Prior Park and Capability Brown
There has always been an air of mystery concerning Capability Brown’s involvement with the landscape at Prior Park in Bath. The simple fact is that £60 was owing to him when Ralph Allen’s affairs were being settled after his death in 1764. Brown was certainly in the area at the time, working at Longleat, Bowood, Corsham, Kelston Park and Newton St Loe between 1750 and 1765. But there is no plan surviving or record of a visit.
Despite the lack of evidence the garden is very much in the English Landscape style. The mansion was completed in 1742 and landscaping the valley below was being carried out as it was being built. The first layout was quite formal as can be seen in the Walker engraving dated 1754. Formal hedges framed a view which was focused on a circular pool about half way down the hill. It seems as if Allen soon decided to have this vista altered, softening the woodland edges and extending fishponds further down the hill to create a chain of three lakes towered over by a Palladian bridge. The effect was to shift attention further away from the mansion all the way to the city of Bath which was rapidly expanding. Allen’s fortune was closely linked to the building boom occurring there; he controlled the supply of building stone.
It is likely that Alexander Pope was more of an influence on Allen, as he was a regular visitor to Prior Park and influential in the shift away from formality to the more naturalistic style. It was this revolution in the way that landowners viewed their estates that allowed Capability Brown to criss- cross the country applying the style so ingeniously to so many places. Whatever happened in the 18th century, Prior Park survived remarkably intact as a small scale landscape garden. Through mixed fortunes after Ralph Allen’s death in 1764 not much happened to obscure the original design. Even though there were several changes in ownership and use, nobody imposed changes to alter the essential character of the garden. Trees seeded themselves and laurel went rampant, an air of neglect settled on the place, this is how things were when the National Trust acquired the garden in 1993.
Initial work was to repair the bridge and two of the three dams, clear the undergrowth and lay the circuit walk. This was major project work and visitor facilities had to be installed before the garden opened to the public in 1996. Since then, in 2007 the serpentine lake was restored with its associated cascade and gravel cabinet. Future restoration will be centred on replications of the Gothic Temple and Thatched House and we will decide how best to present the Grotto ruins. Though there is work to do to restore the original features, Prior Park remains an elegant landscape garden full of drama and great natural beauty.