Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown visited Knowsley in the mid-1770s, designing a kitchen garden and creating new planting schemes for the 12th Earl of Derby.
Capability Brown’s accounts show that he received two payments from Edward Smith Stanley, the 12th Earl of Derby for advice and plans drawn up in 1775 and 1776. Knowsley has been owned by the Stanley family since the late 16th century, and covers around 950 hectares, close to the village of Knowsley in Merseyside. Brown’s plans have not survived, but it is thought that he suggested the formation of a serpentine lake, White Man’s Dam, north-east of Knowsley Hall, and the addition of tree belts and clumps in the park. He is also thought to have designed the kitchen garden.
Brown’s account book (see online) shows that he received payments of £100 (£156,200 in 2015) in July 1775 and £84 (£124,400 in 2015) in May 1780 for two visits to Knowsley. In 1775 he was asked to draw up a plan for improvements to the park and in 1776 he produced designs for a walled kitchen garden and for the gardens around the house. As the payments were relatively small it is likely that Brown’s proposals were carried out by the earl’s own team of gardeners and foresters.
White Man’s Dam
Brown is thought to have designed White Man’s Dam, the large lake at Knowsley stretching from 500 metres north-east of the house to 1.6 kilometres to the north-east. Although Brown’s plans for Knowsley have not survived, there is a collection of sketches – 'Views of Knowsley' – from the period giving an idea of what the estate looked like. These drawings and watercolours were made from around 1780 by Louis B Pasquier, the earl’s valet.
One of the Pasquier sketches shows White Man’s Dam (then called Great Water) and also the Mizzie Pond (now Dam), another lake south-east of Riding Hill. It isn’t clear how much Brown influenced the enlargement or remodelling of these pieces of water.
The sketches of the gardens around the south and east sides of Knowsley Hall show new planting of young trees and shrubs. These shrubberies are typical of Brown’s designs for pleasure grounds close to a house. The plantings were laid out with serpentine paths and neat borders, designed around ornamental buildings like the Octagon, thought to have been designed by architect William Kent (1685-1748; Wikipedia).
Brown’s commission for Knowsley included the walled kitchen garden, which lies about 220 metres north of the house. It was built with brick walls, supported around the outside by triangular brick buttresses that are believed to be typical of his style. His plan has not survived and there are no Pasquier drawings of this feature.
The Knowsley estate remains in the ownership of the Stanley family. The house is listed Grade II* and can be hired for weddings and other events. Part of the estate was opened as Knowsley Safari Park in 1971.
The landscape park is now listed Grade II. White Man’s Dam and part of the structure of the kitchen garden have survived. Recent research suggests that there are a number of trees in the park at Knowsley that could date from Brown’s time. A large London plane – one of Brown’s signature trees – is still standing beside Eagle Tower and is thought to be typical of his planting.
Stanley Estates Newsletter August 2016
Capability Brown's account book, page 103: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book