Capability Brown and the transformation of the park

Aeriel view of Petworth

The majestic 700-acre park at Petworth is one of the finest surviving and unspoilt examples of an English landscape designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Walking through the park, the landscape gives every impression of being totally natural but Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown transformed Petworth in the 1750s and early 1760s to the pastoral delight you see today.

The formal gardens

Petworth in the 1690s was a very different place. Charles Seymour the 6th Duke of Somerset, employed the royal gardener George London to design a formal landscape in front of the mansion, complete with ramparts, terraces, parterres, an aloe garden and summer house. However when Daniel Defoe visited Petworth in the 1730s he complained ‘its front has no visto answerable, and the west front look’d not to the parks or fine gardens, but to the old stables’. Likewise, Jeremiah Milles in the 1740s considered the mansion ‘situated in a bad place and frontes to a view that presents nothing’.

The magnificent view of the west front of Petworth House, West Sussex, painted by JMW Turner
Magnificent view of the west front of Petworth House, West Sussex, seen across the lake

The transformation to what you see today

Charles Wyndham, 2nd Earl of Egremont inherited Petworth in 1750 and commissioned ‘Capability’ Brown, (so named because his clients were assured that their landscapes had ‘capability’ for improvement) to redesign the formal landscape so disliked by his contemporaries.

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, Oil painting on canvas after Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland
Capability Brown portrait

Over four commissions throughout the 1750s, Brown swept away the traditional features. The Upper Pond was created along with the smaller Lower Pond further north. In 1762, the original road from Petworth to Tillington, which passed within 50 feet of the house was moved to its present position 0.75 miles south. New carriageways were constructed to offer visitors momentary glimpses of the house through the newly planted trees, so that the full splendour could be admired on arrival from the north side. Brown also added his signature features such as the Ha Ha and the Ionic Rotunda.