The estimable Mr L of the Barbican, London, writes in search of some understanding of the different types of cascade used by everybody’s idea of the perfect place-maker, Capability Brown, in the course of his career.

Normally, with questions of such wide remit, I would recommend an introduction to the subject, but the definitive account of the Brownian cascades has yet, to my knowledge, to be published.

In the interests of the public therefore, I offer the following account.

First, some definitions – a step is a stone or brick-built edge, at right-angles to the channel, with a vertical drop on the downhill side so creating a series of falls, as at Latimer, made more or less irregular by the design of the steps; a glide is a level or gently-sloping long pool or stream, often between two steps, as at Chatsworth; a tumble is a length of sloping channel, lined with stones set across the direction of flow, as at The Leasowes; a weir is a straight fall over an even edge, as at Wrest; a natural is built up with rocks in a direct imitation of the wilder parts of nature.

The choice of a type of cascade may often be determined by the size of the water body – a natural cascade requires a considerable inflow if it is to operate continuously, and so far as I know Brown’s cascades were intended to work continuously, though many 18th century cascades (eg Niagara at the Leasowes, and the water works at Versailles) would be turned on for visitors.

For Brown to go to the trouble of a cascade, it was important that he should provide the opportunity of seeing it from below, usually, if not always, backed by wood (generally by planting on the dam), and usually in a confined space. It is also clear that stepped cascades were common and were accepted, even by Brown, though he is usually considered an evangelist for naturalism. The sound of a cascade was also important to him.

Mr L asks particularly about the little cascade that runs down to the café at Wimbledon Park. I would advise that if there had been a cascade there, then given the size of the lake and the height of the dam, Brown would have used the natural style. This would have been planted round with shrubs and trees on the dam, and there would have been a walk or drive along the foot of the dam to show it off. However, I think it unlikely that Brown would have bothered, since the cascade would have faced out into the unornamented flat of what is now the public park.

 

Brown himself used three main forms of cascade in the mid-18th century and I shall discuss these in the notes that follow.