In The Magician’s Footsteps : Words, Land and Landscape

Harewood House. Today’s main entrance looks north and not over the park.

Every October The Ilkley Literature Festival in Yorkshire features a vast programme of talks, discussions and events from which it is difficult sometimes to choose just a couple. This year I had no problem with my selection and today’s choice includes more than one love of mine – books, country walking and a historic house visit: the ‘Capability’ Brown Walk.

Looking south over the parkland from the Terrace.

A mixed group of us met on Sunday morning in the grounds of Harewood House, just a few miles from Leeds, to follow on the heels of Head Gardener, Trevor Nicholson and author of the book “The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, 1716-1783″, Jane Brown (no relation). We were all there to find out more about the eighteenth century landscape designer extraordinaire – ‘Capability’ Brown. Naturally, the focus today was Brown’s influence on the superb outlook from Harewood (pronounced Harwood) House. My pictures just don’t do the scene justice.

We were told that the ornamental parkland was set out in the 18th century by Brown. He came to Harewod in 1758 and proceeded to wave his magic wand over the next few years (helped by his Foremen and a large band of local labourers). This parkland is a fine example of Brown’s characteristic arrangements – native trees, gently sweeping hillsides, a lake. He got rid of all field boundaries and each and every tree is located just where Brown decided it would have the most impact. Hahas were dug in order to restrict the movement of the sheep, deer and other animals.

The Haha also forms a drainage conduit.

The original manor house (Gawthorpe Hall) had been demolished and during the time that Brown was working here a new house was being built by John Carr of York and Robert Adam on a spur of land looking south. Part of Brown’s plan was to create a carriage drive to the house in order to impress visitors arriving from London.

After admiring the view we were taken down this drive (which is not open to the general public) from where we gained glimpses of the house as visitors would have done since the 1770s. Brown’s plan was to improve on nature and it resulted in our typical English countryside. This is recognised as a truly English style and contrasted greatly with the French formal style. Of course, later the Victorians made changes to both the house and the gardens, but fortunately not to the park.

The Carriage Drive today as it emerges from the woodland.

Not only did he pay attention to views and aspects but also planned cascades under bridges for the sound effects! Everything was done to impress visitors.

Cascade by the Rough Bridge

Brown seems to have had a boundless supply of energy. He travelled around the country visiting projects, extolling on the virtues of views and their ‘capability’ for improvement, collecting his fees and, according to Jane, took on at least 200 major projects.

Our walk took us across the fields by the lake in front of the house and through some delightfully wooded gardens back to the house itself where a sandwich lunch was served in the Steward’s Room where “Capability’ himself would have been entertained on his visits to Harewood. Yet again no photography is allowed in the House!


23 comments on “In The Magician’s Footsteps : Words, Land and Landscape

  1. sherry says:

    Simply gorgeous!
    What is it like inside?

  2. Very, very grand, as you would expect. Have you never visited? I’ll put it on our list. There was an interesting exhibition about the Lord Harewood who died in July. You can look at the rooms on the House website. Thanks for looking, sherry.

  3. Lovely Barbara, a fascinating place and I’m wondering whether Capability Brown knew or worked with Repton?? I should know but don’t but the grounds definitely resemble Repton’s landscaping at Port Eliot. Also is that the Jane Brown who wrote Spirits of Place (?) I’m envious of anyone who can get to Ilkley Festival, the line-up always seems fresh and interesting

  4. Thank you, Lynne. Repton, Brown, William Kent and probably others all worked at around the same time during the 18th century. I don’t know whether they actually knew each other … I haven’t yet read the book. I’m sure they didn’t work together though. According to JB, Repton liked to wheedle his way into the great house sitting rooms but Brown was happy to spend time in the Steward’s Room and with the upper servants. There’s loads of other good stuff at ILF but it’s quite a drive there and back – no camping a la Port Eliot! Watch this space for my other report.

  5. Port Eliot well worth a visit too Barbara. Open to the public for 100 days a year now March to June and then for the festival of course, but the grounds are beautiful and I love the way Repton had the River Lynher moved because it was in the way! Looking forward to part two.

  6. I’m sure it is, Lynne. I feel very envious when I read your reports. I congratulate your success. Yes, nothing was too much trouble for those landscape designers – ruthless is the word. If it doesn’t fit – get rid of it! Part two will be different but the forecast is for rain so maybe a short post. Barbara

  7. Marie-Noëlle says:

    Landscape architects fascinate me !!!
    André Le Nôtre is the one I know better (gardens “à la française” of Vaux-Le-Vicomte, Versailles, Chantilly, Sceaux, …). I’ve read a book about his work and his life (“Portrait d’un homme heureux” by Erik Orsenna).

    So I was very interested in your post about Harewood House and Lancelot Brown. I’ve followed you round and haven’t missed any detail. Have found it delightful ! Thank you !


  8. Thank you, Marie-Noelle. I think we knew we had a lot of interests in common! I will add the Le Notre book to my Amazon basket – thank goodness it is in English – but I haven’t read Brown’s book on Brown yet. Didn’t Le Notre mainly design the more formal gardens closer to the house? Did he also design the parks around them? Perhaps I have to read the book to find out.

  9. […] short time, living in these remarkable buildings. I applaud the work and the vision involved and as Capability Brown before them seemingly waved his magic wand on the eighteenth century landscape The Landmark Trust […]

  10. […] I’d seen some of the archaeological dig results at Gawthorpe Hall last October on my ‘Capability Brown’ walk and I decided earlier in the week to sign up to visit Harewood Castle […]

  11. […] Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was appointed Chief Gardener here in 1769 and lived in Wilderness House on the edge of the grounds near the Lion Gates. Just two years ago a blue plaque was unveiled by  the present Head Gardener. Read about it here. It was very difficult to get a decent angle for a photo of either the house or the plaque. […]

  12. […] Trust owned Croome Park and Court in Worcestershire. The park was the responsibility of ‘Capability’ Brown – he crops up everywhere, of course. The house has only been in the possession of the Trust […]

  13. […] Depart for Compton Verney. Set in a park designed by the ubiquitous ‘Capability’ Brown, this long-derelict house of the Willoughby de Broke family is now resurgent under the inspiration […]

  14. Gail says:

    Thanks for finally writing about >In The Magicians Footsteps : Words, Land and Landscape miladysboudoir <Loved it!

  15. […] and he encouraged the development of a more ‘natural landscape’ than the formality of Capability Brown. Repton proposed the buildings and Wyattville designed them. The main ‘cottage’ dates […]

  16. […] short strolls, a long walk with, or without, the dog or just a promenade around the the gardens. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-17830, the renowned landscape designer of the 18th century whose 300th anniversary happens to […]

  17. […] Interestingly, in this year which celebrates the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot “Capability” Brown, it is thought to be unlikely that the family would have had the resources or inclination to employ […]

  18. […] of a Golden Afternoon : The Story of a Partnership, Edwin Lutyens & Gertrude Jekyll; by Jane Brown.  Amongst all the house and garden descriptions od collaborations was one combination in Ireland […]

  19. […] the notes with my photos for five years already? I’ve just been looking back at my post about Capability Brown at Harewood and am amazed to see that the date was October 2011. My first post was dated 20 August […]

  20. […] much closer to home than Fountains Abbey is the Harewood Estate. Just a few miles north of Leeds off the A61, Harrogate Road. I often take a circular walk around […]

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