A new exhibition at Hampton Court Palace, The Empress and the Gardener, features nearly 70 drawings of the palace and gardens made during ‘Capability’ Brown’s tenure as Chief Gardener by his surveyor, John Spyers – but who was Spyers, and why is he so important?
John Spyers first started working for Brown at Blenheim in 1763. He was from a Twickenham-based family of nurserymen but was employed by Brown as a surveyor to make detailed and accurate plans of the estates that Brown was ‘improving’.
Less than a year after recruiting Spyers, Brown was made Chief Gardener to King George III at Hampton Court – a position which he held until his death in 1783, although his contribution was barely noticeable. Spyers began making views of the palace gardens in 1778, perhaps (it has been suggested) as an act of self-improvement.
Spyers’ views provide a rare document of Hampton Court during Brown’s tenure and are full of charming details – from behind-the-scenes service courtyards to the palace’s earliest tourist visitors, whose comically elongated bodies betray Spyers’ lack of formal artistic training.
At some point in the early 1780s Spyers collated 150 of his drawings into two albums and sold them to the Russian Empress, Catherine the Great, who was a great enthusiast for English landscape gardens. In 2002 they were rediscovered in the State Hermitage Museum and identified as the work of Spyers. Their return to the UK for the first time, and to the very place that inspired their creation, marks a fitting tribute to ‘Capability’ Brown, Chief Gardener, in the 300th year since his birth.
The Empress and the Gardener at Hampton Court is running until 4 September, in partnership with The State Hermitage Museum. For more information, and to book tickets, please see the website.
About the author: Tom Drysdale is an Assistant Curator at Historic Royal Palaces.