A once forgotten collection of watercolour paintings and drawings owned by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia has gone on show at Hampton Court Palace as part of commemorations marking the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. The Empress and the Gardener exhibition features almost 60 intricately detailed views of the palace and its park and gardens during the time when Brown worked there as chief gardener to King George III between 1764 and 1783. The works came to be in the collection of the Empress – a renowned fan of English gardens – after Brown’s assistant, John Spyers, sold two albums of his drawings of the palace to the her for the considerable sum of 1,000 roubles. The albums disappeared into her collection at the Hermitage (now the State Hermitage Museum) and lay forgotten for more than 200 years before they were rediscovered by curator Mikhail Dedinkin in 2002. As well as the collection – on public show for the first time, the exhibition features portraits of Brown and the Empress, previously unseen drawings of her ‘English Palace’ in the grounds of the Peterhof near St Petersburg, and several pieces from the ‘Green Frog’ dinner service, created for the Empress by Wedgwood, which is decorated with some of the landscapes the prolific Brown created across England. Runs until 4th September. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.hrp.org.uk/hampton-court-palace/.

A house in Chelsea has become only one of 19 homes in London to bear two official blue plaques. Number 48 Paultons Square has the honour of having been home to two Nobel prize winners (albeit in different fields) – dramatist Samuel Beckett, who lived there for seven months in 1934 while writing his first novel, Murphy, and physicist Patrick Blackett, noted for his revolutionary work in U-boat detection during World War II, who lived there from 1953 to 1969. Other ‘doubles’ include 20 Maresfield Gardens in Hampstead (home to Sigmund Freud and Anna Freud) and 29 Fitzroy Street in Fitzrovia (home to George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf). This year marks the 150th anniversary of the blue plaques scheme. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/blue-plaques/.

The rise of the British graphic novel is the subject of a new exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. The Great British Graphic Novel features works by 18th century artist William Hogarth as well as Kate Charlesworth, Dave Gibbons (one of the creators of the ground-breaking Watchmen), Martin Row, Posy Simmonds (creator of the Tamara Drewe comic strip) and Bryan and Mary Talbot. It runs until 24th July. Admission charge applies. For more, see www.cartoonmuseum.org.

Send all items for inclusion to exploringlondon@gmail.com.

 

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This year marks 300 years since the birth of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the most famed landscape designer of the Georgian age and a man who has been described as the “father of landscape architecture”.

Capability-BrownBrown is understood to have been born in 1716 in the village of Kirkharle in Northumberland, the fifth of six children of a land agent and a chambermaid (he was baptised in on 30th August so it is believed his birth happened sometime earlier that same year).

He attended the village school before he worked as apprentice or assistant to the head gardener in Sir William Loraine’s kitchen garden at Kirkharle Hall.

Having left home in 1741 he joined the gardening staff of Lord Cobham, as one of the gardeners at his property in Stowe, Buckinghamshire.

There he worked with William Kent, another famed landscape architect of the Georgian age and one of the founders of the new English style of gardens, until, at the age of 26, he was appointed head gardener.

He remained in Stowe until 1750 and while there, in 1744, married Bridget Wayet (with whom he went on to have nine children). During his time there, he also created the Grecian Valley and also took on freelance work from Lord Cobham’s noble friends, a fact which allowed him to produce a body of work that would start to make his reputation.

Having struck out on his own from Stowe, he settled with his family in Hammersmith, London, in the early 1750s, already widely known and considered by some the finest gardener in the kingdom.

The work continued to flow in and it’s believed that, over the span of his career, Brown was responsible for designing or contributing to the design of as many as 250 gardens at locations across the UK, – many of which can still be seen today. As well as Stowe, these included gardens at Blenheim Palace, Appuldurcombe House on the Isle of Wight, Warwick Castle, Harewood House and Petworth House in West Sussex.

Following on from the work of Kent, Brown was known for his naturalistic undulating landscapes, in particular their immense scale, flowing waterways and a feature known as a ‘ha-ha’, a ditch which blended seamlessly into the landscape but which was aimed at keeping animals away from the main house of the estate.

His style, which contrasted sharply with the more formalised, geometric gardens epitomised in the French style of gardening, did not, however, meet with universal praise. Criticisms levelled against him including that he had often erased the works of gardeners of previous generations to complete gardens which were, in the end, described by some as looking no different to “common fields”.

It’s worth noting that Brown also dabbled in architecture itself – his first country house project was the remodelling of Croome Court in Worcestershire and he went on to design and contribute to the design of several houses including Burghley House Northamptonshire as well as outbuildings including stable blocks.

