Grand designs

Two shows open at Harrogate's Mercer Gallery this month, exploring the work of renowned garden designer Capability Brown. Yvette Huddleston reports.
Credit: Capability Brown by Nathaniel Dance c.1773 © National Portrait Gallery, LondonCredit: Capability Brown by Nathaniel Dance c.1773 © National Portrait Gallery, London
Credit: Capability Brown by Nathaniel Dance c.1773 © National Portrait Gallery, London

The great eighteenth century landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was the creator of some of Yorkshire’s most admired country house gardens and this month two exhibitions open at the Mercer Gallery in Harrogate exploring his legacy.

Noble Prospects: Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape is a collaborative project between the Yorkshire Gardens Trust and the Mercer Gallery, put together to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Brown’s birth. This year is also the 20th anniversary of the Yorkshire Gardens trust, established in 1996 with the aim of conserving the county’s garden heritage for present and future generations.

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“There are six gardens in Yorkshire that were landscaped by Capability Brown – Burton Constable, Harewood, Roche Abbey, Scamptson, Sledmere and Temple Newsam. And others which are only open occasionally,” says Karen Lynch of the Yorkshire Gardens Trust who curated the exhibition. “Every visitor to the exhibition will be provided with information about the sites and details of access. We want people to be inspired to go and explore Capability Brown gardens and to offer people the opportunity to find out more about the lesser known landscapes. My own personal favourite is Roche Abbey near Rotherham where Capability Brown spent more than ten years – it’s a bit of an unsung hero.”

The exhibition includes portraits of the designer himself and his Yorkshire clients, plus original plans, drawings of his creations as well as works of art that inspired his landscapes – in particular the idealised pastoral landscapes of the French painter Claude Lorrain who Brown very much admired. “There was a Lorrain painting which used to hang in Temple Newsam, bought by Lord and Lady Irwin in the same year that Brown started working on the landscaping there,” says Lynch. “Once we had secured that we had our star loan to build the exhibition around. We also have Turner’s view of Harewood and Brown’s large-scale plan of Temple Newsam which hasn’t been on display for many years.”

For the main gallery space the Mercer’s curator Jane Sellars has commissioned new work by renowned contemporary artist Kate Whiteford that looks at the way in which Brown transformed the English landscape through the manipulation of scale and perspective. False Perspectives will feature Whiteford’s dramatic large-scale images printed directly on to the walls of the gallery. In her work she has drawn inspiration from the oak trees originally planted in the 18th century by Brown on the Harewood Estate. Also included will be Whiteford’s watercolours related to Brown’s landscapes and her own selection of works on paper from Harrogate’s permanent art collection. For Lynch, putting together Capability Brown and the Yorkshire Landscape has involved some interesting detective work.

“Despite the fact that he was effectively running an enormous civil engineering works, Brown didn’t really leave many records,” she says. “I have spent almost two years in archive offices up and down the country looking for information. That’s the bit I really love – you can spend several hours going through a pile of letters and then suddenly you’ll find a line that says ‘Mr Brown called this morning’….”

Noble Prospects opens June 25; False Perspectives on June 18. Free admission to both.