In his first commission in Cambridgeshire, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown landscaped the grounds of Madingley Hall, Cambridge, for Sir John Hynde Cotton, the 4th Baronet.
Madingley Hall was an elegant 16th-century country house, with a formal, Dutch-style garden. In 1756 Sir John employed Capability Brown to create a more naturalistic landscape. The redesigned park includes a lake with a sham bridge, sloping lawns, and views to the east and north of the house.
As part of his plans to make the landscaping less formal, Sir John had already gained permission to close the village road at Madingley. He contacted Brown and drew up a contract with him in 1756 for the sum of £500 (more than £900,000 in 2015).
The work was to be completed by August 1757, with Sir John providing horses, carts and wheelbarrows, as well as trees and shrubs. Although the handwritten document sets out the work to be done, it was never signed and seems to have been a “gentleman's agreement”. The work was delayed in being carried out, due to Brown learning that his son Lance was ill with scarlet fever, and Jack was expected to contract it too. He turned for home and stated that it was “next to impossible for me to leave them till it is got over.” The contract was finally dated 16 November 1756 and work started a week or so later.
Sir John wrote on the contract: “Never executed [signed] nor any other but all was done upon honor on both sides and never repented by either.” Some of the improvements at Madingley Hall are in Brown’s style and have been attributed to him, but they are not referred to directly.
Under the four Articles or clauses of the contract, Brown was instructed to start at the east of the house and “lay in” an easy lawn slope down to the common road. This involved clearing some trees and planting others. The old canal was to be filled in to “give the whole a natural and corresponding Level with the Park House and Grove”. New sloping lawns were also added on the north side of the house and a gravel walk about 2.4 metres (8 feet) wide was created around the lawns.
The contract also called for a coach road and a fosse (ditch) from the house to the wood and the north-east grove. Brown’s stipulations are a model of economy of labour and materials, working in careful stages around the house, moving and re-using soil and, it transpires, digging a "pattern of the fosse - it to be done after and when Sir John pleases".
Lake and views
Under the agreement with Sir John, Brown was to fill up the “bason” and all other areas of water except the lowest piece, which was to become part of the new lake. The serpentine lake was created to the east of the house and was crossed at the south end by a dummy or ‘sham’ bridge (now listed Grade II, Historic England). The view looking to the east over the common road continues to land that was added to the park as part of the improvements. The common road is hidden from view by the careful shaping of the ground, typical of Brown’s work.
On the north side of the house Brown adapted the existing vista by changing the planting, making the Wilderness Grove look more informal. He also added clumps of trees in the distant fields to draw the gaze out into the wider countryside. On the south side he is credited with framing the view of Madingley church to make it appear part of the estate.
Other long views from Madingley Hall out to the surrounding countryside are typical of Brown in style, but there is no documentary evidence that he created them. An undated plan was made between 1757 and 1793, showing the landscape after the Brown improvements.
At the time of Brown's work, Sir John bought the red brick and limestone Old Schools Archway from Cambridge University and this was put up in 1758. The walled garden at the south front of the house also dates from this time.
Madingley Hall after Brown
Madingley Hall stayed in the Hynde Cotton family until 1871. In 1861 Queen Victoria rented the Hall for Edward, Prince of Wales to live in while he studied at Cambridge. The Hall, with its grounds and farmland (listed Grade II), was sold to the University of Cambridge in 1948 and is now a continuing education and conference centre.
From the front door of the house you can still see the long view that Brown created, across sloping lawns and over the lake. The open fields beyond are framed on both sides by planting which narrows to improve the view, and there is still a gravel path “all around” the lawn. The main drive is in the same place as it was when Brown was working here, but the tree avenue is a later addition.
Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, 1975 edition, Faber & Faber
Jane Brown, Lancelot ‘Capability' Brown – the Omnipotent Magician 1716 – 1783, Pimlico 2012
Cambridgeshire Gardens Trust walks leaflet: cambsgardens.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/4246-Madingley-Lft.pdf
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000627
Visitor information: www.madingleyhall.co.uk/hall-and-gardens