Posted on

J. M. W. Turner: Painter of Light

Self portrait, oil on canvas, circa 1799

Joseph Mallord William “J. M. W.” Turner, RA (baptised 14 May 1775 – 19 December 1851) was an English Romanticist landscape painter, water-colourist, and printmaker. Turner was considered a controversial figure in his day, but is now regarded as the artist who elevated landscape painting to an eminence rivalling history painting.Although renowned for his oil paintings, Turner is also one of the greatest masters of British watercolour landscape painting. He is commonly known as “the painter of light”and his work is regarded as a Romantic preface to Impressionism. Some of his works are cited as examples of abstract art prior to its recognition in the early 20th century.

Joseph Mallord William Turner was baptised on 14 May 1775, but his date of birth is unknown. It is generally believed he was born between late April and early May. Turner himself claimed he was born on 23 April, but there is no proof. He was born in Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, in London, England. His father, William Turner (1745–21 September 1829), was a barber and wig maker, His mother, Mary Marshall, came from a family of butchers. A younger sister, Mary Ann, was born in September 1778 but died in August 1783.

Eighteenth century Bethlem was most notably portrayed in a scene from William Hogarth's A Rake's Progress (1735), the story of a rich merchant's son, Tom Rakewell whose immoral living causes him to end up in Bethlem.
Eighteenth century Bethlem was most notably portrayed in a scene from William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress (1735), the story of a rich merchant’s son, Tom Rakewell whose immoral living causes him to end up in Bethlem.

In 1785, due to his mother showing signs of the mental disturbance for which she was admitted first to St Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics in Old Street in 1799 and then Bethlem Hospital in 1800, the young Turner was sent to stay with his maternal uncle, Joseph Mallord William Marshall, in Brentford, then a small town on the banks of the River Thames west of London. From this period, the earliest known artistic exercise by Turner is found, a series of simple colourings of engraved plates from Henry Boswell’s Picturesque View of the Antiquities of England and Wales. Around 1786, Turner was sent to Margate on the north-east Kent coast. Here he produced a series of drawings of the town and surrounding area foreshadowing his later work. Turner returned to Margate many times in later life. By this time, Turner’s drawings were being exhibited in his father’s shop window and sold for a few shillings. His father boasted to the artist Thomas Stothard that: “My son, sir, is going to be a painter.” In 1789 Turner again stayed with his uncle, who had retired to Sunningwell in Berkshire (later, following the 1974 boundary changes, part of Oxfordshire). A whole sketchbook of work from this time in Berkshire survives, as well as a watercolour of Oxford. The use of pencil sketches on location as a basis for later finished paintings formed the basis of Turner’s essential working style for his whole career.

A View of the Archbishop's Palace, Lambeth Description  This watercolour was Turner's first to be accepted for the Royal Academy's annual exhibition in April 1790, the month he turned fifteen. The watercolour showcases Turner's progress in mastering perspective, showing several buildings at dramatically different angles. (1790)
“A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth” This watercolour was Turner’s first to be accepted for the Royal Academy’s annual exhibition in April 1790, the month he turned fifteen. The watercolour showcases Turner’s progress in mastering perspective, showing several buildings at dramatically different angles. (1790)

Many early sketches by Turner were architectural studies and/or exercises in perspective and it is known that as a young man he worked for several architects including Thomas Hardwick (junior), James Wyatt and Joseph Bonomi the Elder. By the end of 1789 he had also begun to study under the topographical draughtsman Thomas Malton, whom Turner would later call “My real master.” He entered the Royal Academy of Art schools in 1789, when he was 14 years old, and was accepted into the academy a year later. Sir Joshua Reynolds, president of the Royal Academy, chaired the panel that admitted him. At first Turner showed a keen interest in architecture but was advised to continue painting by the architect Thomas Hardwick. His first watercolour painting A View of the Archbishop’s Palace, Lambeth was accepted for the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1790 when Turner was 15.

As a probationer in the academy, he was taught drawing from plaster casts of antique sculptures and his name appears in the registry of the academy over a hundred times from July 1790 to October 1793. In June 1792, he was admitted to the life class to learn to draw the human body from nude models. Turner exhibited watercolours each year at the academy – travelling in the summer and painting in the winter. He travelled widely throughout Britain, particularly to Wales, and produced a wide range of sketches for working up into studies and watercolours. These particularly focused on architectural work, which utilised his skills as a draughtsman. In 1793, he showed a watercolour titled The Rising Squall – Hot Wells from St Vincent’s Rock Bristol (now lost) that foreshadowed his later climatic effects. Cunningham in his obituary of Turner wrote that it was: “recognised by the wiser few as a noble attempt at lifting landscape art out of the tame insipidities…[and] evinced for the first time that mastery of effect for which he is now justly celebrated.”

