Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown advised the 6th Viscount Wenman on planting in the park at Thame and may have designed the serpentine lake there.
In around 1758 the 6th Viscount Wenman consulted Capability Brown about landscaping his estate at Thame, Oxfordshire. Brown probably made a plan, though this has not survived, and began tree-planting in the park before his client died in 1760. Other elements of Brown’s design are thought to include a stone ha-ha (sunken wall and ditch), the serpentine lake and island, lodges and entrances.
Brown’s account at Drummond’s Bank shows two payments from Viscount Wenman. The first was for £100 (£177,500 in 2015) on 29 March 1758. The second was made by Lady Wenman for £200 (almost £354,000 in 2015) on 28 August 1759. The rounded-up figures suggest that as well as covering the cost of Brown’s plans and travel expenses some landscaping work was already going on at the estate.
Viscount Wenman died in 1760 and although there are references in his will to tree-planting, there is no record of Brown’s designs or of further payments to him. The 7th Viscount Wenman was only 18 years old when his father died and the estate was in debt.
Later maps, including the Ordnance Survey 1st Edition of 1881, show some progress on the landscaping. There is also a 1786 engraving of Thame Park showing grass running up to the west front of the house and haymaking in the foreground. This indicates some progress on the landscaping, but it is hard to be certain about what was in Brown’s scheme and when the work was done.
The 6th Viscount Wenman may have known that he was dying when he made some changes to his will in May 1758. Concerned about recent tree-planting at Thame Park, he wrote: “I beg and desire of my dear wife that she will be particularly careful in keeping up the Bails and fences around the trees and clumps in the park and particularly careful of the plantations around the park and park and nursery in the best condition.”
Trees at Thame
It is thought that some of this planting was in the area now known as the Old Park. He may also have been talking about the park boundary near London Road Lodge, where trees more than 200 years old have been found. These shelter belts include horse chestnut, lime, sycamore, ash, hornbeam and oak.
A tree survey of 2001 in the Old Park showed there were 70 trees dating from the late 18th century, the period when Brown was advising at Thame. All the trees over 250 years old were oak. Close to the house there are also three large cedars of Lebanon – Brown’s signature tree –that are thought to date from the mid to late 18th century.
Ha-ha and water features
Brown may have designed the stone ha-ha to the south of the house, near the shrubbery, as its age fits with his time at Thame Park. A larger ha-ha at the front of the house, built of brick, is likely to have been built in the 19th century.
Thame Park has several water features that may have been part of Brown’s scheme. These include a dam and weir system on the largest pond in the Old Park, known as ‘trout race’. Close to this is an area between the Old Park and New Park that may have been a water meadow, a feature often used by Brown in his designs.
The serpentine lake was probably converted from medieval fishponds. A map of 1797 by Davis shows one island on it, but there are now two there.
Thame Park today
The estate was owned by the Wenman family and its descendants until 1920, and remains a private family home. Since 2000 there has been extensive restoration work to the house (listed Grade I, Historic England) and the park and gardens (listed Grade II*). The lake has been dredged as part of the restoration and there are 18th-century lime and horse chestnut trees to the east of it. Both the ha-has have also been restored and can be seen. The presence of so many old trees, including the three large cedars of Lebanon, may represent Brown’s continuing legacy at Thame.
Information based on research by Ruth Todd, Oxfordshire Gardens Trust: http://ogt.org.uk/
Historic England: http://www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001110