The Repton Gazette and Brown Advisor

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

265: Why do we need William Emes?

I recall a conversation with the late Dr Keith Goodway, whose knowledge of the landscape gardener William Emes was second to none, and sprang from Keith’s place of work (Keele University) his interest in the landscaping of the place, and the fact that William Emes had worked there – as he worked also at many other places in the West Midlands. Keith firmly repudiated the notion that Emes had ever in any sense been an elève of the esteemed engineer and master gardener,  Capability Brown. There is no known correspondence between them, nor any contract, nor payment between them, so his position was a strong one. Nonetheless Emes was described as a pupil of Brown and furthermore was so described by someone who appears to have known him. This was the author and owner of Tixall in Staffirdshire: Sir Thomas Hugh Clifford-Constable, who was born in 1762 in a place where landscaping was continually a-doing until at least 1782. Here is just a part of his account: ‘The Hon. Thomas Clifford [father of the author] … filled up two large ponds which were immediately behind the house, destroyed the old garden, which occupied the slope on the west-side of the ancient mansion, and formed another at a more convenient distance. The approach to the house he altered entirely, and for this purpose, caused a handsome stone bridge to be built over the river Sow at Hollisford. In the progress of these improvements, he was assisted by the taste and judgment of the celebrated Brown, and his pupil Eames.’ He continues: ‘About the year 1766, was undertaken the navigable cut, called the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, which passes for more than two miles through the parish of Tixall. The Hon. Thomas Clifford had the canal widened in this part of its course, into the breadth and sweep of a noble river; which appearance, or that of an inland lake, it now presents, when seen from the house, or the grounds about it. To bring this fine object more into sight, he removed, at a great expense, a bank of rock which obstructed the prospect from the house, took down a great many fences, and threw the intervening ground between the house and the water, into the form of a beautiful sloping lawn.’

This reads, does it not, as a persuasive and well-informed account. Furthermore Keith would argue that Emes characteristically used canals to embellish landscape – here the Broad Water or Tixall Wide, and at Dogmersfield the Basingstoke Canal. So that puts the pair of them in place from around 1766. I have put it to the company, without much objection, that this reads as further evidence for the notion advanced in my notes 218, 247 etc. etc. that Brown would establish independent contractors to take over some of his work, acting effectively as agent or broker between the contractor on one hand and his client on the other.

Then I read the following in Humphry Repton’s red book for Woburn Abbey: ‘Mr Brown after his death was immediately succeeded by a numerous herd of his foremen and working gardeners, who from having executed his designs became consutled, as well as employed in the several works which he had entrusted them to superintend. Among these a person named Eames had deservedly acquired great credit at Harewood; at Holkham, and other places by the execution of gravel walks, the planting of shrubberies, and other detail belonging to pleasure grounds which were generally divided from the park by a sunk fence or haha! And happy would it have been for the country and the Art, if he had confined his talents within such boundary, and his skill to mere execution. Unfortunately without the same great ideas, he fancied he might enlarge and improve his plans: this introduced all that bad taste which has by Knight and Price been attributed to his great master Brown.’ – Could Repton have been mistaken – and then I find myself wondering if this might also have happened at Burghley?

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1 Comment

  1. paul stamper

    As I may have observed to you before, I first met Keith in the 80s when I was working on VCH Shropshire and discoevered that Emes did Badger Dingle. From then on I urged him to download his brain and do the book on Emes, but he never seemed to have any enthusiasm for this. What a pity. We miss a lovely man.

    Best wishes

    Paul

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By John Phibbs