Turner’s 1796 “Fishermen at Sea”


Turner exhibited his first oil painting at the academy in 1796, Fishermen at Sea: a nocturnal moonlit scene of The Needles, which lie off the Isle of Wight. The image of boats in peril contrasts the cold light of the moon with the firelight glow of the fishermen’s lantern. Wilton said that the image: “Is a summary of all that had been said about the sea by the artists of the eighteenth century.” and shows strong influence by artists such as Horace Vernet, Philip James de Loutherbourg, Peter Monamy and Francis Swaine, who was admired for his moonlight marine paintings. This particular painting cannot be said to show any influence of Willem van de Velde the Younger, as not a single nocturnal scene is known by that painter. Some later work, however, as shown below, was created to rival or complement the manner of the Dutch artist. The image was praised by contemporary critics and founded Turner’s reputation, both as an oil painter and as a painter of maritime scenes.

Turner travelled widely in Europe, starting with France and Switzerland in 1802 and studying in the Louvre in Paris in the same year. He made many visits to Venice. On a visit to Lyme Regis, in Dorset, he painted a stormy scene (now in the Cincinnati Art Museum).

J.M.W. Turner, Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps, 1812.


Important support for his work came from Walter Ramsden Fawkes, of Farnley Hall, near Otley in Yorkshire, who became a close friend of the artist. Turner first visited Otley in 1797, aged 22, when commissioned to paint watercolours of the area. He was so attracted to Otley and the surrounding area that he returned to it throughout his career. The stormy backdrop of Hannibal Crossing The Alps is reputed to have been inspired by a storm over the Chevin in Otley while he was staying at Farnley Hall.

Turner was a frequent guest of George O’Brien Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont, at Petworth House in West Sussex and painted scenes that Egremont funded taken from the grounds of the house and of the Sussex countryside, including a view of the Chichester Canal. Petworth House still displays a number of paintings.

As Turner grew older, he became more eccentric. He had few close friends except for his father, who lived with him for 30 years and worked as his studio assistant. His father’s death in 1829 had a profound effect on him, and thereafter he was subject to bouts of depression. He never married but had a relationship with an older widow, Sarah Danby. He is believed to have been the father of her two daughters born in 1801 and 1811.

Later he had a relationship with Sophia Caroline Booth, after her second husband died, living for about 18 years as ‘Mr Booth’ in her house in Chelsea.

Like many of the day, Turner was a habitual user of snuff; in 1838 the King of France, Louis-Philippe, presented a gold snuff box to him. Of two other snuffboxes, an agate and silver example bears Turner’s name, and another, made of wood, was collected along with his spectacles, magnifying glass and card case by an associate house keeper.

Turner died in the house of his lover Sophia Caroline Booth in Cheyne Walk in Chelsea on 19 December 1851, and is said to have uttered the last words “The sun is God”. At his request he was buried in St Paul’s Cathedral, where he lies next to Sir Joshua Reynolds. His last exhibition at the Royal Academy was in 1850.

Turner’s friend, architect Philip Hardwick (1792–1870), son of his tutor, Thomas Hardwick, was in charge of making the funeral arrangements and wrote to those who knew Turner to tell them at the time of his death that, “I must inform you, we have lost him.” Other executors were his cousin and chief mourner at the funeral, Henry Harpur IV (benefactor of Westminster – now Chelsea & Westminster – Hospital), Revd. Henry Scott Trimmer, George Jones RA and Charles Turner ARA.

Turner’s talent was recognised early in his life. Financial independence allowed Turner to innovate freely; his mature work is characterised by a chromatic palette and broadly applied atmospheric washes of paint. According to David Piper’s The Illustrated History of Art, his later pictures were called “fantastic puzzles.” However, Turner was recognised as an artistic genius: the influential English art critic John Ruskin described him as the artist who could most “stirringly and truthfully measure the moods of Nature.”

The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons (1835) by J. M. W. Turner. Turner witnessed the fire, and painted the subject several times.


