Hampton Court Palace opens Capability Brown exhibition

A collection of watercolour paintings and drawings once owned by the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia are on show at Hampton Court Palace from today, as part of the celebrations marking the 300th anniversary of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's birth.

Hampton Court Palace. Image: Supplied
Hampton Court Palace. Image: Supplied

Never displayed before, the exhibition of almost 60 intricately detailed views of the palace, park and gardens vividly captures Hampton Court during the time when Capability Brown served there as Chief Gardener to King George III.

The history of this collection, which lay forgotten in the stores of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia for over two centuries, will be explored in: 'The Empress and the Gardener.' The exhibition runs until 4 September.

Arguably Britain's most famous landscape gardener, Capability Brown served as chief gardener to King George III at Hampton Court Palace from 1764 – 1783. The job came with a handsome salary and residence at the palace, but Brown actually did very little to change the palace's Baroque formal gardens, choosing instead to preserve them out of respect for his predecessors.

Nevertheless, by the time he moved into royal service, he was already operating a busy landscaping business, and winning international acclaim as one of the most famous proponents of the 'English Style' of landscape design.

Famously a voracious consumer of foreign culture, Catherine the Great was a great admirer of all things English. She built herself an 'English Palace' and 'English Park' at her palace at Peterhof with the help of British designers but was unable to find a Capability Brown of her own.

Seizing a lucrative opportunity, Brown's assistant John Spyers sold two albums of his detailed drawings from Brown's home and workplace, Hampton Court Palace, to the Empress for the huge sum of 1,000 roubles.

Quite how Spyers managed to achieve this coup remains a mystery, but ironically the Empress found herself the possessor of an album of drawings of a palace landscape which Brown himself had barely touched. The albums, which alone had cost Catherine a tenth the price of creating her new gardens, disappeared in her collection at the Hermitage (now the State Hermitage Museum) and lay forgotten for over two centuries before being rediscovered by Hermitage curator Mikhail Dedinkin in 2002.

Today, the Spyers views are a unique survival: the richest and most revealing record of how Hampton Court gardens looked when Brown was in charge. Together they are considered one of the most complete visual records of any historic landscape ever captured before the dawn of photography.

From rare glimpses of the ordinary people who lived in or visited the palace and its gardens, to evocative details of Hampton Court's celebrated courtyards, passageways and picturesque corners, they explore an almost-forgotten period in the palace's history in vivid detail.

The Empress and the Gardener will see these works go on public display for the first time. The exhibition will also feature contemporary portraits of Capability Brown and the Empress Catherine, previously unseen drawings of Catherine's 'English Palace' in the grounds of Peterhof near St. Petersburg and several pieces of the famous 'Green Frog' Wedgwood dinner service, featuring images of Brown's landscapes.

Sebastian Edwards, exhibition curator, said, "We are thrilled to be able to present this remarkable window into a forgotten Georgian era in the palace's past, in the year when garden lovers up and down the country are celebrating the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown's birth. After enjoying 'The Empress and the Gardener', we hope our visitors will follow in John Spyers's footsteps, out into Hampton Court's magnificent gardens, and discover how they have changed over the centuries."

An accompanying book, Capability Brown and Hampton Court, by Mikhail Dedinkin and David Jacques will be published in April.

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