Walking through Petworth Park, which is open to visitors every day, the landscape gives every impression of being totally natural. In reality, it could not be more unnatural. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscape was entirely manmade and aggressively adopted across all areas of Petworth Park and Pleasure Grounds in the 1750s and early 1760s.
Capability Brown, so-nicknamed because his clients were assured that their landscapes had ‘capability’ for improvement, was designing landscapes at a time when the desire for a natural landscape trumped stiff, geometric formal gardens. At Petworth in the 1690s, Charles Seymour, the 6th or ‘Proud’ Duke of Somerset, employed the royal gardener George London to design a formal landscape in front of Petworth House, complete with ramparts, terraces, parterres, an aloe garden and summer house. Daniel Defoe, visiting Petworth in the 1730s, complained ‘its Front has no visto answerable, and the West Front look’d not to the Parks or fine Gardens, but to the old Stables’. Likewise, Jeremiah Milles in the 1740s considered the house ‘situated in a bad place and frontes to a view that presents nothing’.
Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont, who inherited Petworth in 1750, commissioned Capability Brown to wipe away the formal landscape so disliked by his contemporaries. Over four commissions throughout the 1750s, Brown had swept away the formal parterres, orangery and orange garden, aloe garden and the giant rampart terraces on the site of the present Lawn Hill. The serpentine Upper Pond was created along with the smaller Lower Pond further north. In 1762, the original road from Petworth to Tillington, passing within 50 feet of the house, was moved to its present position 0.75 miles south. New carriageways were constructed to offer visitors momentary glimpses of the house through the newly-planted trees, before its full splendour could be admired on arrival from the north side.
Landscaping of Petworth Park did not end with Capability Brown and the 2nd Earl. Egremont’s son, the 3rd Earl, who inherited Petworth in 1763 at the tender age of twelve, continued to make improvements. The Upperton Monument at the north-west end of the park, designed as an eye-catcher, was built in 1816. In the late 1820s, John Edward Carew, one of the sculptors who enjoyed the 3rd Earl’s patronage, installed a replica of the Roman Dog of Alcibiades (British Museum), supposedly after one of the Earl’s dogs which drowned in the Upper Pond.
Later additions include the black iron gates and fencing, installed in the 1870s by the 2nd Lord Leconfield. These were based on the seventeenth-century iron gates at Hampton Court Palace by the ironworker Jean Tijou. The large gates on the gravel pathway were recently restored to their full splendour. Today, the 700-acre deer park is maintained by the National Trust and is open to the public every day without charge.
Three years of archaeological research on site with over 100 volunteers has greatly increased our understanding of Petworth Park, with a history spanning 800 years, with successive owners imposing their own grand designs, leaving behind a series of lost landscapes and forgotten builidings, masked by the work of Capability Brown. Working in partnership with the Capability Brown Festival, Petworth have developed the Park Explorer, an innovative approach to help visitors access information about the history of Petworth Park out in the landscape, using a smart phone or tablet. Find out more here.
About the author: Karen Manton-Cook, Petworth, National Trust.