1768 – 1770s
Compton Verney CV35 9HZ
Compton Verney has like many a Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown landscape seen much change, yet surprisingly, it remains visually quite intact. The mansion sits in a shallow valley setting just below the B4455 Roman Fosse Way, in the south Warwickshire countryside. Its closest Brownian neighbours are Charlecote Park and Warwick Castle, and if you’re looking for some eighteenth century landscape inspiration; a long weekend should allow sufficient time to soak up all three which are within ten minutes drive of each other. The trio mentioned above are developed visitor attractions, with useful websites to inform a visit – links below.
Use of the landscape at Compton Verney has evolved over centuries, and apart from a good deal of nineteenth century coniferous planting to the core of the site, the general appearance remains one of an eighteenth century English landscape garden. Modern day use of the site is refreshing, being an art gallery that houses fine art, folk art and Chinese Bronze collections, along with temporary exhibitions. The site is managed by the charity Compton Verney House Trust, whose ownership covers 48 hectares; reduced from the estate’s original 200+ hectares.
The mansion itself is an early eighteenth century Baroque creation, which for many years possessed the typically formal garden surround with avenues of trees stretching into the distance. Robert Adam was employed by John Peyto-Verney, 14th Baron Willoughby de Broke, in the early 1760s to improve the mansion. Adam was followed by Brown who arrived in 1768, having possibly visited informally in 1750, on a ‘long expedition’ of the area.[i] The collaboration between the two at Compton Verney is uncertain, as there are built elements that could be attributed to either. A fine three-arched bridge on the main approach is topped with sphinxes, by Adam or Brown, but an elegant chapel built c1772 is directly attributed to Brown. A contemporary orangery, now outside of the Trust’s ownership, could also be Brown’s work but unfortunately this was demolished c1940s. Fortune has it that a new development on the same orangery site will produce the front elevation to the same orangery design, so this previously lost building is once again rising with an appearance not too dissimilar to the previous greenhouse.
Following the major property alterations of the first and second half of the eighteenth century, improvements continued, with additions to the grounds c1800 when ornamental beds appear on the west lawn, as shown on a honey coloured exquisite plan of 1818 by Paul Padley.[ii] Development picked up again in the mid nineteenth century, when John Gibson, an architect known to have assisted Sir Charles Barry with the Houses of Parliament, was employed to further improve the house. Externally, the gardens also received attention during the 19th century with aforementioned conifer planting, including additional cedar trees and a finely curving Wellingtonia avenue.
The mansion and estate were sold in the 1920s by the nineteenth Baron Willoughby de Broke, and following this the estate changed hands numerous times. The Peter Moore’s Foundation purchased the remaining estate in the early 1990s, with an intention to restore the mansion and remaining buildings for use as an art gallery. By this time however a stable building adjacent to the mansion, an early 18th Century example by James Gibbs had been sold and converted to private apartments. A similar situation appears to have occurred with the walled garden which was parcelled up and developed for housing.
Today, the first view shows a set of buildings much as they were with much external restoration, although internal developments are quite unexpected. Modern gallery spaces blend with historic architecture, and neighbouring private developments are hidden behind historic walls. The landscape, although managed as an arts venue is grade II* listed and presently undergoing restoration. Many trees have been replanted and smaller scale period correct planting is being trialled throughout, with a focus to the area known as ‘ice house coppice’.
Brown’s career was almost forty years long by the time he reached Compton Verney, and his changes to the landscape were significant. The dated formal design was naturalised, with distant avenues partially removed along with formal gardens closer and to the south of the mansion. To the west front a simple parterre style garden was levelled, including a large central canal. A network of informal paths was created which wound their way around freshly laid lawns, through shrubberies and around the lake that was also adjusted to fit his plan. A medieval chapel was removed from an all too prominent position next to the lake, and Brown added a new chapel immediately north-west of the house, taking emphasis away from the service buildings and red brick of the walled garden. The new chapel formed part of the circuit that led from the house, moving to the greenhouse and beyond.
An additional structure, an Ice House was also added by Brown to an ornamental coppice wood. The house shown above was restored in 2010/11 by the trust, with additional funding from Natural England. Another structure, a partially ruined temple sits on an adjacent south-west hillside, and awaits attention.
Overall, Compton Verney is a good surviving example of a Brown Landscape, and one which is enjoying a rebirth. The mansion, while taking a different role still forms the central focus for visitors, and I would certainly add it to the list of Capability Brown sites to be visited. Good information and tours are available on site, do check their website before visiting as site closes for short winter period.
Charlecote Park (National Trust)
[i] Jane Brown – The Omnipotent Magician p67
[ii] Paul Padley Plan, 1818 – Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Records Office (DR98/1832)