- Capability Brown's plan for landscaping Richmond Gardens 10th December 1764 © Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
- Plan of Richmond by Thomas Richardson 1771 Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017
During the 1760s Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown carried out radical and controversial work to redesign Richmond Gardens at Kew, Surrey, for King George III.
When Capability Brown was appointed Royal Gardener in 1764 he was commissioned to make changes to the Richmond Lodge estate, the summer home of King George III and Queen Charlotte. His plan for re-landscaping the gardens was dated 10 December 1764 and his scheme can also be seen on Thomas Richardson’s 1771 Plan of the Royal Manor of Richmond.
Two gardens at Kew
The king wanted a more informal look to the park, in keeping with the improvements that Brown had made for the Duke of Northumberland at Syon House, on the opposite side of the Thames. At that time Richmond Gardens bordered the river in what is now the western side of the modern Kew Gardens. Love Lane separated the gardens and lodge from Kew Gardens.
Brown’s radical new scheme (above) involved the removal of a number of existing features in Kew Gardens that had been built for Queen Caroline in the 1730s. Works by landscape designers William Kent (1684–1748, Wikipedia) and Charles Bridgeman (1690–1738, Wikipedia), including the thatched Merlin’s Cave and classical Dairy, were pulled down during the 1760s. At the time, some saw this as an act of vandalism by Brown rather than innovation.
The redesign was intended to incorporate the building of a new, classical royal palace to replace the relatively small Richmond Lodge. To create space for this, the king bought more farmland and the village of West Sheen was pulled down. This allowed Brown to create an expanse of parkland that stretched inland almost from Kew Green to Richmond Green. However, the palace was never built and King George III grazed cattle on the site where West Sheen had stood. Brown's scheme for landscaping the site, what is now the Old Deer Park, was not completed.
The Hollow Walk
Brown suppressed many of the formal landscaping elements of Bridgeman and Kent’s designs, which included a canal and formal avenues aligned with Richmond Lodge. He kept much of the woodland areas, with their winding paths, while softening the outlines.
He lowered the riverside terrace that had been created by Queen Caroline and excavated the Hollow Walk on land that had previously been unwooded pasture. Here Brown and his foreman Michael Milliken varied the level of the flat Kew landscape. Laurels were planted in the Hollow Walk and earth from the digging was used to create hillocks.
Richardson’s 1771 plan of Kew shows the contrasting styles of Richmond Gardens and Kew Gardens. Architect Sir William Chambers, (1723–1796, Wikipedia), a rival of Brown, had created a number of important buildings in Kew for Princess Augusta, the mother of King George III, including the Orangery and the Pagoda (both listed Grade I). In Richmond Gardens was Chambers’ the King’s Observatory and the rustic Queen Charlotte’s Cottage.
Kew after Brown
Kew Gardens and Richmond Gardens were united in 1802, when the boundary walls were removed and work began on George III’s short-lived gothic palace. The growth of the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew during the 19th century and 20th century had an impact on Brown’s design. At the west end of the Syon view you can still see the pastoral landscape with the river running through it.
The Hollow Walk survives as the Rhododendron Dell and has been replanted with acid-loving shrubs. Many trees at Kew were lost in the storms of 1987 and 1990, but a London plane and a cedar of Lebanon are survivors of Brown’s planting from the 1760s.
London Parks & Gardens Trust: www.londongardenstrust.org/Brown/Richmond.htm
Capability Brown's plan for landscaping Richmond Gardens 10th December 1764 © Library, Art & Archives, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000830