Re-viewing the Landscape of Compton Verney
Written by Gary Webb, Head Gardener at Compton Verney
Those who have visited Compton Verney will I’m sure testify to the beauty of its landscape, which is re-emerging slowly thanks to the efforts of Compton Verney House Trust, an art gallery with permanent collections and changing exhibitions. Relatively small in parkland terms at 120 acres, its landscape stretches over rolling hills on every side, across a designed landscape that originally spanned 500 acres.
Its shallow valley setting combined with a long tradition of farming actually helped to secure the survival of the landscape, which essentially found the central area land-locked and protected from development. Therefore, apart from a once-hidden walled garden (which was filled with housing in the 1990s,) the grounds and landscape are today largely as intended by ‘Capability’ Brown, whose work was carried out there between 1768 and 1774.
Brown’s work was so comprehensive that almost all traces of Compton’s earlier garden were erased. Fortunately, evidence of it survives in the form of two detailed estate plans, produced by James Fish in 1736 and 1738. These show field areas – useful for the control of farm tenancies - and include many intriguing area names such as ‘Windmill Ground’ and ‘Old Town’: the latter the location of the earlier settlement of Compton Murdak.
The Fish plans illustrate the formal garden of around 40 acres quite clearly. This ‘lost’ garden wrapped around the three sunniest sides of the mansion, where views over five parkland avenues would have been enjoyed from the elegant baroque styled mansion built c1714. On the northern side of the mansion the gradient slopes steadily upwards, creating the perfect south-facing slope on which a substantial walled garden stood.
No details exist to show the planting that was used in that early eighteenth-century garden, and we’re left to study the plan with magnifying lenses and make educated guesses as to the plants that filled the many borders across the west- and south-facing garden areas. Hedging – possibly, topiary – almost certain, gravel walks – there just had to be. There was definitely a canal, in addition to the large lake network, and this stretched away from the mansion for around 120 metres, terminating in a larger rectangular pool that formed a focal point from two key areas.
I could continue with my plan analysis - indeed I’ve spent many moments studying it, putting myself in that imaginary garden, wandering between those densely planted areas across raked and rolled gravel. I’ve sat on the wall of that canal, with me eyes drawn between trimmed trees, over the middle pool to the plantation. Alas, that garden is long gone, lost forever and an imagined thing only. But for the archaeology that remains below ground, it must live on with artistic licence in plan form.
The new-broom that swept through was confidently swished by Lancelot Brown, who in six years, for nearly three and a half thousand pounds, created a very different garden. The formal landscape was by then long out of fashion, and most probably crumbling as with the formal ‘canal’ focused garden at nearby Charlecote Park. Brown’s arrival therefore, hot on the heels of Robert Adam, was potentially long overdue.
More improvements to the landscape were introduced into the next century, including an extension to the lake and a distant temple, most likely recommended by Brown. The Brown design however, shown maturing on an 1818 plan, appears to have held its basic form from its creation. If only the Brown design drawings still existed, we could more accurately describe the achievements I believe he made.
These days, a good deal of landscape ‘softening’ has taken place, with habitats established and wildlife vying for attention. Indeed, if it wasn’t for regularly mown lawns there would, to the untrained eye at least, appear to be little management at all. Nothing could be farther from the truth however, with a small but focused team driving forward with improvements year upon year.
Of great importance, and a significant leap forward for Compton Verney, is a Heritage Lottery Funded ‘Re-viewing the Landscape’ project that is currently being assembled. If successful, this will see restoration not only of circuit walks, plantations and vistas, but also restoration to the Brown designed chapel, which usefully screens the remains of the walled garden. Furthermore, there’s a new visitor centre being planned and lots of outreach and interpretation to explore; yet more opportunity to champion a much loved landscape.
I write in celebration of the significant and beautiful ‘Brownian’ landscape that is Compton Verney, and to celebrate that ‘lost’ garden that went before. I believe however that despite ageing trees, silting waters and decaying features, that our landscape is better than ever, and just as relevant to its visitors today as it ever was; a pure arts venue indeed, and one needing much support and encouragement; our aspirations are high - as were Lancelot’s!