Royal Mail recently launched a Special Stamps issue to mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Capability Brown. Design agency Silk Pearce discusses the Capability Brown project.
- Anwick Castle (p. 196 Country Seats of the Noblemen and Gentlemen of Great Britain and Ireland. vol. 1. Francis Orpen Morris 1866
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown created magnificent views around the medieval Alnwick Castle and River Aln for the 1st Duke of Northumberland.
Capability Brown was one of several important figures who helped to redesign the castle and the grounds at Alnwick for Hugh, 1st Duke of Northumberland between 1750 and 1786. Alnwick Castle stands on high ground south of the Aln Valley, Northumberland and the estate now covers around 1,300 hectares (3212 acres). Brown turned farmland into parkland, remodelled the river to make it more like a lake, and built a causeway (raised road) to give views down the valley.
Brown’s account book (see online) records regular payments from the duke from 1754-81. It is not known how much of that money related to the remodelling of the duke’s park at Syon House, Middlesex, which was also going on at that time.
There is no record of Brown’s overall scheme for Alnwick Park – the area between the Lion Bridge and Denwick Bridge – or Hulne Park, the medieval deer park north-west of the castle. The estate account books suggest that Brown was at Alnwick in 1759, 1769-70, 1776 and 1781. There is also a record of him dining at the castle in September 1770, at the time of his visits to Kirkharle and Rothley.
Three of Brown’s foremen, Cornelius Griffin, Thomas Robson and Thomas Biesley, are known to have worked there from the late 1760s, often with large teams of gardeners and labourers. In 1773 Biesley was leading a team of 78 men at Alnwick, while one of the duke’s gardeners, Thomas Call, was working in Hulne Park with 60 men.
Two plans made before and after Brown’s 20 year involvement at Alnwick help to give a picture of what he did there. A plan from 1760 by Isaac Thompson shows the landscape around Alnwick before the main works began. Beneath the castle it is still mainly farmland, laid out in hedged fields, and there is a large island in the river with a ford crossing it below New Mill.
Some landscaping had already been done, with trees planted on two prominent hills – The Fatting Pasture and The Hill – and a belt of trees on the northern boundary. As Brown’s earliest visit to the estate was in 1759 this may have been an early part of his scheme.
The 1788 Plan of Alnwick by Sauthier shows the finished design. The remodelled castle now overlooks a landscape from which the roads, houses and fences have been removed. The clumps of trees from 1760 are still there, but two interior belts have been added.
Brown’s landscaping extended beyond the boundaries of Alnwick Park. A similar layout of belts and clumps was created on the high ground seen from the castle, east of Denwick Bridge. Brown may have supplied the design, with Thomas Call organising the labour.
River and cascades
One of the most important parts of Brown’s scheme at Alnwick was his transformation of the River Aln. The duke had wanted to create a huge lake at Alnwick, taking advice from engineer James Brindley (1716-72, Wikipedia), who was famous for his ambitious canal projects. After a major flood in 1771 their plan was dropped, with Brown and Brindley instead working together to make the river into the main feature of the landscape. Architect Robert Adam (1728-92, Wikipedia) was repairing the castle at this time.
Their changes can be seen by comparing views of the estate made before and after the works. The slopes below the castle walls have been smoothed and turfed, the river banks cleared and levelled, and the river bed cleared of boulders, making the river fit for sailing.
Brindley advised on the creation of a series of cascades, which slowed the flow of water and helped make the river calmer and more like the serene lake that the duke wanted. Map maker Eneas Mackenzie (1778-1832, Wikipedia) later described the transformed river: “At the foot of the hill is the Aln, which scarcely appears to flow, or even yield a murmur, except where it turns over two cascades; and on the opposite side of the river is a large pasture-ground, beautified with clumps and single trees most tastefully disposed.”
Brown’s scheme for Alnwick also included a causeway to cross the valley from the east of the castle, linking it with Barniside. This gravel walk, overhung by trees, gave views down river towards two eye-catchers, the Gothic-style mill (formerly New Mill) and Denwick Bridge, which had replaced the old ford. It also had a seat on a hill, from which walkers could view the castle, church and bridge.
Although Brown is not thought to have designed any buildings at Alnwick, the duke did commission the Observatory, the Summerhouse at Hulne Priory and Robert Adam’s six-storey Brizlee Tower in honour of his late wife.
There was further development of the estate under the 2nd Duke of Northumberland, who bought Alnwick Abbey and extended the parks and drives. New pleasure gardens were added in the early 19th century and later additions included ornamental fruit and flower gardens, terraces and a conservatory.
Alnwick Castle and its grounds are listed Grade I and are still owned by the Percy family, who have continued to develop the gardens. The castle is often used as a filming location, notably as Hogwarts School in the first two Harry Potter films.
Information courtesy of Nick Owen
Alnwick Castle: www.alnwickcastle.com/
Capability Brown's Account book, page 57: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001041
Northumbria Gardens Trust: www.northumbriagardenstrust.com/