Capability Brown and Hatfield Forest

Chris Connell, Volunteer Chris Connell Volunteer
Portrait of Lancelot Capability Brown painted in 1773 by Nathaniel Dance, now in the National Portrait Gallery

In 1757, Capability Brown provided a plan for altering the lake at Hatfield Forest, for the owner, Jacob Houblon III, part of which was implemented. About fifteen years later, he was again consulted by the Houblon family, this time for the adjacent Hallingbury Park.

Lancelot “Capability" Brown” is recognised as one of the greatest English landscape designers, working on over 200 schemes, for a whole array of important clients, including King George III and several Dukes, Earls and Lords, as well as lesser landed gentry. 

The 300th anniversary of his birth was celebrated in 2016, raising awareness of his great contribution to landscape design.

One of his earlier, smaller, schemes was for Jacob Houblon III, at Hatfield Forest, in the late 1750’s.

Early landscaping of the Forest

The Houblon family had acquired Hatfield Forest as part of the Hallingbury estate, for the heir, Jacob Houblon III, in 1729.  Following the fashions of the time, Jacob set about improving the landscape of the Forest and creating a "detached pleasure ground", about 1.5 km from the main house, Hallingbury Place.  By 1746, a triangular shaped lake had been constructed, by damming Shermore Brook.  Ten years later, a Grotto was built, by the side of the lake.  This was decorated to a design by Laetitia Houblon, then about 17 years old, and because of the shell ornamentation, became known as the Shell House.  The coppice area to the west of the lake was fenced in and two rides, intersecting nearly at right angles, were introduced.

Jacob Houblon was to some extent constrained as he did not have complete control over the whole lakeside area.  The eastern bank was under the control of the neighbouring Barrington family and relations were strained.

The family would travel the short distance from the adjacent Hallingbury Park on horseback or by carriage to enjoy the delights of the pleasure ground, and have picnics by the lakeside.

The Capability Brown Plan of 1757

Capability Brown provided a plan for modifying the lake, entitled “Plan for the Alteration of the Water adjoining to Cottage Coppice for Jacob Houblon Esq 1757”.  The main features of this were the introduction of two arms, one at the northern end of the lake, at the point of entry of Shermore Brook, and the other at the southern end of the dam, where the Brook exited the lake, with small islands towards the end of each arm.  The intention was to create the illusion of a seemingly endless large river and was a typical Brownian device.  Brown also proposed softening the straight lines of the original simple lake and dam, with informal lawns and a seat laid out on the west bank and trees to line the exisitng intersecting rides.

The Plan still survives, in the Houblon family archives held at the Berkshire Record Office

A copy of the Capability Brown plan
Plan for alterting the original lake in Hatfield Forest
A copy of the Capability Brown plan

The plan does not bear Capability Brown's name or signature but has been accepted as his work by the noted Brown scholar, Dorothy Stroud.  It was probably prepared by an associate, Samuel Lapidge, and would have been one of Brown's earlier commissions, in the early years of his independent practice.

Capability Brown received a payment of £100 from Jacob Houblon III, in March 1758, as recorded in his account held at Drummonds Bank, and a further payment of £50 in March 1762.  A receipt for this survives in the family archives.  Presumably this was associated with completion of the work.

A family interest

Brown had a keen supporter in the Houblon family, in Jacob's son, Jacob Houblon IV.  In 1758, at the start of the Grand Tour and in a letter sent from Holland to his uncle, Sir John Hynde Cotton, he describes himself as "A disciple of Mr Brown".  In a later letter, this time sent from Italy, he asks:

" How does Mr. Brown's plan succeed? by what Mr. Lipyeatt tells me it must be very pretty....."
- Jacob Houblon IV, Feb 1759

How much of the plan was implemented?

We can now see that the plan was only partialy implemented, with the creation of the arm at the end of the dam and island, as shown in maps of the area, as early as the 1777 Map of Essex, surveyed by Chapman and Andre.  This arm was, however, cut off from the main lake when the height of the dam was raised in 1979, and now forms, in a further modified form, the Decoy Lake.

A further commission, for Hallingbury Park

Based on an entry in his own Accounts Book, Capability Brown was again consulted by the Houblon family, this time Jacob IV, and for Hallingbury Park.  Unlike the earlier scheme, it seems that little if any of the proposals were implemented.

A family connection?

Jacob Houblon III may have been introduced to Capability Brown by his brother-in-law Sir John Hynde Cotton (4th baronet).  In 1756, Brown had prepared a plan for landscaping Madingley Hall, on the NW outskirts of Cambridge, Sir John's country estate, although it was never implemented.

In turn, Jacob Houblon IV may have introduced his father-in-law, John Archer of Coppersale, near Epping, to Capability Brown.  He visited the park in 1774 and produced a plan, for which he received £36 15s.  It is unlikely that any work was done as he died within the next two years.

The assistance of Dr Sarah Rutherford is gratefully acknowledged.  Hatfield Forest has several mentions in her recently published book: "Capability Brown and his Landscape Gardens" (Sarah Rutherford, National Trust Books, ISBN: 9781909881549).

See also: Jeremy Musson: "The Shell House Hatfield Forest", Country Life, 27 Aug 1998, p48-50;

"Lancelot Brown and his Essex Clients"; Essex Garden Trust; 2015, p41-50;

Capability Brown at Hatfield Forest (PDF / 1.025390625MB) download   and 

Historic England: Capability Brown’s Plans - Reference Catalogue for Researchers