In a world in which men dominated life, the ladies were largely side-lined from positions of power and wealth, and men inevitably dominate the roll call of Brown’s named clients. Even so, in traditional family life, wealthy women inevitably influenced their husbands. Elizabeth Seymour inherited Syon Park and Alnwick Castle but it is her husband, a keen gardener, that we are told masterminded the great landscaping activities at these places. He brought in Brown, yes, but as the Northumberlands’ marriage was a very harmonious and devoted one, it was very likely to be a joint decision between husband and wife.
Some women we can see more clearly as movers and shakers in their dealings with Brown. In 1740, the young Jemima Grey inherited Wrest Park in Bedfordshire as a Marchioness, a peeress in her own right, just before she married Philip Yorke, later Earl of Hardwicke who owned Wimpole. She had her own ideas about her estate. In 1758 she brought in Brown, but for a specific purpose. He was not allowed to alter the old-fashioned but dramatic formal core of the Great Garden created by her grandfather. For this, she had high regard and was reluctant to make significant alterations. Wrest was, and remains, a magnificent set piece in French style. Instead, Brown worked on the periphery of the garden, softening the contours of the perimeter canals and improving the drainage. Jemima was so enamoured of Brown that in 1760 she erected a small column as a monument commemorating the works. The inscription reads: 'These gardens originally laid out by Henry Duke of Kent, were altered by Philip Earl of Hardwicke and Jemima Marchioness Grey, with the professional assistance of Lancelot Brown Esq. in the years 1758, 1759, 1760.' She and her husband had an extremely happy and successful marriage and went on to employ Brown in the later 1760s on a more innovative scheme on her husband’s Wimpole Park.
Occasionally a lady of independent means hired Brown, usually a widow such as Margaret, widow of the Earl of Leicester at Holkham in Norfolk or Lord Cobham’s widow at her Dower House, Stoke Poges Manor in Bucks. The ‘Queen of the Blue Stockings’ inhabited a different sphere to these aristocratic ladies. The intellectual and, by now mature, widow Mrs Elizabeth Montagu brought in Brown close to the end of his career to advise her at Sandleford Priory, near Newbury. Her husband having died and left her a sizeable income, in 1781 she felt at last able to do her own thing in the grounds. For her, Brown cleared the grounds and laid out a simple park and lake (the eponymous Brown’s Pond), with views into the hilly Berkshire countryside as the setting for new Gothick rooms by James Wyatt where Mrs Montagu, renowned for her intellectual salon, entertained inexhaustibly. A payment of £500 is recorded, and the balance paid to Brown’s executors, with the work completed by Samuel Lapidge.
In the business world as well, women were generally less visible, but certainly not absent. Mrs Sarah Wood, a wheeler, provided wheelwright services for Brown’s work at Syon Park in 1769, as well as hand tools and nails.
Eleanor Coade (known as Mrs Coade although she remained unmarried) was the most successful businesswoman of the late eighteenth century. As the Georgian Nicola Horlick, she contributed beautiful objects to Brown’s schemes. Mrs Coade set up and ran a business that became renowned for manufacturing artificial stone sculpture from 1769, working for all the eminent Georgian architects. Her cast Coade Stone was moulded into the finest pieces by renowned sculptors that could be used indoors and outdoors. Figures in this durable material populated many landscapes including Brown’s schemes, as well as buildings and landscapes worldwide.
Mrs Coade’s Druid at Croome is a wonderful, finely sculpted brooding piece of Ancient Britain, symbolising ancient British liberty. Wearing an oak garland, he was elevated on a pedestal within a flowering shrubbery under the shade of a large oak tree, a species it was thought Druidic priests held in high veneration in sacred groves. The 1824 Croome guide book described the landscape he inhabited, in which ‘Clusters of shrubs of every kind, and borders of flowers of every hue and scent, conspire with the fine over-hanging shade to communicate all the delight, which beautiful sylvan scenes can afford.’ Wherever Brown used Mrs Coade’s river gods and goddesses, sphinxes, lions, vases, faces, urns and architectural panels, these lively works of art brought the landscape to life.
Author: Sarah Rutherford. Extract from her book "Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens".