A new exhibition in Horsham, West Sussex, showcases Capability Brown’s plan for Hills – a document long considered lost by experts, but rediscovered hiding in plain sight
- A woodcut made in 1836 by Howard Dudley, from the original 1787 drawing of Hills by Samuel Grimm, held by the British Library in the Burrell Collection © Horsham Museum & Art Gallery (HDC)
- Brown's Plan of Alteration to Hills 1768 © Horsham Museum & Art Gallery (HDC)
In 1768 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown redesigned the 'lost' park and gardens at Hills Place for the 9th Viscount Irwin and his wife Frances Shepherd.
Samuel Lapidge carried out a survey of Hills Place, Horsham, West Sussex (left), in 1766 for Brown. At that time the estate was just over 80 hectares (200 acres). In 1768 Brown used this survey to make his ambitious design for the estate. His scheme included ornamental lakes with cascades, new entrances, gravel walks and roads to open up the park.
Lakes and bridge
Charles Irwin and his wife Frances Shepherd also owned the estate at Temple Newsam in Yorkshire, where Brown was working from 1765-71. The viscount’s bank records show a final payment to Brown of £570 (£800,000 in 2016) was made in September 1771, and this is thought to have covered work on Hills Place and Temple Newsam.
Brown’s most notable changes at Hills Place involved joining the River Arun with an existing fishpond to make two serpentine ornamental lakes with two cascades. The upper pond was widened and reshaped to look more natural. Where the Guildford Road crossed the pond a 'sham' or dummy bridge, Asham Bridge, was built on one side of the road. On the other side was a small curled pond with a round island planted with trees.
By planting trees around the water feature, Brown was able to screen off the road, highlight the white water of the cascade, blur boundaries and draw the wider landscape into the views.
A plan rediscovered
Brown’s plan for Hills Place was thought to be lost but was recently rediscovered at Horsham Museum and Art Gallery (shown above, and see news story below). A new entrance to the house was created, entering from the Guildford Road, west of Asham Bridge and bypassing the farm buildings at the back of the house. Footpaths from the house would run south of the lakes. Brown also planned a viewing area with trees and a rotunda (circular domed building) looking towards the lake and woods.
A note from Brown on his 1768 plan shows that he wanted to enlarge the kitchen garden at Hills Place. This would use land further west of the existing garden, moving the entrance from the west to the east side of the house, but keeping the neighbouring orchard.
A series of letters from the estate’s head gardener John Meredew to Lord Irwin give a picture of work in progress at Hills Place during the 1760s and early 1770s. On 27 July 1768 Meredew wrote: “Mr Brown’s men have been here some time and taken out the wall between the forecourt and the elm trees and raised the pond bay, and are now moving the palisades next the road.”
The ‘lost garden’
Viscount Irwin died in 1778, leaving Frances to continue the work at Hills Place. Soon after her death in 1807 the estate was sold and the house was pulled down. By 1820 the park had been split up and sold. Brown’s landscape was lost, as the lakes were filled in and the lawns dug up and returned to agricultural use.
A description by surgeon Walter Cooper Dendy in 1827 records what was lost: “Although of limited extent, the artful windings of the gravel walks and velvet paths, now stealing through the luxuriant shrubberies, and again opening on a verdant lawn, produced a most exquisite and deceptive variety of scenery.”
Information courtesy of Sussex Gardens Trust: Maggie Weir-Wilson, 'Capability Brown and his work at Temple Newsam, Leeds and Hills Place, Horsham for Charles Ingram, 9th Viscount Irwin' in Susi Batty (ed), Capability Brown in Sussex, 2016 www.sussexgardenstrust.org.uk
Survey map of Hills by Samuel Lapidge 1776 (above) © Horsham Museum & Art Gallery (HDC)
A rare depiction of Hills Place gardens © Horsham Museum & Art Gallery (HDC)