The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

300 Frequently Asked Questions about Capability Brown, and a further 200 about Humphry Repton

193: Now, tell me about Yew rows?

I find myself caught in a dilemma in respect of the plants used by the King’s gardener Capability Brown. On the one hand, Dr L writes from Essex to ask for more practical detail, as she is encouraging her students to consult the Brown Advisor. On the other hand Mr R of Finsbury Park, London, would prefer a deeper, more abstract, probe into the meaning of the formidable Capability Brown, if there be such.

Allow me then, with one final note, to bring the discussion of plants to a close, and let that be a note on yew, a tree whose economic value was reckoned to lie in its use for bows and for turning, both of which may seem a little old-fashioned for the 18th century, but nonetheless a tree of immense significance in 18th century design.

Let us begin with parkland, where it is seldom found because of its poisonous reputation. The yew clump on the hill at Cowdray may survive from an outlying garden, the setting of a seat or tent from which to view both the parkland and the house. This we should therefore set to one side, as we should the yews by the road bridge at Belvoir Castle, which seem to survive from Brown’s belt there. However at Downton Castle there is a single yew in the parkland above the river, downstream of the mill, and at North Stoneham, another of the great integrated landscapes from Brown’s years of pomp, the late 1760’s and early 1770’s – in the narrow belt that still survives on the Golf Course by the road side, there is a group of Yew that spreads out and bursts through the Oaks that dominate the belt, into the parkland and one is tempted to see the single Yew on the golf course as an attempt to soften the hard boundary of the woodland and garden. Could it be that something similar was attempted at Berrington in the field beyond the sunk fence, known as `Yew Park’, to lead the south end of the woodland down to the lake? – the word ‘park’ here implies grazing at least, and since the ridge and furrow was pronounced there one would expect no less, however there is no record of Yew, even on the 1st. ed. OS, so we may have to conclude that if planted they were not retained.

We might be unwise to pursue the yew in parkland, where thorn is often the tree to look out for. Let us turn instead to its role in the pleasure ground, which is equivalent to that of thorn in parkland. It was very highly regarded, as a vehicle for topiary at the beginning of the century, and for its unkempt, wild character by the 1750s. The Rev William Gilpin perfectly captured the spirit of the time: ‘As to it’s picturesque perfections, I profess myself (contrary I suppose to general opinion) a great admirer of it’s form, and foliage. The yew is of all other trees, the most tonsile. Hence all the indignities it suffers.  Yet it… is perhaps one of the most beautiful ever-greens we have’, but the same resistance to clipping was shown by Thomas Hamilton a generation earlier: ‘I have now cut all the Feathering off my Yews, and reduced them to single stems. How they’ll succeed I can not tell, but I shall never try to put / any Ever Green in a Shape but its own unless in a Hedge’, and the wild beauty of the yew was appreciated by the poet William Shenstone: ‘what if you were to plant here & there a Yew-tree in your Shrubbery to look wild & to continue about ye size of your other Shrubs. Moreover as you continue ye Terras on ye Side of ye Shrubbery Wou’d not here & there such a wild yew tree all along ye Side have a good effect from ye Bowling-green &c’.

Some would argue that this explains why the yews in the pleasure ground at Croome are concentrated on the west side of the water, that is, on the far side from the house: they may have been employed there to make the pleasure ground look more like natural woodland from the outside, that is, from further west.

The yew row however is of equal significance to the single wild tree. Having made my way through the remnants of many a Brownian shrubbery, I think I will meet with little argument if I say that it is likely to be represented today by ten or twelve recurrent species, the most easily spotted of which is yew and, as often as not, the yews are planted in rows, at intervals of around 14’. These I take to be survivors from the shredded ranks of graded or ‘theatrical’ planting. That’s to say, the kind of planting vaunted by Mark Laird, in which plants are set out in rows by height. So I envisage the landscape gardener, say that ‘odd mortal’, Capability Brown, striding out with a single row of splines (white painted sticks, around 10’ long) – probably on the line of the yew row itself – which the gardener could then follow with his cart-loads of plants, unrolling the shrubbery as one might a wall-paper, and putting a row of smaller plants at the front (such as box, and then perhaps cherry laurel), and a row or two of taller ones at the back (holly seems to have been used at Southill) – then behind the holly would come taller forest trees and conifers.

There were however specific warnings to ‘avoid all appearance of stiffness or formality, by planting some of the trees out of the common line’ to prevent any tendency to regularity, and at Southill, as at Claremont, this was done with oak.

If you want to see for yourself a most remarkable survival, then visit the Temple of Friendship at Stowe and trace the arabesque line of yews along the boundary of Hawkwell Field – or the arrangement at Croome which shows yew rows at their most sophisticated with a series of rows of them, running along the spine of the shrubbery earthworks – at one point there are three such rows (all more or less parallel, though there is a tendency for the rows to splay at at least one end). There is something in the rows, with that splay, of three strokes of a paint-brush, of literally ‘painting with Living pencils’ as Collinson put it, thickening the line and varying the shrubbery. Look carefully next at each of these trees and you will find wounds at the base which show that they were at first coppiced as shrubs to maintain their height within the theatre.

There is, at any rate, constant variation within a single Brownian planting style and I can assure you that its yew rows will tell you as much about the form of a shrubbery as its earthworks.

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2 Comments

  1. Solid and void, as ever twas – is ‘line’ provided by the tree/shrub profiles and outlines, or by their absence, in the void, the space ‘created’, or demarcated? Designer’s dilemma. With so many jobs on the boil, it’s a wonder Brown kept a handle on his planters, supervisors etc – informalising over-ly formal ‘lines’ he may not have intended or liked. I wonder if some lines were pre-Brown, and either not-got-to, or neglected remnants of earlier more formal layouts by others?

    • The Brown Advisor

      Dear Mr Read, I see three questions in your comment. First, did some yew rows pre-date Brown and get adopted by him? I think that is what you will find with the old hedges at Wrest, which have been thinned to around the five yard mark, but there are still some planted tightly together and surviving from the old hedge. Second, the use of the yew row and theatrical arrangement was an effective and cheap way of setting out shrubbery – Brown or his foreman needed only to set out one row with canes, the rest would follow in the gardener’s wheel-barrow. Third, the idea that what is to be designed in plantings of this sort is the space or void that the plants surround, rather than the arrangement of plants, was expressed clearly by the poet Mason in notes he wrote on his garden at Nuneham Courtenay. Finally, and you make the point well, one of the most remarkable characteristics of Brown’s work, given the number of sites he was working on at any one time, is its consistently high quality.
      With best wishes,
      The Brown Advisor

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By John Phibbs