What is Capability Brown’s legacy at Mount Clare?
Written by Tony Matthews, London Parks & Gardens Trust
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was 58 years old in 1774 when he was paid £206 for some unspecified work at Mount Clare, a pleasant new house at Roehampton in Surrey. 1
This was built following sale of portions of the historical Putney Park and Brown’s client was a banker named George Clive, cousin of the famous Robert Clive, former governor of Bengal and creator of British power in India. A major corruption scandal that year ended with Robert Clive’s suicide. This had nothing to do with Brown, of course, whose priorities were firmly domestic rather than imperial, but it might be interesting to speculate whether the topic was ever mentioned in discussions with his client.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only mystery concerning the Mount Clare project. Exactly what Brown’s commission involved is equally unclear. We know that he received another payment in June 1775, but how much that was and what it was for is still unknown. There are two schools of thought. Experts Dorothy Stroud 2 and Roger Turner 3 have both claimed that George Clive probably commissioned Brown and his son-in-law Henry Holland in 1772-3 to build Mount Clare and design the property, many of whose details resembled those of Claremont, one of Brown’s best known parklands a few miles away. Stroud believed that the building work was likely to have been entered in one of Holland’s lost ledgers. However, Bridget Cherry and Nikolaus Pevsner 4 say the house was actually built for Clive by Robert Taylor in 1770-3 and he, unlike Holland, is definitely known to have received payment. Brown’s involvement may have been for landscaping alone. We may never know.
Either way, Mount Clare retains some tantalising aspects to the present day. Located next to what is now the Richmond Park golf course, the house today is a dilapidated administrative building of the University of Roehampton. But the surrounding land, although partly covered by student flats, high-rise tower blocks and single storey sheltered accommodation, can still easily be recognised for its sweeping lawns, mature trees and undulations typical of Brown’s landscaping style.
In 1780, during Brown’s last years, Mount Clare was bought by a neighbour, Sir John Dick, who lived just across Roehampton Lane. Sir John, also British Consul at Leghorn in Italy, had the building enlarged and given a portico, the work carried out by the Milanese architect Placidio Colombani. On 1 June 1784, some 15 months after Brown’s death, an engraving was made by William Watts (1752-1851) 5 depicting the sweeping land in front of the house much as it can be seen today, although sheep are shown grazing where the sheltered accommodation now stands and mature oaks grow both at the rear of the house and at a distance to the side where tower blocks first appeared in the early 1950s.
The Watts engraving, the only known image of Mount Clare as it appeared during Capability Brown’s lifetime, is held today within the Lyson’s Environs of London collection at the London Metropolitan Archives. Another engraving from 1850 by A.T. Prior, published in A Topographical History of Surrey 6, shows the house from the rear with a large mature cedar right beside it. Although not visible in the 1784 picture, this tree was clearly very mature in 1850. Since the cedar has been described by Jane Brown 7 as her namesake’s ‘signature tree’, the great man’s influence clearly survived his own departure. Indeed, the same tree can still be seen today next to the house. The site also contains some other trees that either coincided with or just postdated Brown’s period. Parkland survived around the house until 1930, complete with a farm, and, although the vista in front of the building is now obstructed by a large hedge, it is easy to see where the original estate extended beyond this, first into the grassy valley depicted in 1784 and beyond to an upward incline. Many younger trees survive today within this area.
Mount Clare still retains a balustrade and original features dating at least from Sir John Dick’s day. Today, student flats are located on both sides of the building, including the area shown with poplars in the 1850 engraving, and extend some way to the rear as far as the border with Richmond Park. A bronze statue in front of the house today recalls Hugh Colin Smith and his wife Constance, who made Mount Clare ‘the happiest of homes for their eight children’, for nearly 50 years from 1871 until 1918.
Capability Brown is known to have received other commissions nearby at Wimbledon, Putney and Richmond. This has prompted speculation about whether he might also have had a hand in designing land around another of Roehampton University’s historic buildings. Grove House, a Grade II* building to the north of Mount Clare, is on a beautiful estate now sandwiched between Roehampton Golf Course and Roehampton Lane. Built by James Wyatt for Sir Gerard Vanneck c1777-80 and now known as the Froebel Institute, its grounds suggest some very Brownian planting. Moreover, Vanneck definitely commissioned Brown in 1781 at his other house, Heveningham in Suffolk.
Cherry and Pevsner refer to the ‘Italianate garden close to the house, picturesque grounds, beyond with a lake, three arched dummy bridge, probably by Wyatt, and elaborate grotto of the 1890s’. While the grotto is now dry, the garden features all remain including the lake filled with lilies. The grounds certainly contain several very mature cedars which may very well date from Brown’s lifetime. However, Johnny Phibbs rates the likelihood of Brown’s having been commissioned for Grove House at no more than 20%, based on ambiguous references within 20 years of Brown’s death to his having been there.