Visiting from Suffolk, Mrs W protests that she is really not able to see the 18th century virtuoso and enterist, Capability Brown, as anything but a maker of deer parks.
She might have in mind the comments of his successor, Humphry Repton, who, finding himself at Wanstead, advised that ‘This Lawn being occasionally covered with Deer, will make a pleasing contrast to the opposite side of the house; because here, to the East, the seclusion of privacy may be enjoyed; but there to the West, it is not be expected, and indeed would be hardly desirable … a fence will be applicable in the line that separates the Sheep walk from that rough & parkish ground to which the [Red] Deer are supposed to be admitted, having the range of about 60 or 70 Acres to the South in full view of the Windows of the principal apartments.’
Let us agree then that deer-keeping has benefits and park-owners will get a quadruple benefit if they keep a deer-lawn close to the house: a herd of deer at hand to animate the view from their front windows and tie the house in to the mediaeval tradition of the lodge sitting in the middle of its launde; a hay crop; grassland that William Mason`s ‘dappled deer’ will shave (after mowing) as smoothly as a scythe; and easy access, as at Holkham, between the house and the water.
Nonetheless I put it to the company that deer park may have acquired a character that is misleadingly exclusive (both by way of the wealth required to run one, and by the imputation that deer were somehow a rarity in the countryside). In no time the Captain, who seldom attends at the Tatler’s Waste-bin without a bushel of books in his panier, had come up with a score of examples of forests that still kept deer during the lifetime of the great Brown. Lest a recital from the entire volume of his researches should trespass on your patience, I shall confine myself to summary, but you may imagine the Captain’s slender finger laid against his notebook as he waited for the company to fall silent.
Cranborne Chase, the Out-bounds of which enclosed some 800,000 acres and the perimeter nearly one hundred miles. Still poached for deer, with major clashes in 1780 and 1791, it was relished by the great huntsman Peter Beckford: `… I speak of my own country only, a country full of riot, where the covers are large, and where there is a chace [Cranborne] full of deer, and full of game … my beagles … hunted hare in Cranbourn Chace, where deer are in great plenty.’
Delaware Forest was reported in 1746 to be ‘a spacious and delightful Place, noted for a great Plenty of red and Fallow Deer.’
Enfield Forest had its deer restored to it after the Restoration, but was so poached that it was disafforested in 1777. However Mr Mellish hunted deer in Epping Forest with his lemon-pyes until 1805, and Arthur Young complained of the ‘the evil’ in Epping and Hainault ‘continually increasing, from the annual increase in the stock of deer’.
Exmoor still had its ‘red Deer’ in 1764, and has them still today, while in the same year St Leonard’s still had ‘fallow Deer in it under forrest Laws’.
Savenake Forest appeared to be ‘well stocked with Deer’ in 1810, and in 1811 it was estimated that there were 1800 deer grazing Wakefield Lawn in Whittlewood.
Windsor Forest was still sufficiently stocked with deer for there to be a terrible slaughter after the enclosure bill was passed, the people having taken it into their heads to imagine that the deer had immediately become common property.
Gilbert White remarked of Woolmer Forest that it only harboured red deer, while Alice Holt was solely the resort of fallow, and fifty deer were moved from the former to Windsor in the 1750s.
There are examples of disafforestation and the wholesale failure of forest land to hold deer, but these are generally rare – so besides Enfield, we have Needwood, disafforested in the early 19th century. Sherwood Forest likewise had only a few deer left by 1819 and it has been computed that for every deer in the forest of Pickering there were five thousand sheep.
Despite such examples however, we agreed that where deer were not uncommon in the surrounding countryside, one should not rush to judge them an essential component of the rural estate, or of Brown’s work. One might then turn to the landscapes where Brown worked, to see how much evidence we have for the keeping of deer at his commissions.
I offered to my friends that I would sketch out the beginnings of such a list, but I fear now that the night draws in and the thoughts of my readers may understandably have turned to the comforts of cocoa, candles, and bed.