Suitable vehicles for Turner’s imagination were found in shipwrecks, fires (such as the burning of Parliament in 1834, an event which Turner rushed to witness first-hand, and which he transcribed in a series of watercolour sketches), natural catastrophes, and natural phenomena such as sunlight, storm, rain, and fog. He was fascinated by the violent power of the sea, as seen in Dawn after the Wreck (1840) and “The Slave Ship” (1840).

J.M.W. Turner, The Slave Ship (1840). Oil on canvas. 90.8 × 122.6 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


Turner’s major venture into printmaking was the Liber Studiorum (Book of Studies), seventy prints that he worked on from 1806 to 1819. The Liber Studiorum was an expression of his intentions for landscape art. Loosely based on Claude Lorrain’s Liber Veritatis (Book of Truth), the plates were meant to be widely disseminated, and categorised the genre into six types: Marine, Mountainous, Pastoral, Historical, Architectural, and Elevated or Epic Pastoral. His printmaking was a major part of his output, and a museum is devoted to it, the Turner Museum in Sarasota, Florida, founded in 1974 by Douglass Montrose-Graem to house his collection of Turner prints.

Turner placed human beings in many of his paintings to indicate his affection for humanity on the one hand (note the frequent scenes of people drinking and merry-making or working in the foreground), but its vulnerability and vulgarity amid the ‘sublime’ nature of the world on the other. ‘Sublime’ here means awe-inspiring, savage grandeur, a natural world unmastered by man, evidence of the power of God – a theme that romanticist artists and poets were exploring in this period. To Turner, light was the emanation of God’s spirit and this was why he focused the subject matter of his later paintings by leaving out distractions such as solid objects and detail, concentrating on the play of light on water, the radiance of skies and fires. Although these late paintings appear to be ‘impressionistic’ and therefore a forerunner of the French school, Turner was striving for expression of spirituality in the world, rather than responding primarily to optical phenomena.

The Chancel and Crossing of Tintern Abbey, Looking towards the East Window, 1794, pencil and watercolour on paper, 1794


His early works, such as Tintern Abbey (1795), stayed true to the traditions of English landscape. However, in Hannibal Crossing the Alps (1812), an emphasis on the destructive power of nature had already come into play. His distinctive style of painting, in which he used watercolour technique with oil paints, created lightness, fluency, and ephemeral atmospheric effects.

In his later years he used oils ever more transparently, and turned to an evocation of almost pure light by use of shimmering colour. A prime example of his mature style can be seen in Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, where the objects are barely recognisable. The intensity of hue and interest in evanescent light not only placed Turner’s work in the vanguard of English painting, but exerted an influence on art in France; the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet, carefully studied his techniques.

Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, 1844


Turner used pigments like carmine in his paintings, knowing that they were not long-lasting, despite the advice of contemporary experts to use more durable pigments. As a result, many of his colours have now faded greatly. John Ruskin complained at how quickly Turner’s work decayed; Turner was indifferent to posterity and chose materials that looked good when freshly applied. By 1930 there was concern that both his oils and his watercolours were fading.

High levels of ash in the atmosphere during 1816, the “Year Without a Summer”, led to unusually spectacular sunsets during this period, and were an inspiration for some of Turner’s work.

John Ruskin says in his “Notes” on Turner in March 1878, that an early patron, Dr Thomas Monro, the Principal Physician of Bedlam, was a significant influence on Turner’s style:

His true master was Dr Monro; to the practical teaching of that first patron and the wise simplicity of method of watercolour study, in which he was disciplined by him and companioned by Giston, the healthy and constant development of the greater power is primarily to be attributed; the greatness of the power itself, it is impossible to over-estimate.

On a trip to Europe, circa 1820, he met the Irish physician Robert James Graves. Graves was travelling in a diligence in the Alps when a man who looked like the mate of a ship got in, sat beside him, and soon took from his pocket a note-book across which his hand from time to time passed with the rapidity of lightning. Graves wondered if the man was insane, he looked, saw that the stranger had been noting the forms of clouds as they passed and that he was no common artist. The two travelled and sketched together for months. Graves tells that Turner would outline a scene, sit doing nothing for two or three days, then suddenly, “perhaps on the third day, he would exclaim ‘there it is’, and seizing his colours work rapidly till he had noted down the peculiar effect he wished to fix in his memory.”

