Passion, entanglement and a superstar gardener…. It is 1769 and William Constable Esq of Burton Constable Hall has big ideas. Not content with refashioning his house and tearing down the stables, the old park now HAS to go. Mr Brown's Directions is a new play by Rachel Feldberg in partnership with Burton Constable Hall and Lit Up East Riding.
- Burton Constable by George Barret © Burton Constable Foundation
- Brown's bridge at Burton Constable © Burton Constable
- Burton Constable parkland in winter © Karl Holtby
- Burton Constable Hall, photo © Simon Warner
Beginning in 1769, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown worked with owner William Constable to develop the parkland at Burton Constable.
Situated on the Plain of Holderness outside the village of Sproatley, near Hull, East Yorkshire, Burton Constable covers around 300 hectares (740 acres). Capability Brown’s changes to the estate included creating a lake, a ha-ha (sunken wall) and new drives. Constable summed up the work carried out over 10 years: “Levelling & Uniting Grounds, forming Swells, laying Down pieces of Water, making Plantations & the whole Executive Part of beautifying and finishing a place with most accurate neatness.”
Visits and hints
Brown and Constable first explored the estate together in 1769, and there are records of 10 other visits there up until 1782. There is a note of a payment to Brown in 1767 for £8 and 4 shillings (£13,000 in 2015) and his own account book (view on RHS website) notes a visit to the property in 1774. There is no other evidence of payments to Brown for work done at Burton Constable.
Constable, pictured left (© Burton Constable Foundation) a noted plant collector, had already been gathering ideas for landscaping the "dull, flat country" around his 16th-century mansion before Brown’s first visit. His thoughts included breaking into clumps the early 18th-century avenues of trees that radiated from the house and creating a larger water feature from the existing ponds.
Brown’s ideas for Burton Constable – “Hints from Mr Brown” – are set out in a series of eight notes or minutes, starting on 8 September 1772. These were recorded by John Raines, Constable’s steward, and ranged from practical advice on weeding plantations and building ha-has to more general principles of design. Notably, Brown’s advice on trees was that “Small clumps are nothing, only pimples upon the Face of Nature - make your Clumps large & massy”.
A 1768 plan by surveyor Thomas White (1739-1811), who had previously worked for Brown, showed joined lakes to the west and south-west of the house. The idea of enlarging the three existing narrow fishponds dates back to 1755.
Work finally began in 1775 but was held up by a lack of water and by problems levelling the banks. The plan was for the surface of the water to be seen from the gardens. Brown designed a bridge (now listed Grade II) to act as a dam, hiding the change in water level between the upper and lower parts of the lake. His note from 1776 on the design of this bridge, describing “the Plinth & cornice of Stone – The rest Brick”, has survived.
Brown had to rework some of his ideas during his years of involvement at Burton Constable. The islands he designed for the lakes were built in 1776 but removed in 1778.
Other Brown features
In the late 17th century or early 18th century there were four avenues running from Burton Constable Hall out into the parkland. Brown’s design included removing part of the avenue east of the house and thinning out the trees in the other avenues. He rerouted the Sproatley road to the east of the house and framed views of the mansion with trees.
Brown also designed a semi-circular ha-ha (now listed Grade II) along the line of an old moat, to the south of the house. He also designed a courtyard, with service wings, turreted towers and an entrance arch.
Burton Constable today
The site remained in the ownership of the Constable family until the 1990s, when part of it was taken over by the Burton Constable Foundation. The house and park are open to the public.
A section of the ha-ha running from the north pond to the Orangery survives, but the rest was filled in during the early 19th century. A programme of parkland restoration began in 1999, with thousands of trees replanted to recreate Brown’s vision of 'massy' clumps. The bridge has also been restored.
See below for a downloadable leaflet with a map showing Capability Brown's work at Burton Constable.
Kelly Wainwright of the Burton Constable Foundation www.burtonconstable.com
Information courtesy of the Yorkshire Gardens Trust, the New Arcadian Press and Burton Constable www.burtonconstable.com
For an extended and fully annotated account please see: Karen Lynch, ‘Capability Brown in Yorkshire’, in Dr Patrick Eyres (Ed), Yorkshire Capabilities: New Arcadian Journal 75/76, 2016 www.newarcadianpress.co.uk
For a lavishly illustrated account of Brown in Yorkshire please see: Karen Lynch, ‘Noble Prospects: Capability Brown & the Yorkshire Landscape’, Harrogate: Mercer Art Gallery & Yorkshire Gardens Trust, 2016 www.yorkshiregardenstrust.org.uk
Capability Brown's account book, page 121: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book
Historic England list entry: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1083448