The nickname ‘Capability’ apparently came from his habit of informing his client that their estates had great “capability” for improvement. It’s wasn’t apparently a name he used himself.

So established became his reputation that in 1764 Brown was appointed King George III’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace (as well as Richmond and St James’ Palaces), taking up residence with his family at Wilderness House. He also worked on the gardens at Kew Palace.

Brown died on 6th February, 1783, in Hertford Street in London at the door of his daughter Bridget’s house (she had married architect Henry Holland with whom he Brown had, at times, collaborated). He was buried in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, the parish church of a small estate Brown owned at Fenstanton Manor in Cambridgeshire.

Brown impact on garden design in England is now undisputed although it wasn’t always the case – his contribution was largely dismissed in the 18th century and it was only in the later 20th century that he had become firmly established as a giant figure in the gardening world.

A celebrated portrait of Brown (pictured above) – painted by Nathaniel Dance in about 1773 – is in the collection of National Portrait Gallery.

For more on events surrounding the 300th anniversary of Brown’s birth, see www.capabilitybrown.org.

PICTURE: Capability Brown by Nathaniel Dance, circa 1773. © National Portrait Gallery, London

 

Chiswick-HouseAn icon of the Georgian era, Chiswick House in west London is one of the pre-eminent examples of neo-Palladian architecture in Britain and exemplifies the elegance of the time.

Designed by Richard Boyle, the third Earl of Burlington (1694-1753), the two storey, domed villa was inspired by what Lord Burlington had seen of ancient and sixteenth century architecture during his tours of Italy – in particular the work of Andrea Palladio – as well as the work of Palladio admirer, famed English architect Inigo Jones (his statue along with that of Palladio can be seen outside),

Chiswick-House2It was constructed in the 1720s, most likely between 1727 and 1729, on a site which had been purchased by the first Earl of Burlington (his grandfather) in 1682 and which was already occupied by a Jacobean-era house (this property, which the third Earl significantly renovated, was eventually pulled down in 1788). The interiors were designed by William Kent in collaboration with Burlington and feature luxurious rooms with velvet-covered walls such as the magnificently restored Blue Velvet Room.

The exact purpose of the property remains something of a mystery – it’s been suggested it was built to as a pavilion for private contemplation, grand entertainments and to house the Earl’s art collection and the fact it had no kitchen is supportive of such a conclusion. But there is evidence it was also used as a functioning house – the fact Lady Burlington died in her bedchamber in the premises in 1758 and the link which was eventually built by Lord Burlington between it and the older property on the estate are suggestive of this.

Chiswick-House3Whatever its purpose, the architectural and artistic masterpiece was complemented by formal gardens which Lord Burlington, again, along with the aid of Kent, extensively altered to create a highly planned but naturalistic-looking landscape. Known as the “birthplace of the English Landscape Movement”, the gardens have influenced everyone from ‘Capability’ Brown to the design of New York City’s Central Park.

Following Lord Burlington’s death in 1753, the house passed into the hands of his grandson, the fifth Duke of Devonshire (his wife was the rather infamous Duchess Georgiana). He extended the house into a large mansion, adding new wings (these weren’t removed until the 1950s) and improved the gardens, adding the stone bridge (pictured) that still stands over the lake.

Upon the fifth Duke’s death in 1811, the house passed into the hands of the sixth Duke, known as the ‘Bachelor Duke’. He made considerable use of the property and guests included Tsar Alexander I of Russia, King Fredrick William III of Prussia, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and Tsar Nicholas I (again, of Russia). The Bachelor Duke also extended the grounds and brought a range of exotic animals into them, including an elephant, kangaroos and emus.

Upon his death in 1858, he left the property to his sister and after her death only four years later, it was subsequently let to some rather high-brow tenants including the Prince of Wales who received the Shah of Persia there in 1873,

The estate was eventually sold by the ninth Duke to the Middlesex County Council and after the war, gifted to the Minister of Works. In 1984, care for the house was transferred to English Heritage. The gardens are now owned by the London Borough of Hounslow.

Along with the Chiswick House and Gardens Trust, English Heritage recently completed a £12 million restoration of the gardens which, this year will host the fourth annual Camellia Festival next month. But this stunning property is well worth a visit any time of the year.

WHERE: Chiswick House, Burlington Lane, Chiswick (nearest Tube station is Turnham Green/nearest train station is Chiswick);  WHEN: 10am to 4pm Saturday and Sunday (until 31st March); COST: £5.90 adults/£3.50 children (5-15 years)/£5.30 concession/£15.30 family; WEBSITE: www.english-heritage.org.uk/daysout/properties/chiswick-house/ or www.chgt.org.uk.

