Newbury, Berkshire
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Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown had a good working relationship with Elizabeth Montagu, designing a pond and walled garden for her at Sandleford Priory.

Towards the end of his career Capability Brown designed a new garden for Elizabeth Montagu, who leased the estate at Sandleford Priory, near Newbury, Berkshire. Following the death of her husband, a wealthy colliery owner, in 1776, Mrs Montagu had the means to improve the house and grounds. Brown laid out the park, creating Brown’s Pond and a new walled kitchen garden. Their letters show that Brown and the intellectual Mrs Montagu got on well, though she was careful with her money. When Brown died in February 1783 his foreman Samuel Lapidge continued working at Sandleford.

Money matters

There is a record of payments to Brown by Mrs Montagu in the ledgers of her bankers, C Hoare  & Co. Brown was paid £500 (£716,000 in 2015) on 21 November 1782. Further payments were made to foreman Samuel Lapidge of £130 (more than £188,000 in 2015) on 25 June 1783 and £290 (£420,000 in 2015) on 28 November 1783.

Mrs Montagu was known as ‘Queen of the Blue Stockings’ because of her circle of accomplished friends, including writer Samuel Johnson and painter Sir Joshua Reynolds. She loved entertaining, so wanted more accommodation at Sandleford Priory. Despite her wealth she was very careful with her money. She wrote to her sister-in-law soon after meeting Brown in July 1781: “… it seems a pity the noble genius of Mr Brown should be restrained by ignoble considerations which forbid my incurring debt, so his improvement must not go beyond what my cash will immediately answer”.

Estate map of Sandleford Priory 1781Brown’s Pond

There is no plan of what Brown did at Sandleford, but maps made before and after his time show some of the changes (above Survey of the Estate of Sandleford Priory, 1781, Reproduced by permission of the Berkshire Record Office and Charles, Lucas & Marshall Solicitors (Ref: D/ELM/T19/2/13). To the east side of the estate he created a serpentine lake, known as Brown’s Pond, running north to south. This was built by enlarging an existing undammed stream.

The 1802 survey of Sandleford by John Phillpotts also shows the new walled kitchen garden 200 metres north-west of the house and park-like planting around the house. It is thought that Brown designed the new drive up the hillside to the west front of the house, which is also shown on this map.

"My good friend"

Mrs Montagu had nothing but praise for Brown, frequently referring to him as "my good friend" in her letters. She also wrote: "He is an agreeable, pleasant companion, as well as a great genius in his profession. I consider him a great poet." Brown reciprocated her warmth, describing one of her letters as "an exact Picture of your mind, full of Compassion and good will to all."

In 1782 Mrs Montagu gave a supper to all the labourers working on Brown's improvements, many of whom were unemployed weavers from Newbury. She describes how they were untrained in agriculture but "the plain digging and driving wheel barrows they can perform and are very glad to get their daily subsistence."

Changes to the house

According to one of Mrs Montagu’s letters, Brown also made some changes in the house, parts of which had been remodelled by architect James Wyatt (1747-1813, Wikipedia) in the Gothic style. She wrote about how Brown had improved the view to the south in the park and “having at my request made a fan light over the East window so that the arch formed by the trees is now visible”.

Mrs Montagu continued the plan of works at Sandleford after Brown’s death, employing Samuel Lapidge: “My pleasure in these improvements was mixed with regret for his [Brown’s] death.”

Sandleford Priory today

After Mrs Montagu died the estate was inherited by her nephew, Matthew Montagu. The property had been leased from the Dean and Chapter of St George's Chapel, Windsor, who eventually sold the estate in 1871. In 1947 it was sold again and split up, with the house (listed Grade I, Historic England) being taken over by St Gabriel’s school.

There are now housing estates to the north and west of Sandleford, but Brown’s Pond and the kitchen garden remain. The gardens are listed Grade II.


Information courtesy of Ben Viljoen, Berkshire Gardens Trust:

Historic England:

Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1975, page 195-197