Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is thought to have carried out a survey at West Wycombe during the 1750s for the owner, Sir Francis Dashwood, the 2nd Baronet.
Capability’ Brown may have surveyed the estate at West Wycombe in 1753, as he was already working for Sir Francis Dashwood (1708-81) at Ealing. Sir Francis travelled widely in Europe during his youth and this influenced the way he developed the estate at West Wycombe. Perhaps with guidance from Brown, he softened the formal style of the gardens and built a series of ornamental buildings in the Neo-Classical style, including the Temple of the Four Winds and the Music Temple. As in many Brown landscapes, trees were used to provide settings for these buildings and to create interesting views for visitors exploring the park and pleasure grounds.
The estate papers have a record from 21 July 1753 of “one Browne, a surveyor” proposing to view the estate. Brown was then working for Sir Francis at Ealing, so it is thought that he may have done the survey at West Wycombe too.
It is not known how much work had already been done at West Wycombe by the time of Brown’s survey in 1753. Descriptions of the existing garden reveal that straight lines dominated the layout of the avenues and the design of the lakes. Sir Francis was probably influenced by Brown’s then fashionable style of creating softer, more natural lines in the landscape.
Temples and views
Though Brown designed a wide variety of garden buildings during his career, he was not responsible for the Neo-Classical features at West Wycombe. As a young man, Sir Francis had been on the Grand Tour of Europe, which gave him a passion for Classical Italian art and architecture and influenced his redesign of the gardens at West Wycombe.
Using amateur architect Nicholas Revett (1720-1804, Wikipedia), Sir Francis created many ornamental buildings, linked by paths and rides. The Temple of the Four Winds is an octagonal tower sited on an artificial mound at the south-east corner of the pleasure grounds. As Brown would have done, Sir Francis used this feature both as a viewing point out to the east and south of the park and as an eye-catcher from the park and east drive.
The Music Temple sits on one of the three islands in the lake, which was created by damming the River Wye. This building is a key feature for many views in the park and pleasure grounds, as is Sawmill House, which straddles the river in the north-east of the park.
Most of the park at West Wycombe is located along the western, upper part of the Wye valley. It is surrounded by wooded hilltops, giving wide-ranging views. In creating the landscape, Sir Francis used also eye-catchers in the wider landscape, such as the church tower of St Lawrence and the mausoleum on West Wycombe Hill, which both date from the mid-18th century.
A view from 1866 of the Palladian-style house at West Wycombe (Parks & Gardens UK) shows lawns sweeping up to the entrance and huge trees framing it on either side.
West Wycombe today
Later generations of the Dashwood family did little to change the work done by Sir Francis. Landscape designer Humphry Repton (1752-1818) was at West Wycombe in the 1790s and probably removed some of the garden buildings and the statues on top of Sawmill House.
In 1943 the house and park were given to the National Trust and are now listed Grade I.
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000447
National Trust: www.nationaltrust.org.uk/west-wycombe-park-village-and-hill