Opened to the public last week, Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination – a landmark exhibition at the British Library – features a “treasure trove” of illuminated manuscripts collected by the kings and queens of England between the 9th and 16th century. Highlights include 16 illuminated manuscripts of King Edward IV, what the library calls the first “coherent collection” of royal books; the Psalter of King Henry VIII, A History of England by Matthew Paris, a 13th century monk, scholar and advisor to King Henry III; Thomas Hoccleve’s Regement of Princes – a early 15th century instruction book on how to be an effective ruler; a 14th century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings; and, The Shrewsbury Book, created in Rouen in 1445 and presented to Margaret of Anjou on her marriage to King Henry VI by the renowned military commander John Talbot, 1st Earl of Shrewsbury. An impressive series of public events featuring well known writers and historians – including Eamon Duffy, Michael Wood, and Andrew Marr –  is taking place alongside the exhibition. Runs until 13th March. An admission charge applies. For more, see www.bl.uk.

PICTURE: The Coronation of Henry III, Images of English Kings, from Edward the Confessor to Edward I, England, c. 1280-1300, Cotton Vitellius, A. xiii, f. 6 © British Library Board

• Leading 18th century landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown has been honored with a blue plaque at his former home in Hampton Court Palace. Brown, who designed more than 120 landscapes during his lifetime, lived at Wilderness House after King George III appointed him Chief Gardener at the palace – he lived there from 1764 until his death in 1783. Brown’s legacy can still be seen at country houses around England – including at Petworth House in West Sussex, Alnwick Castle in Northumberland, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. He had earned the name ‘Capability’ by the 1760s – apparently he often spoke of a property’s capabilities when speaking of it. English Heritage unveiled the plaque last week. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

A second blue plaque worth mentioning this week is that marking the former home of actor Richard Burton. Michael Sheen – currently playing Hamlet at the Young Vic – was among those who last week attended the unveiling on the plaque at the home Burton and his wife actress Sybil Williams lived in from 1949 to 1956, the period during which he rose to international fame. While living at the house 6 Lyndhurst Road in Hampstead, Burton was a member of the Old Vic theatre company – performing, to the acclaim of critics, roles including that of Hamlet, Othello, Coriolanus and Henry V – and in 1952 made his Hollywood debut with My Cousin Rachel. Other films he appeared in during the period include The Robe (1953), The Desert Rats (1953), and Alexander the Great (1956). Following the close of the Old Vic season in 1956, Burton moved to Switzerland and went on to even greater public fame following his role in the 1963 film Cleopatra alongside his then lover (and later wife) Elizabeth Taylor. For more, see www.english-heritage.org.uk.

• On Now: Grayson Perry – The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman. This exhibition at the British Museum explores a range of themes connected with the ideas of craftsmanship and sacred journeys and includes 190 objects from the museum’s collection selected by the artist along with a works by Grayson himself, many of which will be on public view for the first time. They include everything from Polynesian fetishes to Buddhist votive offerings, a prehistoric hand axe to 20th century badges and a re-engraved coin from 1882 featuring a bust of Queen Victoria with a beard and boating hat. At the heart of the exhibition sits Grayson’s own work, The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman, a richly decorated cast-iron “coffin-ship”. Runs until 19th February. An admission charge applies. For more, visit www.britishmuseum.org.

PICTURE: Historic Royal Palaces/newsteam.co.uk

In the first in a series looking at some of the treasures held in museums, galleries and other collections London along with some of the more unusual things you’ll find in the city, we’re heading out to the southwest of the city firstly to Hampton Court Palace and what is perhaps a lesser known treasure, the Great Vine.

Claimed to be the oldest and largest vine in the world, it was believed to have been planted by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown around 1768 and has prospered ever since, now being an astonished 12 foot (3.65 metres) around the base and boasting ‘rods’ of up to 120 metres in length.

The vine, which is housed in a purpose-built greenhouse in the gardens, still produces a whopping 22o to 32o kilograms (500 to 700 bunches) of black, sweet grapes annually (you can even buy the grapes in Hampton Court’s Garden Shop – they’ve been sold to the public since the 1930s), although this is well down on the 2,245 bunches of grapes picked in 1807.

WHERE: Hampton Court Palace, East Molesey, Surrey (nearest station is Hampton Court from Waterloo); WHEN: 10am to 6pm everyday (winter hours 10am to 4.30pm from 31st October to 26th March); COST: Adult £15.40, Concession £12.65, Child under 16 £7.70 (under fives free), family tickets, garden only tickets and online booking discounts available; WEBSITE: www.hrp.org.uk/HamptonCourtPalace/