Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown built the house at Springhill for John Bulkeley Coventry between about 1756 and 1763, and probably also designed the park there.
Capability Brown worked at the Springhill estate for John Bulkeley Coventry (1724-1801), who was the youngest son of the 5th Earl of Coventry. The earl had his main estate at Croome Court, and Springhill is thought to have been one of the farms that he left to John in his will. Brown designed and built the Palladian-style house at Springhill, near Broadway on the border between Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. He probably also laid out the park and pleasure grounds, including The Circle and kitchen garden. The estate later passed to the 6th Earl of Coventry, probably when John went to live at his estate at Burgate Manor.
Brown’s account at Drummond’s Bank shows that he received six payments from John Bulkeley Coventry, between August 1756 and February 1758. These payments totalled £1,300 (around £2.3 million in 2015).
John could have afforded to employ Brown at Springhill in the 1750s, as his generous inheritance included all the farms previously inherited by his father, the 5th Earl of Coventry. The size of Brown’s payment suggests that he acted as architect and landscape designer at Springhill, overseeing work from the summer of 1757 through the autumn and winter.
At Springhill Brown was building from scratch, as the previous house there was a farm dwelling. Work on the mansion may have begun around 1756 and was probably completed by 1763.
The houses Brown designed were either Palladian or Gothic in style. The one at Springhill was Palladian and is shown, flanked by trees, in an illustration from 1812. The house was built around a courtyard, with domestic buildings to the east and stable to the west. The south front, facing the garden, was two storeys high with hipped slate roofs.
In 1803 the 6th Earl of Coventry, who by then had inherited Springhill as a secondary home from Croome Court, wrote to landscape designer Humphry Repton: “I write from a house [Springhill] which he [Brown] built for me, which without any pretensions to architecture, is, perhaps, a model for every internal and domestic convenience.” This letter shows that the earl was very happy to have a comfortable retreat away from Croome, though it does raise doubts over which of the brothers actually employed Brown.
Circle and ha-ha
No plan has survived to show how Brown created the park and gardens at Springhill. A survey of 1798 reveals that by then the estate was 251 acres, of which around 90 were walled garden, park and pleasure grounds.
A major feature of the pleasure grounds was The Circle, an oval-shaped walking area to the south of the house and enclosed by a dry-stone wall, only about 0.5 metres high. There may also have been a shallow ditch around the wall, making it more like a ha-ha (sunken wall and ditch), but it appears more decorative than practical, in terms of keeping animals out of the pleasure grounds.
Yews were planted along the eastern edge of The Circle, mixed with some holly, beech and lime. The house was framed by side-screens of evergreen trees, yew, holly and holm-oak.
The kitchen garden at Springhill covers around 0.8 hectares and lies in the eastern half of The Circle, close to house. Though Brown often liked to build walled gardens further from the house, this location in the pleasure grounds did allow shelter and may have been more convenient for the owner. The kitchen garden at Croome is also close to the house.
Brown used many different designs for kitchen gardens, and the one at Springhill mixes curved and straight walls of varying heights. As at Croome, the walled garden was screened off from the pleasure grounds by closely planted trees.
A survey of 1812 and a drawing of 1815 show three small pools east of the house at Springhill, on the edge of the pleasure grounds. There is also a lake extending westwards on the southern edge of the park. The pools and lake appear to have been fed by natural springs.
The lake is known to have been built by the summer of 1795, but it is not clear whether this feature or the rocky pools were part of Brown’s scheme for the estate. The lake does not match his usual serpentine style, looking like a river.
Springhill after Brown
The 6th Earl of Coventry expanded the estate at Springhill from 251 acres in 1798 to 471 acres, as shown in a survey of 1812. In around 1800 he built the landmark Broadway Tower, designed by architect James Wyatt (1746-1813, Wikipedia) in 1794 as a “Saxon Hexagon Tower”. A new drive connected this eye-catcher to Springhill, built on farmland bought by the earl. He also planted clumps and belts to create a northern extension to the park, and bought many exotic shrubs and plants for the gardens and pleasure grounds.
Brown’s house was altered twice in the 19th century. A curved portico was added at the front and windows added to Brown’s ‘blind’ wings. The house and park are listed Grade II. They remain in private ownership and are not open to the public. Broadway Tower is open to visitors.
Information courtesy of Gloucestershire Gardens Trust: http://www.gglt.org/
Broadway Tower: https://broadwaytower.co.uk/