Staffa, Fingal’s Cave, 1832


The first American to buy a Turner painting was James Lenox of New York City, a private collector. Lenox wished to own a Turner and in 1845 bought one unseen through an intermediary, his friend C. R. Leslie. From among the paintings Turner had on hand and was willing to sell for £500, Leslie selected and shipped the 1832 atmospheric seascape Staffa, Fingal’s Cave. Worried about the painting’s reception by Lenox, who knew Turner’s work only through etchings, Leslie wrote to Lenox that the quality of Staffa, “a most poetic picture of a steam boat” would become apparent in time. On receiving the painting Lenox was baffled, and “greatly disappointed” by what he called the painting’s “indistinctness”. When Leslie was forced to relay this opinion to Turner, Turner said “You should tell Mr Lenox that indistinctness is my forte.” Staffa, Fingal’s Cave is now owned by the Yale Center for British Art.


Text and images from

Posted on

The Swiss Garden: A Regency Gem


‘…but we shall not have Miss Bigg, she being frisked off like half England, into Switzerland.’ (Jane Austen to Anne Sharpe , 22 May 1817)

The Swiss Cottage, sitting atop one of Lord Ongley’s mounds (Photo: Darren Harbar)

Lord Robert Henley Ongley (1803-1877)inherited Old Warden Park in 1814 when he was just eleven years old. During his early twenties, newly in receipt of his fortune, he transformed a 9-acre section of boggy brickfield in north-east Bedfordshire intoan alpine scene such as one would expect to find in the foothills of the Swiss Alps. A great earth-moving feat moulded this level patch of land into an undulating landscape complete with mounds, ponds, serpentine paths and shrubberies, to which Lord Ongley added a Swiss Cottage, an aviary, huge trellis frames arching over sweeping lawns, and a thatched tree seat, complete with sentimental poem etched into a marble slab and the nearby melancholy walk and tiny chapel with its stained glass window. Small but beautifully ornate cast-iron bridges, an Indian Kiosk and a fine Grotto, later incorporated into a Fernery, were added to create a collection of features without which no Regency garden would be complete. At the same time, he remodelled the village of Old Warden, also in the ‘Swiss Picturesque’ style. Local legend has it that Lord Ongley supplied his tenants with red neck-ties, which they were expected to wear as he rode through the village. This was a set piece like no other; a little slice of Switzerland, just under fifty miles north of London!

A cottage in the village of Old Warden (Photo: C Price)
A cottage in the village of Old Warden (Photo: C Price)

The estate was sold to Joseph Shuttleworth in 1872, who embellished the garden with several impressive Pulhamite stone features, but despite some alterations to the buildings and structures, the garden escaped any significant changes, and the landscape and many of Ongley’s original features survive to this day. A contemporary account of the garden, written by Emily Shore, a visitor to the garden in 1835, described it as:

“A very curious place…full of little hills and mounds, covered with trees, shrubs and flowers. Here and there are arbours shaded by ivy and clematis; in some places are little hollows surrounded by artificial rocks; in others are subterranean paths, besides railing, hedges, ponds, white tents, enclosures for birds, etc. Over the whole are scattered white statues and painted lamps, some on stands, others hanging from lofty arches which join the mounts. The principal object is the Swiss cottage, … which is surmounted by a ‘gilded pill’, on which stands a dove of white stone. What I liked best was the conservatory. We entered a subterraneous passage, at the end of which is a little polygonal chamber, curtained all round with red and white, and carpeted with coloured sheepskin.”[1]

Cecilia Ridley, visiting in 1839, thought the Swiss Garden “the most extraordinary garden in the world made out of a bog; full of little old summer houses on little round hills, china vases, busts, coloured lamps – in short quite a fairyland…”[2] Other gardens of the time were also described as fairylands, notably Whiteknights in Reading, designed by Lord Blandford, later 5th Duke of Marlborough with the help of John Buonarotti Papworth and described in an 1818 book containing over thirty illustrations of the grounds, where ‘…all around is Fairy ground’. Between 1798 and 1819, Whiteknights was the scene of vast extravagance and wild entertainments, all at the Marquis’ expense; the splendid gardens, beautifully laid out with the rarest of plants, were its greatest attraction however. Sadly, the Whiteknights landscape has been wholly lost, consumed within the campus at Reading University, but it contained many features which would not have looked out of place in Ongley’s Swiss Garden. Illustrations in Papworth’s Rural Residences of 1832 and Peter Frederick Robinson’s Rural Architecture (1822) and Village Architecture (1833) demonstrate a tendency towards the rustic and the cottage ornée during this period, a trend which had been prevalent since the turn of the nineteenth century. Robert Ferrars, in Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility (1811) is:

‘…excessively fond of a cottage; there is always so much comfort, so much elegance about them. And I protest, if I had any money to spare, I should buy a little land and build one myself, within a short distance of London, where I might drive myself down at any time, and collect a few friends about me, and be happy’.

