Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown landscaped the park and enlarged the lake at Kirtlington for James Dashwood, 2nd Baronet.
Sir James Dashwood hired Capability Brown in around 1751 to redesign the park and garden at Kirtlington. Thomas Greening the younger (1684-1757), one of the famous family of gardeners, had already drawn up a scheme in the 1740s but not all of his ideas were used. Brown developed the parkland to the north and south of the house. He added perimeter belts of trees with openings for views. He also built a ha-ha around the pleasure grounds and at least six ornamental huts to give views all over the estate, which lies 13 miles north of Oxford, Oxfordshire.
Contract and plans
There is no record of what Brown was paid for his work at Kirtlington Park. It is known that he signed a contract with Sir James in 1751 and there are two surviving plans showing Brown’s scheme for the pleasure grounds and northern area of the park.
Comparing the maps made by Brown and by Greening helps to explain how ideas for developing the park at Kirtlington developed from the mid-1740s. (
Brown kept the west-east terrace that Greening had built at the back of the house. He widened the clearings to the north and south, blending sweeping areas of grass with clumps of trees. In 1750 Sir James had enlarged the park by adding 34 hectares (75 acres) of land in the ‘old park’.
As was his style, Brown planted belts of trees to encircle both the park and the house. He left gaps in the planting, so that visitors could enjoy the views. The new pleasure gardens combined areas of arboretum, wilderness and flower garden, enclosed by a dry-stone ha-ha (sunken wall and ditch). He designed a walk to follow the line of the ha-ha on the edge of the pleasure grounds.
To the south-east Brown added a level terrace walk, with formal lawns beyond. It is thought that five roundels (circular plantings) of trees were kept from the old park or replanted in the area between the lake and the house, allowing views towards the water. Most of the trees to the north were probably removed, though Brown left clumps of oaks and elms there.
Brown built fewer buildings than Greening had allowed for in his design. He added six or more ornamental huts giving views all over the park and he placed seats in view-points.
Brown is thought to have enlarged the existing fishponds at Kirtlington to create the large serpentine lake on the southern edge of the park. There may have been a boathouse at the east end of the lake. This is largest of several water features on the estate. To the south-west is a row of smaller ponds, including Otters Pond.
Photographer Henry Taunt (1842-1922) took pictures of Kirtlington in the early 1900s and described the views from the back of the house: “A charming varied lawn ending in a terrace bright with flowers, runs along the whole length of the southern front, leading the eye over another spacious distance of Park land, bounded by trees on either side, to where a lake lies shimmering in the sun; and beyond, in the distance miles away, are the hills of Southern Oxfordshire, with a range of the Chilterns blue on the horizon.”
Kirtlington Park after Brown
The Kirtlington estate remained in the Dashwood family until 1909. It is now in divided ownership, with the pleasure gardens used for commercial events. A fishing club uses the lake, which has been partially dredged, and Kirtlington Park Polo Club grazes ponies on the land.
An extensive programme to replant more than 20,000 trees on the estate is helping to maintain the landscape at Kirtlington much as Brown designed it. Some of the trees in the north-east and south-east – including oaks, ash and sweet chestnuts – may have been planted during Brown’s time, though no tests have been carried out to prove this. The park and gardens at Kirtlington are listed Grade II.
Research by Felix Lam, Oxfordshire County Gardens Trust
Adrian Fort, Capability Brown & Kirtlington Park, A History and a Guide available from firstname.lastname@example.org
Historic England: www.historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1001286