Holkham

Holkham Hall, Wells-next-the-Sea, Norfolk, NR23 1AB
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Overview

In 1762 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown made limited changes to the park at Holkham Hall for Margaret Coke, 1st Countess of Leicester.

When Capability Brown came to Holkham there was already a mature landscape combining geometric and naturalistic elements, which had been laid out partly by landscape architect William Kent (1685-1748, Wikipedia). It is thought that Brown’s involvement was limited to removing some of Kent’s formal features and boundaries in the park. He may also have been involved in redesigning the pleasure grounds. The estate at Holkham Hall now covers around 485 hectares (1,200 acres) of land on the north Norfolk coast, 3 kilometres west of Wells-next-the-sea. 

Brown and his successors

The payments made to Brown by the countess in 1762 are thought to have been small. Landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752-1818, Wikipedia), who worked at Holkham in 1789, suggested that Brown’s activity there was limited. In his book, Sketches and Hints on Landscape Gardening, Repton talks about Brown’s successors: “A numerous herd of his foremen and working gardeners, who, from having executed his designs, became consulted, as well as employed, in the several works which he had entrusted them to superintend.”

Repton is suggesting that although Brown is given credit for what he did at Holkham it is likely that one of his foreman – probably Adam Mickle – actually did the work and perhaps even came up with some of the designs.

The lake

Some writers have named Brown as the designer of the lake at Holkham or perhaps the alterations that gave it a more serpentine shape. It is now thought that the 'twist' in the northern end of the lake was the work of designer William Emes (1729-1803, Wikipedia) in the early 1780s.

Brown’s work is likely to have focused around the Palladian mansion of Holkham Hall, rather than in the wider landscape. The planting of perimeter belts around the estate and the clumps within the park do give it a Brownian look. However, it is likely that these changes to Holkham took place later, after Thomas William Coke inherited the estate in 1776.

From 1780 work began on extending the park to the south beyond Obelisk Wood, and to the east and west, with roads being closed and diverted. It was not Brown, but gardener John Sandys who planted more than two million trees at Holkham between 1781 and 1805.

Holkham Hall today

During the 18th century the park at Holkham was expanded to become the largest one in Norfolk, covering more than 1000 hectares. Landscaper William Andrews Nesfield added large terraced gardens around the house in the 1850s.

The estate remains in private ownership and the serpentine lake and thick plantations continue to give it a Brownian look. The men largely responsible for that design were working at Holkham before and after Brown, and his contribution is now hard to establish.

Sources

Sally Bate (Editor), Capability Brown in Norfolk, Norfolk Gardens Trust, 2016 www.norfolkgt.org.uk

Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000461

Parks & Gardens UK: www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/1766