Talk by Jane Bradney, April 19th 2017. The Knight Brothers of Downton and Landscape Design from Capability Brown to Humphrey Repton

Jane Bradney studied landscape architecture, and then achieved a Ph.D in Garden History, under Prof. Timothy Mowl at Bristol. She is, with him, the joint editor of the definitive Historic Gardens of Herefordshire. She brought to us her observations on the comparisons and contrasts between these four men. Two of them are nationally renowned landcape designers, and two well-known locally as erstwhile residents of Downton Castle,


Brown was a practical, likeable person. He was a surveyor, gardener and architect of the Palladian style. He was also an engineer, well-organised with a skilled ‘back office complete with a survey log and his own line foreman to supervise the landowners’ workers. He also provided regular after-advice to his clients, including how to establish the estate’s own plant nursery. He left little personal archive but Jane spoke of analysing his many gifts to his family which totalled £33 million in today’s’ money. Thus he was a very successful professional, and Berrington Hall is typical of his later pared down style. However he had critics including one who said “I should like to see heaven before you have ‘improved’ it!” Moreover, Goldsmith’s poem ‘The Deserted Village’ is a lament for such a bald and monotonous improvement to a village.

Repton’s career began five years after Brown’s death, but he marketed himself as Brown’s successor. His unique selling point was the Red Book, which gave an instant impression of potential transformation, and was embellished with his immaculate copperplate writing. However he never achieved the financial success of Brown, because of a cultural shift occurring, away from landscaped parks and towards a demand for gardens, which he followed and enabled.

This shift is paralleled in the Knight brothers, who in different ways influenced this change.

Richard Payne Knight inherited a fortune from forest holdings used in the production of charcoal, and hence iron. In fact a large part of the nation’s output came from his property. RPK became a collector and aesthete. He was absorbed with the 18th century ‘cult of the amateur’ which founded the British Institute to challenge the professional voice of the Royal Academy. Almost in opposition to Brown, the professional, he wrote a manifesto for the picturesque movement. The owner of Belmont, Hereford, wrote a reply defending Repton who worked on his estate, citing ‘desperate amateurs’ defiling Brown’s memory.

The Knight brothers grew up at Wormsley Grange, eight years apart, and had very different trajectories. RP in the arts, Thomas Andrew in the sciences. RP travelled widely, but TA no further than Paris and when in 1811 he became president of the Horticultural Society, it was on condition that he would never have to travel to London except for the AGM!

RP constructed the castle at Downton, and Jane Bradney considered that its early images look like a Brown design. There was a significant shift between 1780 and 1794 to the picturesque which the castle walks typify. A transformation from the original ‘tea caddy on a hill’ image. Thirty years later RP moved out of the castle and TA who had been living in Elton Hall where he created a nursery, moved in. RP retained a country abode, as well as a house in Soho Square, at Stoneybrook, on the Downton Estate which he described as a ‘little house in a dell.’ The emphasis now was on miniaturisation, a third stage in the development of aesthetic ideas.

TA had a more empirical approach to horticulture. With his scientific bent he gardened as an experimental botanist, or ‘vegetable physiologist.’ He was an early member of the Horticultural Society which was about shared interests, not competition, experimenting with plant trials. TA Knight’s experiments were with fruit varieties and he produced the Downton Pippin, the Grange Apple, the Elton Cherry amongst many others. One innovative feature was the curvilinear glasshouse, perhaps the oldest in England, built at Downton in 1820, which is very significant in garden heritage. It is indicative of the changing mood towards mid-Victorian flower gardening.

Jane concluded that all four men, Brown to Repton, RP to TA Knight, typified and were in some ways responsible for the move from landscape to garden in our heritage.





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