A Birds-eye View of Dunham Massey by John Harris II

On display in the Great Gallery at Dunham Massey is one of the most comprehensive surveys of a country house ever painted.

Surveying the land

Four views, painted by John Harris II in 1751, record the extensive transformation of the house and parkland that was carried out in the first half of the 18th century.

Harris’s landscapes are as much a testament to his skills as a surveyor as they are his skills as a painter. Indeed, they record in near cartographic detail the enormous planting scheme undertaken by George Booth, 2nd Earl of Warrington. In about 1715 he began planting many thousands of trees that would, by the time these paintings were commissioned, utterly transform the parkland of Dunham Massey.  

Harris’s lofty, bird’s-eye views of Dunham Massey point to a shift in priority in the depiction of the country house. Whereas previously, estate paintings tended to prioritise the house in the composition of the painting, here the house is dwarfed against the landscaped geometry of the vast tree lined avenues.

Old-fashioned but prudent

As the fashion for landscaping took hold, so too did a desire to commission paintings that would showcase the new layout of the surrounding parkland and countryside. Although the shift in depicting the wider survey of the land reflects an innovation in English landscape painting, the same cannot be said of the rigid lines of the 2nd Earl’s planting scheme.   

Take, for example, the view from the south-east, where six tree-lined avenues emanate from a D-shaped clearing at the end of the south lawn. This pattern of straight lines radiating from a central point – known as the patte d’oie, or goose foot – was, even at the time of its implementation, an unfashionable vestige of formal French garden design of the previous century.

But the 2nd Earl was not concerned with prevailing trends. Instead, he saw his park as a potent expression of his wealth, financial foresight and patriotism. By planting so many trees – an undertaking deemed foolish by his contemporaries – he envisioned a prudent source of income for successive generations and the provision of naval timber to ensure Britain’s maritime supremacy.
 
Interestingly, Harris’s views of Dunham Massey are amongst the last paintings of a country house ever to be produced in the form of the ‘bird’s eye view’. Today, the paintings offer a remarkably comprehensive survey of an 18th-century estate and the desire to record – in paint – the source of wealth that made such a commission possible in the first place.