Another example of this style of architecture can be found at Blaise Hamlet, near Bristol, designed by John Nash in 1811. This charming hamlet of nine picturesque cottages is laid out around an open, undulating green, and was built to accommodate retired staff from the Blaise Castle estate in Henbury.  Like the village of Old Warden, each cottage is unique, and the hamlet was one of the first examples of a planned community – there is a stone sundial and water pump on the green which commemorates its construction. The cottages, again like those in Old Warden, are lived in to this day. This style was later copied widely, helped along by books such as Robinson’s Village Architecture.

The Grotto Fernery – the ironwork dates back to Ongley’s time, while Shuttleworth’s Pulhamite rockwork additions were added in the 1870s, creating an unusual and atmospheric structure (Photos: Darren Harbar)
The Grotto Fernery – the ironwork dates back to Ongley’s time, while Shuttleworth’s rockwork additions were added in the 1870s, creating an unusual and atmospheric structure (Photos: Darren Harbar)
A Second view of the Fernery.
A Second view of the Fernery.

So…why Switzerland? The influences for Lord Ongley’s unusual landscape were probably fairly eclectic, and it is also quite probable that he visited Switzerland at some point. Garden historian Mavis Batey, in an article for Country Life magazine in 1977[3], points out that the vogue for Alpine scenery, Swiss cottages and peasant costume that seized England in the 1820s was essentially a by-product of Romanticism. The craving for the sublime and the primitive had made mountain scenery desirable, and a trip to Switzerland became as necessary to the Man of Feeling as the Grand Tour had been to the Man of Taste a century before. The exodus began once peace resumed in Europe following the retreat of Napoleon’s troops in 1815, and two years later, Jane Austen referred to an absent friend as having ‘frisked off like half England, into Switzerland’.[4] The timing also coincided with the publication of the Prisoner of Chillon, offering a new Byronic emphasis to the Tour by showing those who sought to escape the bondage of society’s conventions how to achieve liberation of the spirit through an encounter with the Swiss sublime.

Jane’s interest in garden design, mentioned several times in her novels and the correspondence, starts with William Gilpin and the Picturesque and then moves into an ambivalence about Humphrey Repton, but she does embrace the idea of decorative shrubberies, which feature frequently as the stage on which many of the romantic events in her novels are played out. The key novel for the pre-Swiss Garden period is Mansfield Park, where a discussion takes place about improving one’s landscape, and Repton’s ideas are debated in some detail. Lady Bertram, listening to the proposed improvements, offers her own opinion on the matter: “If I were you, I would have a very pretty shrubbery. One likes to get out into a shrubbery in fine weather.”[5] This, perhaps, can be interpreted as Jane’s personal view being expressed through the debate about Mr Rushworth’s landscape. Although she appears to be criticising Repton in the text, it is very likely that she would have enjoyed walking through the type of flowering shrubberies which he favoured. At Chawton Cottage, where she settled with her mother and sister after the death of her father in Bath, an airy gravel walk was planted up with trees, flowering shrubs and colourful under-planting, a pleasant addition to the productive garden. Scented plants were a vital ingredient, as Jane describes in a letter to Cassandra in 1811:

“Our young Piony at the foot of the Fir tree has just blown & looks very handsome; & the whole of the Shrubbery Border will soon be very gay with Pinks & Sweet Williams, in addition to the Columbines already in bloom. The Syringas too are coming out.”[6]

The tiny chapel, reminiscent of the roadside chapels found in Europe, with its stained glass window, Contains a marble tablet inscribed with biblical verses (Photo: Darren Harbar)
The tiny chapel, reminiscent of the roadside chapels found in Europe, with its stained glass window,
Contains a marble tablet inscribed with biblical verses (Photo: Darren Harbar)

