- Cowdray, B. Austin after Grimm depicting the house and one of the pavilions Courtesy of West Sussex Record Office (ref: Cowdray Mss 5133)
- Detail showing Cowdray Park from Yeakell and Gardner's 1795 map Courtesy of West Sussex Record Office (ref: PM 46)
Between 1768 and 1774 Lancelot 'Capability' Brown landscaped the park at Cowdray, for the 7th Viscount Montague.
There are no maps or plans from Brown’s work at Cowdray Park in 1768-74, but his account book records payments from owner Lord Montague over a six-year period. It is thought that Brown’s scheme for the estate included a new curving driveway leading to the old Cowdray House (now a ruin). He may also have designed the ha-ha (sunken wall) and introduced new plantings of sweet chestnut and beech in the park. The Cowdray Park estate now covers around 355 hectares (877 acres) near Midhurst, West Sussex.
Brown was paid £3,550 (over £6 million in 2015) by Lord Montague between 1768 and 1774: his account book (see online) lists 12 bills to him over that time, though some of this may relate to Montague’s other properties. Another six entries between January 1773 and June 1774 in the accounts at Drummond’s, where Brown banked, cover bills of £1,150 (£1.8 million in 2015) to Lord Montague.
No maps or plans now exist for the years when Brown was working at Cowdray; if they ever existed they were probably destroyed in the disastrous fire in 1793. Evidence suggests that he removed the 16th-century formal walled gardens and probably added the ha-ha (sunken wall) about 200 metres north of Cowdray House. The ha-ha is unusual because part of it is a retaining wall and part is freestanding. This formed part of the boundary separating the 18th-century pleasure grounds from the rest of the park.
Brown may also have designed the new curving drive to the house and the second, easterly, bridge on the Causeway, cutting down the elms there. Trees that Brown often planted, such as sweet chestnut and beech, were used to replace oaks in the park.
Writing in 1884, J A E Roundell commented “and though it is to be feared that Brown ‘improved’ the Close Walks by destroying a considerable portion of thickets and trees which had formed their chief beauty, there is no doubt that he showed great taste in the planting of trees, both singly and in groups, in the park”.
A map by Thomas Yeakell and William Gardner from 1795 (shown above) offers some clues about what Brown did at Cowdray. It shows a block of heavier planting in the south of the estate that may be a wilderness. To the north of the park there are more defined drives, two circular areas formed mainly of beech trees (which are still there), with a gap to the south to allow views to the old house. The 1795 map also shows a formal line of trees running north-east towards two blank rectangles and a wooded enclosure (now Oaters Wood). The south view of Cowdray from the cottage (left) is by Grimm and dates from 1796.
In the later Ordnance survey drawings of 1808 and the Greenwoods’ 1823-24 map there is a more clearly shown park boundary to the south, lying east of the now ruined house. There is also an avenue leading to Cowdray Lodge and a double avenue of trees running north-east. Changes in the north section of the estate show clumps of trees and angled drives that meet in the north-east corner. It is not possible to tell how much of this was part of Brown’s design for the estate.
Cowdray after Brown
The 16th-century Cowdray House was destroyed by fire in 1793 and much of the family archive was lost, including perhaps documents relating to Brown. The ruin is now listed Grade I (Historic England) and is open to visitors. The present house, Cowdray Park, was built around 1875 and is hired out for events and as a filming location.
Information courtesy of Sussex Gardens Trust: Susi Batty 'The elusive Mr Brown and Cowdray Park' in Susi Batty (ed), Capability Brown in Sussex, 2016 www.sussexgardenstrust.org.uk
Capability Brown's account book, page 65: www.rhs.org.uk/education-learning/libraries-at-rhs/collections/library-online/capability-brown-account-book
Historic England: www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001210
Illustrations: West Sussex Record Office, Ref: Cowdray Mss 5127 (above) and 5133 (top); Yeakell and Gardner's 1795 map (top) ref: PM 46