A rare collection of watercolours and drawings showing Hampton Court Palace at the time when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was Chief Gardener to George III, is being loaned from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg as part of a special exhibition to mark the 300th anniversary of Brown’s birth in 1716.
The watercolours and drawings provide a visual record of outstanding historical importance, because so little has remained to document how the gardens at Hampton Court Palace looked at this time. With near photographic detail, these images will enable us to look quite literally back in time, to re-visit the palace, park and gardens as they would have appeared when Brown was resident overseer. As Chief Gardener, Brown had his own residence within Hampton Court’s grounds; an English Heritage blue plaque was unveiled at the house in 2011 to mark this fact. During his tenure, Brown oversaw the planting of the renowned Black Hamburg ‘Great Vine’ at Hampton Court in 1769, which today enjoys the reputation of being the world’s largest grape vine. Brown had been appointed to his post in 1764 and continued to live at Hampton Court until his death in 1783. His house remained the residence of Hampton Court’s chief gardeners until 1881.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s house in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace
These remarkable drawings and watercolours found their way to Russia, having come to the artistic attention of Empress Catherine II ‘the Great’, who purchased them in the 1780’s through her own Scottish gardener, James Meader, who was a follower of Brown, for the price of 1,000 roubles. Never having been exhibited before, this astonishing record of one of Britain’s most important palaces and its grounds lay lost in the stores of the Hermitage until its curator discovered them in 2002. Brown’s surveyor, John Spyers, has been credited as the artist responsible for creating these precious images and their uniqueness lies in the fact that they portray the palace gardens in their relative unaltered state. Brown preferred to keep Hampton Court largely as he found it, choosing to respect the legacy of the baroque formal gardens of William III and transform other residences across Britain instead, bringing his own quintessential interpretation of 18th century English landscape design to the gardens and estates in which he worked, notably at Blenheim and at Stowe.
According to the press release of Historic Royal Palaces, the independent charity which maintains Hampton Court Palace, the exhibition will be entitled “The Empress and the Gardener” and will open at Hampton Court on 28 April and also include portraits of both Brown and Catherine the Great, along with other rare drawings depicting the English Palace that the Empress built for herself at Peterhof, outside St. Petersburg. An avid admirer of England and possessing by her own admission in her letters to Voltaire, ‘Anglomania’, Catherine the Great ordered her Scottish gardener Meader to lay out the park of the English Palace, whilst her own ‘Capability Brown’, Giacomo Quarenghi, was commissioned for the design of the Palace. The English Palace was particularly admired and described by the last King of Poland, Stanislaw II August Poniatowski, who visited Peterhof in 1797. Catherine’s English Palace later became the venue for imperial tea-parties in the 19th century. In this connection it is pleasant to note that the exhibition at Hampton Court will include some of the famous ‘ Green Frog Service’, a dinner service made by Wedgewood, which contained 1222 views of English landscapes, antiquities and gardens, and also features some of the English landscape gardens by Brown. The exhibition will run until 4 September 2016.
Photo credits: Elizabeth Jane Timms, Copyright of the author 2016.