Jane, with her rather more refined tastes, may not have been particularly fond of the extravagant excesses of the Swiss Garden described by Emily Shore, but Lord Ongley’s gentle undulations, serpentine paths and tasteful planting are very likely to have delighted her if she had ever seen them. Island beds and shrubberies were popular features of many gardens at the time, as were the Alpine structures seen in the Swiss Garden today. Jane is very likely to have heard of Whiteknights too, and there were plenty of examples to be found of buildings in the rustic style, but what makes the Swiss Garden rather special is that it is believed to be the only surviving example of a ‘complete’ Regency garden, with all its features intact, known in the UK today. Whiteknights, and many other gardens of this period have disappeared altogether, or survive only in part. This makes the recent restoration, funded by a £2.8 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, all the more significant to the current custodians of the garden, the Shuttleworth Trust and Central Bedfordshire Council, particularly as it has been on English Heritage’s Heritage at Risk Register since 2009.

Detail of the North Bridge, designed by Cato & Sons (Photo: Darren Harbar)
Detail of the North Bridge, designed by Cato & Sons
(Photo: Darren Harbar)

Previously hidden behind the hangars of The Shuttleworth Collection aviation museum, the Swiss Garden is now set to take equal billing and prominence as a visitor attraction. The garden’s 13 listed buildings and structures – including six listed at Grade II* – have undergone careful conservation using traditional materials and techniques where possible. Its two-storey centrepiece, the Swiss Cottage, has been re-thatched using water reed from Norfolk, its finials re-gilded with 23 carat gold leaf and missing or broken rustic decoration replaced using slices of Monterey Pine cones and hazel and willow twigs. Almost 4,300 panes of glass in the Grotto and Fernery have been replaced with hand-cut handmade cylinder glass and rosette detailing replaced on the Pond Cascade Bridge.

Over 25,600 shrubs and 8,400 bulbs have been planted in 53 beds and 340 metres of path laid using 300 tonnes of gravel. Lost vistas have been reinstated recreating the scenic windows which opened onto very deliberate stage-set views of buildings, bridges, urns, arches and other garden features as originally intended by Lord Ongley.

An ‘augmented reality’ shot depicting the possible design of Lord Ongley’s Aviary – now available on the Swiss Garden’s new (and free) Smartphone app.
An ‘augmented reality’ shot depicting the possible design of Lord Ongley’s Aviary – now available on the Swiss Garden’s new (and free) Smartphone app.

Corinne Price is the manager of the Swiss Garden, which reopened to the public in July 2014, and is open all year round. The garden has been on English Heritage’s ‘At Risk’ register for some time, and is hugely important in the world of garden history as it’s the only completely intact garden of this period in the UK. Please check the Shuttleworth website for current opening times and events, and follow us on Facebook  for up-to-date news and seasonal images of the garden.

A Regency Garden Party will take place on Sunday 19th July 2015 to celebrate a year of the garden being open again. Please check the website for details nearer the time.

The Swiss Garden, Old Warden Aerodrome, Biggleswade, Bedfordshire SG18 9EP.

[1] Journal of Emily Shore, edited by Barbara Timm Gates, 1991, University Press of Virginia, p.113-114

[2] The Life and Letters of Cecilia Ridley 1819-1845, edited by Viscountess Ridley, 1958, Rupert Hart-Davis, London, p.32, 37-8.

[3] ‘An English View of Switzerland’, Mavis Batey, Country Life, February 17, 1977

[4] Jane Austen’s Letters, edited by Deirdre Le Faye, 2003, The Folio Society, London, p.341

[5] Mansfield Park, Jane Austen, Collector’s Library Edition (2004), p.73

[6] In the Garden with Jane Austen, Kim Wilson, Frances Lincoln (2008), p.7

Posted on

Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphry Repton

Humphry Repton

Who were Lancelot Brown and Humphry Repton? And what did they bring to the modern Georgian garden?

He talked of foregrounds, distances, and second distances — side-screens and perspectives — lights and shades; and Catherine was so hopeful a scholar that when they gained the top of Beechen Cliff, she voluntarily rejected the whole city of Bath as unworthy to make part of a landscape.
Northanger Abbey

Lancelot Brown

Lancelot Brown (1716 – 6 February 1783), more commonly known as Capability Brown, was an English landscape gardener. He is remembered as “the last of the great English eighteenth-century artists to be accorded his due”, and “England’s greatest gardener”. He designed over 170 parks, many of which still endure.

