Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was employed by John, First Earl Spencer at Wimbledon on two contracts between 1765 and 1783.
Brown's first contract at Wimbledon, south-west London, in 1765 was for £1,760 (worth £3,066,000 in 2015) paid quarterly over 2 years. Over the next 20 years Brown transformed the formal Renaissance gardens into a more natural landscape, including building a dam across the valley to convert a marshy stream into an impressive 12-hectare lake.
Marlborough Manor House
In 1764, 11 year old John Spencer had inherited Marlborough Manor House and a 500 acre park from his great grandmother the Dower Duchess of Marlborough. He was the richest school boy in England, and later became the first Earl Spencer.
The estate was ripe for improvement as it had fallen into neglect. The Dowager Duchess had laid out formal gardens in 1733 but preferred to live elsewhere. Spencer bought or enclosed much more land over the next 20 years, nearly doubling the size of the estate. This land included Wandsworth West Common and part of the Wimbledon Common.
Working for Spencer
Brown’s improvements were done in two stages, most between 1765-6, with a second commission beginning in 1779 which was still in progress in 1783 when both Brown and the Earl died.
Brown created a 9 hectare lake in the centre of the park, formed by damming the valley and fed by the Bigden and Margin Brooks. A boat house was added at the south of the lake. Most of the park remained pasture and arable without buildings. Formal gardens around the house were replaced and most of existing avenues of trees and hedgerows were felled, with a few original trees preserved and 50 new clumps of trees were planted.
Replacement fences were laid out in curved lines in the pasture but straight within the more intensively farmed arable. A sinuous belt of woodland was planted around the perimeter of the estate with carriage drives threading through the woodland to give visitors surprise views across the park as they arrived.
In 1782, Wandsworth West Common was enclosed and Brown turned into a Game Cover with a pond and menagerie. The game cover was unusual in Brown’s work but probably created in response to the Ear’s love of shooting.
Brown created a huge lawn around the Marlborough Manor House separated from the rest of the park by the Great Ha-ha. Views stretched from the house across the lawn with its two temples as far as the North Downs.
The Spencer family ran up huge debts, so the third and fourth earls, John and Frederick, sold the estate in two parts to a neighbour and property developer, John Augustus Beaumont in 1843 and 1846. Beaumont began a programme of building large villas (1-6 hectares) for prosperous Londoners on a significant proportion of the north and west of the estate by 1865.
Wimbledon Club purchased their property in 1899 and, in 1915, the then Municipal Borough of Wimbledon bought the remaining bulk of the land for public use.
Wimbledon Park today
Wimbledon Park is in divided usage today, including a public park with the lake, a private golf course and a private sports club. Some of the Brownian elements survive, including the lake in its grassland setting, the old woodlands, veteran trees and some of the views from Capability Brown’s drives.
The Championships, Wimbledon, the oldest tennis tournament in the world, is held at The All England Tennis Club, which sits within the original boundaries of the Capability Brown landscape.
Dave Dawson Capability Brown’s Wimbledon Park - A History 2016
Dorothy Stroud Capability Brown pgs. 134-5 & 244