Highclere has now launched into the week of special tours and lectures about the “Castle and its Setting”, highlighting the serenity and grandeur of “Capability” Brown’s landscape here. As well as our charming academic lecturers, I am also speaking each day, often with Geordie as an excellent contributing editor. In particular, his role is to talk about the lakes here, in part because he recently witnessed part of Blenheim’s restoration project rebuilding the dam on their Capability Brown lake. It was a major but essential project, lakes need dredging and the banks need securing.
Every “Brown” landscape involved a lake. At Highclere we ended up with two. An already existing one, Milford, was simply enlarged and unified. However one huge new lake, Dunsmere, was created from scratch, transforming uninspiring marshy ground into a vista where a broad, serpentine lake wound out of sight through the landscape. The Earl’s son was so excited by the idea of this project that he wrote to his father from where he was traveling in Austria jokingly hoping that the new lake would be as big as Lake Superior. Since Lake Superior is roughly the size of Austria this was a joke perhaps in more ways than he realised at the time.
Dunsmere is now a key restoration project before too much of it is lost entirely. We have cleared a small area of water which feeds into it and this has already become a source of much pleasure. A great friend of mine, Karine Hagen, gave me a canoe as a present and she and I have both paddled around trying not to be swamped by dogs. All our Labradors adore water and leap straight in, so the work at the lake has caused great excitement. These are good moments in busy lives. The canoe (pictured above) is called “Captain Percy”, named for our original Labrador dog, Percy pictured above), who is the grandfather of Karine’s beloved Finse.
“Capability” Brown was also an architect and drew up a plan for a new house at Highclere, as well as the plan for the landscape. As part of my talk, I briefly explore the layout of the Elizabethan red brick house which existed here at the time when “Capability” Brown first visited in November 1770. The layout of this house developed piecemeal around an earlier medieval collection of rooms or chambers. Great houses were usually arranged around courtyards, perhaps following the earlier Roman formula or perhaps because outer and inner courtyards helped provide protection in times of need. The model stuck and by medieval times, Highclere indeed had two such courtyards. In the middle of the complex a chapel, with chambers arranged around it for esquires, knights and lords. The rooms formed a procession and the further a guest was allowed in, the greater the esteem and his importance. Thus in a royal household you might hope to be welcomed to the inner sanctum: the cabinet or even the privy chamber… Every one, (downstairs and upstairs) ate together.
However, by the 17th century, the format of houses began to change due primarily to the Italian architect Palladio. He created imposing symmetrical houses with double height halls so that the upstairs and downstairs began to dine in separate rooms, one above the other. The eighteenth century was a time of celebration of the rational man, of symmetry and coherence and the house at Highclere would be altered as well. We do not know whether “Capability” Brown’s house at Highclere was ever built. Sadly his plans are missing and I would love to find them to see if they bear any similarity to the symmetrical Georgian House that was in fact built here 25 years after Brown’s death. I keep looking in case they turn up somewhere. In the meantime we can see his vision here in the beauty he created in the physical landscape and the joy it gives both to visitors and our Labradors.