale, Northumberland, and then apprentice gardener to the local squire, to create a business with the equivalent of a multi-million pound annual turnover. He died a wealthy man, in 1783.  His is credited with over 260 landscape projects, mainly in England, with a client list which included the King, George III, six prime ministers and half the House of Lords.  His major projects include Blenheim Palace, Stowe, and Petworth, and more locally, Wimpole, Audley End and Ickworth.  He is said to have acquired his soubriquet “Capability” from his reported habit of visiting an area and commenting that it had “capabilities”.

Local work
Lancelot Brown also undertook some smaller projects in the Bishops Stortford area, including work at Pishiobury Park (Sawbridgeworth), Hallingbury Place and Hatfield Forest, Shortgrove Hall (on the outskirts of Newport), Youngsbury (near Wadesmill), Panshanger Park (near Hertford), Coopersale Hall  and Copped Hall (near Epping).

Pishiobury Park
The house at Pishiobury Park dates from the late 16th century and was rebuilt in 1782-4.  The owner at his time was Jeremiah Milles III and he commissioned the architect James Wyatt to remodel the house in Gothic revival style.

It is thought that the crescent shaped lake to the south east of the house is based on designs provided by Brown.  The section of the original stream flowing in front of the house, a side stream from the main course of the River Stort, was broadened and shaped to form a serpentine lake.

The lake is now somewhat obscured by vegetation and not immediately recognisable as a lake.  It comes quite close to, and follows a similar line to, the bend in the River Stort around Feakes lock but all that is visible from the towpath is the line of trees on the edge of the lake. Indeed, it is shown on Google Maps as no more than a branch of the River Stort.  There is also a ha-ha in front of the house, a typical Brownian feature.

According to John Edwin Cussans, writing in “The History of Hertfordshire”, published in 1870-71:

“There were three magnificent avenues leading from the high road to the Mansion, two of which were entirely removed, and the continuity of the third destroyed, by Mr. Milles acting on the advice of the well-known “Capability Brown, who also superintended the construction of the piece of ornamental water.”

There are no surviving plans nor any contemporary documents to support this attribution. It has however been accepted as a Brownian scheme by several experts, although this basis for this is not clear and may well be limited to the above mention by Cussans.

The scheme is given a “50%” rating in the definitive list of Brownian sites compiled by Johnny Phibbs.  It could be that the landscaping was carried out by associates of Brown or other working at the time, doing no more than following the contemporary fashion.

One issue may be that Brown died suddenly in early 1783.  Whilst working to the end, any work at Pishiobury Park would have been in advance of the rebuilding activity.

In contrast, the original straight tree-lined approach to the house and Oak Walk date from an earlier period of landscape design, a formality which Brown had reacted against with his more naturalistic approach.

The house and lake are both private property, outside the boundaries of the present East Herts DC park

Hatfield Forest and Hallingbury Place
Brown also undertook commissions for the Houblon family who owned Hatfield Forest and Hallingbury Place.  Following the fashion of the time, the family were already developing in the centre of Hatfield Forest a detached pleasure ground.  They would travel from the house to the newly created lake and take afternoon tea in the Shell House.

In 1757, Brown provided a plan for altering of the lake, by the addition of arms, to make it appear more serpentine.  The plan was only partially implemented, with the creation of what is now the Decoy Lake, to the southwest of the lake.  The plan survives, as well as entries for two payments to Brown in accounts books and comments in contemporary correspondence, to provide a very good package of evidence to support the Brown connection.

Brown returned in 1772 to provide a plan for alterations to the park surrounding the newly remodelled Hallingbury Place.  An entry in his accounts book shows he was paid 100 guineas for this survey but there is no further evidence to show what if any of it was implemented, at least in the immediate aftermath.  Ladywell Lake, the lake to the north of where the house once stood, and an obvious candidate for a Brownian improvement, does not appear to have been created until at least 1820.  Hallingbury Place was demolished in 1924.

Further Information
For further information on the history of any of the sites, visit the Parks & Gardens UK website.

Chris Connell
Bishop’S Stortford Volunteer

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