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More keeps on being discovered about the history of gardens and great gardeners. Some sharp-eyed work has now thrown unexpected light on Hampton Court, Capability Brown and the insatiable tastes of Catherine the Great, his contemporary in Russia. The results are on show at Hampton Court until September 4 in an excellent exhibition called The Empress and the Gardener. The rooms are not crowded and the sketches on show can be appreciated within a few hundred yards of the outdoor views that they depict. They relate very neatly to this year’s anniversary celebrations of Capability Brown himself. For the first time they show us images of Hampton Court’s gardens when Brown was their chief gardener, appointed by King George III. They also honour a crucial member of his staff. Brown, they confirm, owes a debt to the capabilities of a certain John Spyers, whose work lies behind many of his hand-drawn plans.
Since the 1780s, the contents of this show had been in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, now the Hermitage Museum, but nobody remembered what they were. As there are at least 3m other items in the museum, this oversight is not to its discredit. Much has happened in Russia since 1778, the only date that survived on the items now at Hampton Court. In 2000, Mikhail Dedinkin became curator of the Hermitage’s collections of English drawings and set about the task of digitising them online. Among them he had to enter two albums, listed as the work of an “unknown artist” but traceable back to the time of Catherine the Great. One contained views of Hampton Court, the other various landscape scenes, but nobody could explain who had done them or why they had come to Russia. So Dedinkin came over to London, to the National Art Library at the Victoria and Albert Museum, which, he nicely says, he “still regards as one of the best places on earth”.
In London he asked experts on English parks and architecture for advice on the albums, but none were able to help. He then happened to read two books, the basic study of Capability Brown by Dorothy Stroud, and the excellent work of Anthony Cross, By The Banks of the Neva, his 1995 survey of cultural contacts between Britain and Russia in the 18th century. Stroud’s book contained an illustration that was remarkably close to those in the Hermitage album. It was the work of J Spyers, who served Capability Brown as a surveyor and artist from the 1760s onwards. Cross’s book then documented Catherine the Great’s fascination with Capability Brown. The Hermitage’s two albums made sense in this context. Catherine would want pictures of Hampton Court, billed as the “English Versailles” and seat of the great Brown, even if the man himself was proving more elusive. Experts in London helped to fill in the story, including the garden historian David Jacques, frequent adviser to Hampton Court and leader of the team that restored its Privy Garden in 1995.
Jacques sums up Brown’s methods. He would visit a client on site and have a few ideas in the field. He would then send down a surveyor — Spyers himself from the 1760s onwards. He would then work up a plan. If the client agreed, he would send down a foreman to supervise it and would call in occasionally to see how it was all going. Modern landscape designers still work in much the same way. By the 1760s Brown was massively busy, so the worthy Spyers was sent out far and wide, to Belvoir Castle in the north or Blenheim in the south where his carefully drawn plan is still admired. He even worked at Highclere, future location of Downton Abbey, 240 years before Julian Fellowes surveyed the park as the setting for the television drama.
The more Spyers surveyed and drew, the more adept he became. The two Hermitage albums show him at his best both as a recorder of contemporary Hampton Court and as the artist of other appealing landscapes in album number two. One oddity is the elongated size of the human figures in some of his scenes, but it has now been explained as the result of Spyers using a camera obscura device to survey a view at ground level, through which human figures would look stretched.
For garden lovers his albums fill a major gap. We had next to no idea what Hampton Court’s park and gardens looked like during Brown’s tenure as chief gardener. Thanks to Spyers, we can be sure that the maestro had done absolutely nothing to improve their capabilities. He left them in a time warp, because he was paid a fixed sum to maintain what he took on. Despite the king’s queries, he had neither the money nor time to change them.
Contracts elsewhere were drawn up for change, not maintenance, and were far better funded. Brown ignored the garden round his office.
The Spyers pictures bear tellingly on the question of “garden restoration”. To which era should modern restorers “restore” a garden’s design? Rightly, the recent restorers of Hampton’s Privy Garden opted to go back to the origins in the 17th century. Spyers’s sketches show that by 1770 it was surprising as it had tall trees whose loosely clipped branches radiated outwards in circles all the way up their trunks. Elsewhere in the park there were formal alleys, still surviving under Brown’s directorship. Landscaped parks in the Georgian age of landscape defined ideas of the “English garden” for European onlookers. At home, they were not always dominant.
Catherine paid 1,000 roubles for Spyers’s albums, not that she will have minded this excessive price. “I now love to distraction gardens in the English style,” she wrote to Voltaire in 1772, and her mad loves were not easily denied. When she took over the big garden at Peterhof it was full of formal buildings and, for a while, she declared her taste to be “Anglo-Chinois”. The style was fashionable in bits of England but unlikely to look good in Russia. She then fancied curving lines, lakes and gentle slopes, a reason, surely, why Spyers’s albums begin with pictures of Bushy Park, not Hampton Court. Bushy had an unimproved romantic air that might appeal to its Russian target. In the 1780s Catherine was planning a new English garden for Peterhof, for which albums by Brown’s very own surveyor would be invaluable. If she ever opened them she might have been surprised by their lack of curves, lakes and clumps of trees, which were Brown’s defining marks. If she had modelled a new park on Hampton at this time, the results would have looked most peculiar.
In 2013 the Hermitage collaborated in the superb exhibition that briefly returned the paintings of the Georgian Whig prime minister, Robert Walpole, to his seat at Houghton Hall in Norfolk from which Catherine had bought the lot on his fall from favour. It remains a high point among exhibitions of the past 20 years. In a quieter way they have now returned sketches of a contemporary palace-garden for exhibition on the site that they portray. In this celebratory Brown year it is an unexpected insight, not into what the great man did, but what he did not.
Photographs: State Hermitage Museum; Getty Images/DeAgostini