Hampton Court Palace has stood for over half a millennium on the banks of the Thames, its spectacular interiors and riverside setting providing inspiration to countless generations of artists, designers and gardeners.
Although most famously associated with Henry VIII, the palace has been called home by some of the great and the good of British history, including arguably Britain’s most famous landscape gardener; Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, appointed by King George III to the position of ‘His Majesty’s Chief Gardener’ at Hampton Court in 1764.
Brown’s tenure as Chief Gardener was one of marked contrasts – on the one hand, continuity, and on the other, great change. Despite living in Wilderness House at Hampton Court from 1764-83, Capability vowed to preserve the gardens created by his illustrious predecessors ‘out of respect to himself and his profession’. Despite receiving the King’s permission to make any alterations that he desired, Brown decided to retain the formal layouts and straight walks that had already begun to feel outmoded in the 1740s. It is possible that his decision was linked to the need to pay for any work out of his own salary – the seemingly generous sum of £2,000 per year also needed to cover the wages of the palace’s under-gardeners, plus new trees, plants and gravel.
Brown did leave his mark on Hampton Court in one way, however. The Great Vine, which he planted in 1768, continues to produce an annual crop of dessert grapes and is officially recognised as the largest grape vine in the world!
The Empress and the Gardener, a special exhibition of almost 60 intricately detailed views of the palace, park and gardens from Brown’s time as Chief Gardener – never before displayed- opens on 28 April at Hampton Court Palace. For more information, please see our website.
Wilderness House still lies within the walls of Hampton Court Palace, and visitors can see the English Heritage blue plaque commemorating Brown on the outside of the listed Grade II building.
About the author: Tom Drysdale is an Assistant Curator at Historic Royal Palaces.