View from the National Trust's Berrington Hall

[ PART 1 ][ PART 2 ][ PART 3 ]

From the 16th-century Tudor Brockhampton Manor we journeyed forward in time to the 18th-century Neo-classical Berrington Hall. One of the property’s claims to fame is being the last completed commission of “Capability” Brown. In a remarkable stroke of coincidence for someone who doesn’t watch a lot of television, a few weeks before this trip I had also seen Capability Brown’s Unfinished Garden, an imagined view of how Britain’s best known landscaper would have designed his own property (unfortunately he never had the chance to begin before his death).

In addition to having one of the best names in the history of gardening—although Montagu “Monty” Don comes a close second—Lancelot “Capability” Brown is a fascinating 18th-century character. He managed to be at just the right place at just the right time, with the right collection of skills. And, perhaps most importantly, the necessary vision and foresight to design a garden that would only be complete decades later once the plantings had matured.

As he started out as a gardener in the stately home of Stowe under the tutelage of pioneering landscape architect William Kent, there was a seismic shift occurring in landscaping practices. The formal and structured gardens of the past were being made over in a more naturalistic style. At the same time, a perfect storm of trends was brewing: the city of Pompeii was rediscovered and Roman artefacts were being brought to light in record numbers; well-bred aristocrats went on the Grand Tour to the continent to broaden their knowledge of the world; and the classical Greek and Roman world became seen as the epitome of art and architecture.

Italian landscape painting and portrait of Lancelot "Capability" Brown.

Left: An Arcadian landscape by an unknown artist; this is an example of a “Grand Tour painting” that could have graced the walls of an English stately home. Right: Nathaniel Dance’s portrait of Lancelot “Capability” Brown from 1773.

This resulted in the popularity of the Neo-classical architectural style for stately homes and important buildings, and such houses were often decorated with souvenirs from the Grand Tour, such as Italian landscape paintings. These paintings usually depicted a romantic idyll: manmade temples set in the wilds of Arcadia. The landed gentry wanted to bring these visions to life.

“Capability” Brown saw a market and quickly rose to fame as someone who saw the capability of the landscape, transforming the clipped hedges and flower gardens of the past into serpentine lakes, gently undulating fields, tastefully planted clumps of trees, and classically inspired summer houses, follies, and eyecatchers. He is credited with popularising the ha-ha, a sunken ditch and wall that gave an uninterrupted view when looking from the stately home across the grounds, but prevented livestock from actually approaching the house. The name is said to have come about from the exclamations of surprise that people uttered when they saw them. I think ah-ha may have been a better choice!

Brown was a canny businessman and developed himself into a brand that became the latest must-have accessory for the homes of the nation’s elite. The result? Old gardens were swept away for the new fashion, and, perhaps without realising it, “Capability” Brown literally shaped the idea of what the English landscape should look like. He is thought to have done over 250 properties in his lifetime, and  his changes seemed to have taken root: I can’t think of any other gardening trends that have had such an impact in the intervening two centuries.

Berrington Hall landscape garden and Neoclassical house

Back to Berrington: being Brown’s last commission, it was easy to see his trademarks across the grounds, from the ha-ha keeping the sheep at bay to the lake which looked like it could continue well beyond the visitor’s line of sight. The house itself was a lovely Neo-classical building with the opulent interiors one expects from a National Trust property, and it was possible to get a glimpse of what the original owners likely intended visitors to experience with this dual status symbol of house and garden.

Images of the interior of the National Trust's Neoclassical Berrington Hall.

Besides wowing with sheer grandeur, the house was designed and built on architectural principles that had been set down by Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius in the first century BC (fun fact: Leonardo da Vinci’s drawing Vitruvian Man takes its name from him). Vitruvius’ ten-volume set on architecture was rediscovered by scholars in the 15th century and popularised the following century by Venetian Andrea Palladio, who gave rise to the Palladian style of architecture. It was from this that the Neo-classical forms eventually developed. As a result, the building and its interiors serve as the very embodiment of civilisation and progress. Meanwhile, the view from every window shows the natural world and the imagined Arcadian wilderness … with the underlying irony that the natural was in fact manmade and designed as well!

The next day we revisited our plans of going to Eastnor Castle, only to discover it was closed for a wedding. Foiled again. We turned our attention to exploring Tewkesbury instead, but everyone else seemed to have the same idea and the streets were heaving with people. Browsing through the list of attractions on the SatNav, we decided to give a third National Trust property a go: we were off to Croome Court.

[ PART 1 ][ PART 2 ][ PART 3 ] [ If you’re enjoying the MissElaineous Blog, consider popping by Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter for daily photos from the UK and further afield. If you’re not enjoying it, please let me know what you would like to see more of! ]


Off the Beaten Track Wiltshire

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