Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and his involvement at Syon: a work in progress

Susan Darling, LPGT Research Co-ordinator

A meeting between Chris Sumner, chairman of the Planning & Conservation working group, and Topher Martyn, head gardener at Syon, has led to a fascinating research collaboration for the tercentenary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in 2016.

While it is clear from various account books that Brown had been employed at Syon, precise details of his involvement have not been known. Now, after my subsequent investigations of archival material at the Duke of Northumberland's administrative and family base at Alnwick Castle, this looks set to change and a detailed understanding of Brown's contribution to the Syon landscape is slowly being revealed. Built on the remains of a Bridgettine nunnery, Syon House lies some 6km to the west of central London on the banks of the River Thames and opposite the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The Lord Protector, the Duke of Somerset, started to build the current Syon House in 1547 and also began to develop the gardens, surrounding the park with high walls and creating raised terraces around the house to hold formal gardens. Here his physician, Dr William Turner, established the first botanical garden in England. Plans and images show that the gardens around the house changed little over the next 200 years.

In 1748, when the seventh Duke of Somerset presented Syon House to his daughter, Elizabeth Seymour, and her husband, Sir Hugh Smithson, Syon was certainly ready for change. A severe frost in 1739, followed by several dry summers, had destroyed most of the plants and trees. Only the Grand Avenue of double limes, planted around 1700 by the sixth Duke, and a few other trees survived. The formal gardens, while of innovative design when first created some 200 years earlier, were by the 1740s distinctly out of fashion. A man of determined energy and taste, Sir Hugh Smithson had described Syon as 'ruinous and inconvenient' and clearly came to the decision that things should move on. Accounts describe the grubbing up of dead elms in the walks, groves and fields and payments totalling £2,620 were made for 'Repairs Necessary to be done at Sion House'. Around this time it is very likely the formal gardens were removed and the landscape between the house and the river was opened up by means of a ha-ha; this divided the lawn in front of the house from the meadow along the river. A painting by Canaletto was commissioned around the time, probably to show off this new landscape.

Brown's Involvement

Dorothy Stroud, in her highly regarded and definitive work, Capability Brown, stated that Brown began working for Sir Hugh Smithson around 1760. However, more recently, Christopher Hunwick, Archivist for the Northumberland Estates, has evidence from the Duke's account books that in fact payments were made to Brown from as early as 1754. This is backed up by my recent archival research looking at the Syon Household Vouchers, in modern parlance invoices or bills. These vouchers, while informing the account books, also provide in-depth detail about specific expenses from individual workers such as garden labourers, masons, carpenters and plantsmen. From 1754 to 1757, it appears much work was carried out in the gardens and park of Syon. 1756 seems to have been a particularly active 'Brown' period with several vouchers detailing 'Mr Lancelot Browne Labour at Sion'. In August 'A Bill for the new worck by the water side' was presented to the Earl for creating the lake in the north-east of the grounds, an area still accessible to the public. Two bridges were built to cross the lake at either end and Flora's Column, situated to one side of the lake, was also erected at this time. Carpenters' bills mention 'making stakes for Mr Brown'. Vouchers from this period have also been found detailing extensive lists of plants shrubs, trees, bulbs and seeds from nurseryman such as the, well-known John Williamson.

Brown's only known Account Book, held at the RHS Lindley Library, gives notice of further payments from Smithson, created first Duke of Northumberland in 1766, for work at Syon from 1767 to 1773. Again, my recent analysis of Vouchers held in the archives at Alnwick has fleshed out the numbers and given an insight into the individuals involved and the work they did for Brown. John Williamson is still providing plants, among other nurserymen, but 'The Widow Wood', the wheeler, is very much involved in several aspects of the garden work at Syon. She submits bills for 'new work' by order of Mr Brown, for 'common work' by order of Mr Fairchild, and for 'garden work, by order of William Forsyth. Clearly one woman, three guvnors!

This second phase of Brown's work at Syon was about the creation of a new lake, formed along the line of a southerly flowing ditch and, although now only to accessible to anglers, it can be viewed from public areas and is well worth a visit. However, many more Household Vouchers from this period still need to be analysed to get the fuller picture.

In conclusion then, it is clear from recent archival research that Brown had a major impact on the landscape at Syon and that this happened in two distinct phases. Fortunately for us, much of his work is still visible in the present-day landscape.

More material remains to be examined at Alnwick and continues to present an exciting opportunity for LPGT in collaboration with the Duke of and his very supportive team to fully understand Brown's involvement at Syon.


Land Use Consultants
Historical Survey and Landscape Management Strategy for Syon Park (1991)
Lancelot Brown
The Account Book (Unpublished MS 1764-1788)
Dorothy Stroud
Capability Brown (Faber & Faber, 1984)
Syon (Heritage House Group, 2003)
The Archives of the Duke of Northumberland at Alnwick Castle