Born in Kirkharle, Northumberland, and educated at Cambo School, he began work by serving as a gardener’s boy in the service of Sir William Loraine. From there he moved on to Wotton, owned by Lord Cobham. He then joined Lord Cobham’s gardening staff, at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. There he served under William Kent, one of the founders of the new English style of Landscape Gardening. Whilst at Stowe, Brown married a local girl named Bridget Wayet and had the first four of his children.

As an exponent of the new English style, Brown became immensely sought after by the landed families. By 1751, Horace Walpole wrote of Brown’s work at Warwick Castle:

The castle is enchanting; the view pleased me more than I can express, the river Avon tumbles down a cascade at the foot of it. It is well laid out by one Brown who has set up on a few ideas of Kent and Mr. Southcote.

It is estimated that Brown was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain. His work still endures at Blenheim Palace, Kew Gardens, Warwick Castle, Bowood House, Milton Abbey (and nearby Milton Abbas village) and many other locations. This man who refused work in Ireland because he had not finished England was called “Capability” Brown because he would tell his landed clients their estates had great “capability” for landscape improvement.

His style of smooth undulating grass in which would run straight to the house, clumps, belts, scattering of trees and his serpentine lakes was a new style within the English landscape, and hence opened Brown to criticism by many landscape theorists. However, Brown has not only been criticised, he has also been praised by many.

His landscapes were at the forefront of fashion and they were fundamentally different to what they replaced. The well-known formal gardens of England that were the predominant style before his time were criticized by Alexander Pope and others in the early 1700s. Starting in 1719, William Kent, and then later Brown, replaced these with more naturalistic compositions, which reached their greatest refinement in Brown’s grammatical landscapes.

Russell Page described Brown’s process as “encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless pools and lakes”. Richard Owen Cambridge, the English poet and satirical author, declared that he hoped to die before Brown so that he could “see heaven before it was ‘improved'” this was a typical statement reflecting the controversy about Brown’s work, which has continued over the last 200 years. By contrast, a recent historian and author, Richard Bisgrove, described Brown’s process as perfecting nature by judicious manipulation of its components, adding a tree here or a concealed head of water there. His art attended to the formal potential of ground, water, trees and so gave to English landscape its ideal forms. The difficulty was that less capable imitators and less sophisticated spectators did not see nature perfected… they saw simply what they took to be nature.

This deftness of touch was not unrecognized in his own day; one anonymous obituary writer opined: “Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken”. Brown’s popularity declined rapidly after his death, because his work was seen as a feeble imitation of wild nature. During the nineteenth century he was criticised by almost everyone but during the twentieth century his popularity returned. Tom Turner has suggested that this resulted from a favourable account of his talent in Marie-Luise Gothein’s History of Garden Art which influenced Christopher Hussey’s positive account of Brown in his book on The Picturesque.

Brown died in 1783, in Hertford Street, London, on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget who had married the architect Henry Holland. Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: “Your dryads must go into black gloves, Madam, their father-in-law, Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead!”. He was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish church of Brown’s small estate Fenstanton Manor.

Humphry Repton

Humphrey Repton (April 21, 1752 – March 24, 1818), was the last great English landscape designer of the eighteenth century, often regarded as the successor to Capability Brown; he also sowed the seeds of the more intricate and eclectic styles of the nineteenth century. His first name is often incorrectly rendered “Humphrey”. Early life

Repton was born in Bury St Edmunds, the son of a collector of excise. In 1762 his father set up a transport business in Norwich, where Humphry attended the Grammar School. Aged 12 he was sent to Holland to learn Dutch and prepare for a career as a merchant. However, Repton was befriended by a wealthy Dutch family and the trip may have done more to stimulate his interest in ‘polite’ pursuits such as sketching and gardening.

Returning to Norwich, Repton was apprenticed to a textile merchant, then, after marriage to Mary Clarke in 1773, set up in the business himself. He was not successful, and when his parents died in 1778 used his modest legacy to move to a small country estate at Sustead, near Aylsham in Norfolk. Repton tried his hand as a journalist, dramatist, artist, political agent, and as confidential secretary to his neighbour William Windham of Felbrigg Hall during Windham’s very brief stint as Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Repton also joined John Palmer in a venture to reform the mail-coach system, but while the scheme ultimately made Palmer’s fortune, Repton again lost money.

