St James's Park
In the late 1760s or early 1770s, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown designed a new serpentine canal at St James’s Park for King George III.
Capability Brown was made Royal Gardener to King George III in 1764. Around 1770-71 Brown made a plan for St James’s Park, London, which had been purchased by the king in 1761 along with Buckingham House and its grounds. Brown supervised the infilling of Rosamund’s Pool and the decoy canals in the park. He also drew up plans for improving the park, which had a formal layout unchanged since the 1660s.
Brown’s scheme included making a straight canal into a serpentine lake that widened at the east end to encircle an island covered with trees. It is thought that architect John Nash (1752-1835, Wikipedia) used Brown’s design as the basis for the lake he built at St James’s Park in the 1820s.
Brown’s initialled but undated plan for St James’s Park has survived. Brown had been appointed Royal Gardener at Hampton Court in 1764. At that time he also took on the gardens at St James’s. In the early 1770s Brown was organising work in the park at St James’s to fill in the formal canals and Rosamund’s Pool. His plan for improvements probably dates from that time.
Lake and islands
St James’s Park was formed in 1531 under King Henry VIII, who built St James’s Palace on the site of a former hospital and used the grounds for hunting. During the reign of King Charles II the park was laid out in the formal French style, centred around a canal about 2.5 kilometres long, which was built in 1660. Brown’s plan shows that he wanted to make a serpentine lake from the straight canal. The east end of this was to be widened to encircle a tree-covered island.
Though Brown’s ideas for St James’s Park were not carried out at the time, his drawing for remodelling the canal may have influenced John Nash. Nash was asked to redesign the park in the 1820s, as by then it had fallen into disrepair. The Commissioners of Woods suggested it should be laid out as a pleasure garden.
Nash’s scheme included reshaping and enlarging the late 17th-century formal canal that had been made on the former course of the Tyburn Brook. The result was the serpentine lake that is now around 4.6 hectares and runs north-east/south-west across the length of the park. Perhaps copying Brown, Nash made two islands on the lake – a small one to the west and the larger Duck Island to the east.
St James’s Park today
From 1790 the inner area of St James’s Park was fenced off and separated from The Mall and Birdcage Walk. The lake continues to be the main feature of the park. It was altered in 1904 and again in 1923, when a footpath was added along the northern shoreline. Today the west end of the lake ends at the Victoria Memorial Garden, designed by architect Aston Webb (1849-1930, Wikipedia), and the park covers around 32 hectares.
Changes to the roads around St James's Park mean that it is now completely encircled by traffic. It is listed Grade I and is open to the public.
Historic England: historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000483