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An Extraordinary Order: The Little Temple at Temple Newsam

Article Index

  1. An Extraordinary Order: The Little Temple at Temple Newsam
  2. Background
  3. Description
  4. Commentary: Context
  5. Commentary: Precedents from Architectural History
  6. Commentary: Purity of Style
  7. Commentary: Non-Architectural Models
  8. Designer: Possible Designers
  9. Designer: Other Hypotheses
  10. Designer: The Model Used
  11. Condition
  12. Conclusions
  13. Appendix 1
  14. Appendix 2
  15. References
  16. Illustrations
  17. All Pages


The small classical temple was, of course, a favourite element in such a recomposed 18th century aristocratic landscape, whether by William Kent or Capability Brown or one of their rivals. But this Little Temple, while appearing conventional at a distance, is highly unusual in its detail. It seems both erudite and naughty, a mannerist intrusion into the correct Palladian world of mid-18th century northern elite society, and several decades after the demise of Vanbrugh and Hawksmoor’s “English Baroque Unruliness”. Yet its capitals are quite restrained and, while naturalistic, are by no means wholeheartedly Rococo in the contemporary French or south German manner.

So who designed it?

An exact build date, more precise than between 1763 and 1774, would help to narrow the field but, from what is known so far, the following at least were possible.

Possible Designers

(a) It was designed and drawn in detail by Capability Brown (1716-83) himself. [35] Originally from Northumberland, with its spacious moorland scenery, he had learnt as a young man the practical essentials of his trade: gardening, siting, earth and water management, surveying and drawing. By 1766 he was 50 and at the height of his powers and fame as a landscape gardener and architect, working across England, and having been appointed Master Gardener to King George III in 1764. Although largely self-educated, ambitious and forthright, he was also sufficiently urbane to win genuine respect from such as Horace Walpole, who commended him as “a very able master” with “great integrity in his dealings”, from his clients such as Lord Chatham (Pitt the Elder) and Lord Coventry, and from Humphrey Repton, Brown’s successor as landscape designer to the fashionable and educated rich. Brown’s landscape designs were generally deemed Beautiful – with smooth curving paths and serpentine lakes, following Hogarth’s Line of Beauty – rather than Sublime, as there are few heart-stopping “surprises” and little “terror” in his gardens. Only a few years earlier, in 1757, the young Edmund Burke had established his literary reputation with “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, which neatly classified the characteristics of Sublimity and Beauty, so defining those words that by the 1760s were in familiar use discussing natural scenery and architecture (and as used in the 1767 poem on Brown’s work for Viscount Irwin at Temple Newsam – see Appendix 2).

Being so busy, did Brown make and sketch the design choices, but have an assistant do the necessary detail drawings for construction? The work at Temple Newsam for Charles and Frances Ingram was clearly a major commission for Brown, and he was heavily involved here from 1762 until after 1770, with a full-time foreman. This was not just a “survey and plans”, providing a design for the owners to execute by themselves. Brown as Head Gardener and Clerk of Works at Stowe for ten years had worked with and learned his  architecture from William Kent and then from James Gibbs, both well-travelled and intellectual designers, and both with a taste for the Baroque and the Gothic as well as for conventional Palladianism. Elsewhere, at Corsham and Blenheim etc, Brown designed stables and other subsidiary buildings in a Gothic style reminiscent of Kent, and he would have seen Batty Langley’s books on the Gothick. But nothing quite like this incongruous combination of styles has been traced in Brown’s other works, or elsewhere.

Brown may not have been a “bookish” person, rather perhaps one who absorbed theories more from discussions with his mentors and most educated clients, but who responded to particular images and illustrations and recalled them for later use. He had not travelled to Italy or France, but did make use of pattern books for architectural detail, such as the Chinese Bridge at Croome in 1755, taken from an illustration in William Halfpenny’s “Improvements in Architecture and Carpentry” of the year before. In 1768 Brown provided the Sphinx Gates for Temple Newsam (which combine Roman forms with Egyptian motifs), but that design is clearly copied closely from Lord Burlington’s drawing for Chiswick House, published in 1735 by Isaac Ware. Any plagiarism need not have troubled Brown, as Burlington had died in 1753, Halfpenny in 1754, and copyright law was still in its infancy.

(b) One of Brown’s assistants drew it out from his sketch - either John Spyers (Spires), surveyor of Temple Newsam for Brown, or Thomas Beard, assistant to Brown from 1764, or William Stones, Brown’s foreman on these works, or Thomas White or Nathaniel Richmond or Samuel Lapidge. If so, then the assistant drew it up and supervised the construction, but to Brown’s (or another’s) idea, as the stylistic clash would surely have been seen as too radical or “wrong” otherwise.

(c) The young Henry Holland (1745-1806) designed it. Holland was 21 in 1766, the son of a master builder. By 1771 he would become the business partner of Brown and in 1773 marry Brown’s daughter Bridget, so this could be a “daring design proposed by a bright young protégé coming on fast”. Holland studied French architecture, but through books rather than by visits. Holland soon became a most successful architect in London, with John Soane as his pupil from 1772 to 78 (and Soane would become the most extreme and erudite impacter of contrasting styles, in his “Monk’s Parlour” at Lincolns Inn Fields and elsewhere in the 1790s-1820s).

(d) Charles and Frances Irwin themselves [36] - the client, educated amateurs (dilettanti), playing an erudite and naughty game, slipping Gothic shafts and eccentric acanthus capitals into an etiolated temple form for this toy building? Were they combining mediaeval Gothic elements in a Classical form, as a reversed mirror in miniature of Temple Newsam House itself, the Little Temple as a gazebo for a fine Tudor house that had been heavily classicised? If so, did they have one of their architects do the necessary detailed drawing as an elaborate jest? From all accounts, Frances was the equal or main driving force for the improvements to the Park, besides providing much of the necessary funds, and she “had a taste for the Gothic”. This is instanced in the Gothic Room redecorated for her in 1758-60, and in the florid Gothick script chosen for her monogram “FI” on the fine set of Chippendale hall chairs. In 1765 she had had to overcome Charles’ reluctance expressed in his letter to her: “I have met Brown and am absolutely determined to do nothing at the Temple (Newsam)”.

Charles and Frances had purchased in 1765 their own Claude Lorraine painting “Pastoral Landscape” (Temple Newsam Guide p84), which does include a ruined temple but one with correct Ionic columns. For Frances, as in her letter to her close friend Lady Susan Stewart in December 1766, this painting was “my beauteous Claude where the scene always enchants me, the trees are green, the water placid and serene and the air has a warmth very comfortable. Altogether it is just as one’s mind should be, no boundless passions or turbulent ambition to perturb one’s breast but the stream of life to flow peacefully and unruffled, sometimes through flowery meads and sometimes through the thorny brake till at length it reaches the ocean of eternity.”