A 'Capability' Brown ferme ornée in Highgate? The jury is still out...

Barbara Deason, LPGT Research Co-ordinator

Few people who stand looking out from the terrace at Kenwood House, on the 'northern heights' of Hampstead and Highgate, will be aware that in the late 18th century down to their left behind the trees that Repton introduced to obscure the sight of people making their way down the hill towards London, lay a 100-acre estate, the principal seat of the hon. colonel Charles Fitzroy (1737-1797), a distinguished soldier, courtier, member of parliament 1759-1780, and 1st Baron Southampton. This was Fitzroy Farm.

Fitzroy Farm, 'the grounds of which he [Charles Fitzroy] laid out in the artificial style then in vogue' was part of the Estate of Tottenhall inherited by Charles Fitzroy in 1768. Extending broadly from Hampstead Lane in the north to Millfield Lane in the south, Fitzroy Farm lay between Lord Mansfield's Kenwood to the west and Highgate West Hill to the east. The road known today as Fitzroy Park formed the carriage drive through the estate to the house, variously known as Fitzroy Farm, Fitzroy House or Lord Southampton's Lodge. The house itself was built c. 1770-1774. We know it was finished by 1774 from an announcement in The Hampshire Chronicle of 11th July 1774: 'Last Monday evening the King, Queen & Prince of Mecklenburgh, honoured Mr & Mrs Fitzroy with their company at Fitzroy Farm, Highgate. The elegance and situation of the house and grounds were much admired by their Majesties and his Serene Highness.'

Previously unidentified as a Lancelot Brown site, Fitzroy Farm came to light during LPGT Research Group exploration of known and potential Brown sites in London in preparation for the planned Lancelot 'Capability' Brown tercentenary celebrations in 2016. Early research into Fitzroy Farm quickly revealed multiple references over the past two centuries that Fitzroy Farm was 'laid out by Brown', 'probably laid out by Lancelot "Capability" Brown', 'reputedly landscaped by Brown' or 'reportedly laid out by Brown'. Unfortunately, most writers have failed to provide any primary evidence, generally referencing, if at all, an earlier author as the source of their claim.

There are two questions that need to be asked – and answered: was Brown involved, and in what capacity? And, was Fitzroy Farm a ferme ornée? Research to date has focused on finding evidence that will either prove or disprove 'Capability' Brown's involvement as landscape designer, or adviser to the estate.

Contemporary descriptions of the estate are coherent with Brown's involvement: features commonly associated with 'Capability' Brown - use of individual trees, clumps and belts of trees, and an undulating landscape leading out into the surrounding countryside. In Defoe's 1778 edition of A Tour Through the whole island of Great Britain, the estate is described as 'several acres of fine ground, lately open fields, are here taken in and enclosed, laid out in serpentine sweeps, and planted here and there with clumps of trees'. John Goldar's etching of 1786 shows the layout of the landscape from the south-west corner of the estate.

In the late 1830s Lord Southampton's heir leased three pieces of land for 99 years to architect George Basevi, lawyer George Abraham Crawley, and merchant Charles Crawley. Attached to each lease is a plan of the land showing named trees: these include oak, fir, beech, thorn, elm, sycamore, maple, cedar, chestnut, ash, crab, and holly - all trees that 'Capability' Brown is known to have used. In addition to individually named trees, the plans identify two 'clumps' of four and seven unnamed trees, and a 'grove' of ten unnamed trees. Each of the three leases specifically states that the lessee 'shall not... cut, fell or remove any of the timber or other trees now growing on the said ground... which are severally marked on the said Plan'. Each lease also forbids the cutting, felling or removal of any trees 'of more than 14 years' growth'. It would not be unreasonable to assume that these particular trees were deemed important to the estate as a whole – either for their size and age or perhaps as integral to the overall landscape design. An engraving published in 1792 by Robert Sayer clearly shows belts, clumps and individual trees in the area close to the house.

The likelihood that Brown had some role at Fitzroy Farm is also strengthened by the fact that Fitzroy's grandfather, Charles Fitzroy 2nd Duke of Grafton (1683-1757), employed 'Capability' Brown at Wakefield Lodge in Northamptonshire c.1760, and his brother, Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton (1735-1811) Earl of Euston, and Prime Minister 1768-1770, engaged Brown from 1767 to 1783 to improve the landscape of his principal seat at Euston Hall, Suffolk, and may well have recommended Brown to Charles Fitzroy when he first acquired the Fitzroy Estate the year after Brown started work at Euston Hall.

The best evidence yet (identified by Alan Farmer of the Camden History Society), written during Brown's lifetime, is an article in The Morning Chronicle 21st September 1781 that states 'The lands about the farm lie with the most waving surfaces, and in the prettiest shapes imaginable: they are laid out by Brown, who has also built the little lodge which adds much to the decoration of the scene.'

One of the earliest writers to subsequently identify Brown's link to Fitzroy Farm was John H. Lloyd, Honorary Secretary of The Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution. In his 1888 publication The History, Topography, and Antiquities of Highgate in the County of Middlesex he wrote 'the grounds were extensive, and were of a most delightfully undulating character, studded with beautiful timber.' The accompanying footnote reads: 'They were laid out by "Capability" Brown, the well-known landscape gardener.'

Is this proof enough? For some, yes; for others maybe not; and the search for definitive evidence continues. The question of whether Fitzroy Farm was a ferme ornée will be explored in a future article.