His capital dwindling, Repton moved to a modest ‘cottage’ at Hare Street in Essex. In 1788, aged 36 and with four children and no secure income, he hit on the idea of combining his sketching skills with his limited experience of laying out grounds at Sustead to become a ‘landscape gardener’ (a term he himself coined). Since the death of Lancelot ‘capability’ Brown in 1783, no one figure had dominated English garden design; Repton was ambitious to fill this gap and sent circulars round his contacts in the upper classes advertising his services. His first paid commission was Catton Park in 1788.

That Humphry Repton, with no real experience of practical horticulture, became an overnight success, is a tribute to his undeniable talent, but also to the unique way he presented his work. To help clients visualise his designs, Repton produced ‘Red Books’ (so called for their binding) with explanatory text and watercolours with a system of overlays to show ‘before’ and ‘after’ views. In this he differed from Brown, who had worked almost exclusively with plans and rarely illustrated or wrote about his work.

To understand what was unique about Repton it is useful to examine how he differed from Brown in more detail. Brown had worked for many of the wealthiest aristocrats in Britain, carving huge landscape parks out of old formal gardens and agricultural land. While Repton worked for equally important clients, such as the Dukes of Bedford and Portland, he was usually fine-tuning earlier work, often that of Brown himself. Where Repton got the chance to lay out grounds from scratch it was generally on a much more modest scale. On these smaller estates, where Brown would have surrounded the park with a continuous perimeter belt, Repton cut vistas through to ‘borrowed’ items such as church towers, making them seem part of the designed landscape. He contrived approach drives and lodges to enhance impressions of size and importance, and even introduced monogramed milestones on the roads around some estates, for which he was satirised by Thomas Love Peacock as ‘Marmaduke Milestone, esquire, a Picturesque Landscape Gardener’ in Headlong Hall.

Capability Brown had been a large-scale contractor, who not only designed, but also arranged the realisation of his work. By contrast, Repton acted as a consultant, charging for his Red Books and sometimes staking out the ground, but leaving his client to arrange the actual execution. Thus many of Repton’s 400 or so designs remained wholly or partially unexecuted and, while Brown became very wealthy, Repton’s income was never more than comfortable.

Early in his career, Humphry Repton defended Brown’s reputation during the ‘picturesque controversy’. In 1794 Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price simultaneously published vicious attacks on the ‘meagre genius of the bare and bald’, criticising his smooth, serpentine curves as bland and unnatural and championing rugged and intricate designs, composed according to ‘picturesque’ principals of landscape painting. Repton’s defence of Brown rested partly on the impracticality of many picturesque ideas; as a professional, Repton had to produce practical and useful designs for his clients.

Paradoxically, however, as his career progressed Repton drew more and more on picturesque ideas. One major criticism of Brown’s landscapes was the lack of a formal setting for the house, with rolling lawns sweeping right up to the front door. Repton re-introduced formal terraces, balustrades, trellis work and flower gardens around the house in a way that became common practice in the nineteenth century. He also designed one of the most famous ‘picturesque’ landscapes in Britain at Blaise Castle. At Woburn Abbey, Repton foreshadowed another nineteenth century development, creating themed garden areas including a Chinese garden, American garden, arboretum and forcing garden.

Buildings played an important part in many of Repton’s landscapes. In the 1790s he often worked with the relatively unknown architect John Nash, whose loose compositions suited Repton’s style. Nash benefited greatly from the exposure, while Repton received a commission on building work. Around 1800, however, the two fell out, probably over Nash’s refusal to credit the work of Repton’s architect son John Adey Repton. Thereafter John Adey and Repton’s younger son George often worked with their father, although George continued to work in Nash’s office as well. It must have been particularly painful for Repton when Nash secured the prestigious work to remodel the Royal Pavilion at Brighton for the Prince Regent, for which Repton had himself submitted innovative proposals in an Indian style.

In 1811 Repton suffered a serious carriage accident which often left him needing to use a wheelchair for mobility. He died in 1818 and is buried in the Churchyard at Aylsham.

Three roads close to the vicinity of his cottage at Hare Street (now renamed Main Road) in Essex have been named after him; Repton Avenue, Repton Gardens and Repton Drive repectively. A small plaque was unvield in his memory on 19th April 1969 on the site of his cottage, now rebuilt as a branch of Lloyds TSB, situated on the junction of Hare Street and Balgores Lane.

Repton published three major books on garden design: Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening (1795), Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1803), and Fragments on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening (1816). These drew on material and techniques used in the Red Books. Several lesser works were also published, including a posthumous collection edited by John Claudius Loudon. More information and excerpts from Repton’s books may be found at