The portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783)

 The Brown tercentenary is over, the portrait created from documentary sources is in existence and several bronzes now exist for perpetuity. Future exhibition opportunities abroad are still to come.

Several have asked how old Brown was when he sat for painting(s) that have influenced the sculpted head?

Looking back at the material and diary evidence, we can see Brown was at Burghley in 1769-70, making the original Dance portrait from about the age of 53. He was ill in January 1773 and the Cosway pencil sketch was likely from September of that year – at the age of 57. He died in 1783 at the age of 67.

John Phibbs advises that there was a £32 payment made to the painter Gainsborough in 1782, noted in Brown’s accounts. There is no information presently known as to its purpose.

The original terracotta is presently on display at Burton Constable.

Pleass make contact about acquiring a bronze for your permanent collection.

a spiritual return to Stowe

A trip to Stowe House took the terracotta head back to Brown’s former stamping ground. Approaching on a rainswept day, entry to the front of the house opened on to the North Hall, complete with old Stoic David Wynne’s contemporary busts, leading into the Marble Hall where we were to unveil Brown, under the fine ceiling with its oval oculus.


The Headmaster of Stowe School, Anthony Wallersteiner, gave a formal welcome for the head and to a group of young curatorial professionals visiting the UK on the Open Palace programme, before it moved onto the South Terrace to oversee the al fresco repast whilst keeping an eye on the breathtaking vista extending from the loggia.

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Later, Nick Morris, Chief Executive of the Stowe House Preservation Trust led a group down to the evocative Discovery Centre in hte vaulted cellars, where the terracotta head was manoeuvred carefully into position by House Custodian Anna McEvoy –  it now sits next to the parish register recording Lancelot’s Brown marriage and the baptism of his first child.

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You can visit Stowe House and see both for yourself this summer! Plan a trip here.


a link to Brown

The free Lenses on a Landscape Genius exhibition at The Building Centre in Store Street has now been extended to run until the end of August. This week, Steffie Shields and I gave a talk to a group of people including a great-great-great-great-grandson of our ‘Capability’, seen here below talking with me; and with Steffie and Hal and Cass Moggridge scrutinising the Brown head on the entrance stairs to the exhibition. An honoured guest now the head is complete.

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Rejecting hypotheses

A0 BROWN.inddWe discussed in an earlier post that analysing the portraits of Brown, it became clear that the viewing angle of the sitter was identical, and there were curious similarities in their make-up. Using Photoshop to overlay the portraits and observe characteristics of both at the same time, even the lights of eyes were identically placed. But yet these works would have been produced miles apart at different times.

Tracking down the original paintings was the only way that establishing a common link was possible, as whilst computer technology can compare the relative proportions of images, only scrutinising the physical objects yields their true relative size. If they proved to be identical then it made it more likely that the image attributed to Cosway was directly taken from the Dance, perhaps pricked out into canvas from a paper ‘cartoon’, just like frescos were made.

highlights of eyesA trip to Hampton Court Palace saw the Cosway painting in public for the first time. The distance between the whites of the eyes was 53mm. The National Portrait Gallery’s original Dance portrait was on loan to Twickenham and the curator confirmed that the same measurement was different – 58mm! So a hypothesis is quashed, but the Cosway is clearly derived from the earlier Dance. What is also interesting is that a number of acknowledged Dance copies have similar brushwork to the Cosway.

And what progress with the clay?

The final work was moulded in silicone at the foundry. This often partially destroys sections of the surface of a damp clay, so any bronze casts are the true final image of the work in this instance. The clay is restored before hollowing and firing at about 950 degrees C. The creation of this terracotta gives a work that will be displayed in curated conditions because of its comparative fragility; it will travel to Stowe where it will be displayed at the Discovery Centre for the summer.

The first bronze was unveiled on 22 June at the London Building Centre, WC1E 7BT as part of the Lenses on a Landscape Genius exhibition which now runs until 29 July, part of the 2016 London Festival of Architecture.

negotiating gaps in knowledge

Working from life, where form is present to observe, is a comparatively easy proposition in comparison to the creation of a posthumous head where one relies on intuition and luck to fill in the gaps.

There are now two clays of Brown, one fired and one unfinished. The earlier one feels caricatured whilst the second definitely has something at certain angles.

The feel of the portraits is that Brown’s head is quite ovoid or ‘egg-shaped’. He has a receding chin line. Overlaying the two images, we can see that the 2nd clay, developed through the same observation but over a longer period with slightly more rigour (and not referencing the first clay), has:

more jut on the chin

a less developed, smaller forehead.

The two have slightly different angles between the nose and the upper/lower parts of the head.


overlaying the portraits, by matching the line of the noses

My next task is to revisit those differences and see if the second clay develops further through adding some of the characteristics from the first. The danger is that if one changes the wrong bit, the character goes; the head becomes weaker. But where the evidence is compromised, it is the only way.

At all times, reassessing the clay in relation to its common angle with the painted portraits is essential.

Winchester outreach sculpture

WP_201603cropThe Hampshire Cultural Trust opened their Capability Brown show last week at Winchester Discovery Centre & Gallery. The exhibition? Not one but TWO, between which is the central atrium where on 31st I set up the second Brown clay to continue to develop it amidst library users. The feedback was useful – some were interested to see how such sculpture develops whilst others gave genuine comments on their feeling on the developing clay in comparision to the few visual documents we have to create it.

Later, the Trust’s Ambassadors event opened to toast the new exhibition and hear from Gilly Drummond, Alan Titchmarsh and Trust chairman Alan Lovell.

Alan Titchmarsh was intrigued about the similarities in the painted portraits after his experiences with the Belvoir TV series. Below, HCT Chief Executive Janet Owen discussing the terracotta of ‘The Northumbrian’ and the first Brown experiment [here looking up at Mr. Titchmarsh…]DSCF3400a

Some useful feedback of the second clay (the first photo) included observation of the lack of hair mass on the reverse side (i.e. the bit I have no information for), a feeling of a slightly academic portrait (i.e. perhaps slightly ‘finer’ than the more florid, solid imagery coming through the painted portraits)… and that the mouth felt about right.

The first clay, in the lower part of the second photo, was generally seen to be slightly caricatured, which fits with its quick build up. It was useful to stop its build up at that point to start afresh, rather than continually rework it.

I understand that the Cosway portrait of Brown may be on display at Hampton Court this summer; it will be intruiging to compare its dimensions relative to the Dances.

The completed clay will emerge at Stowe School at the end of May.

The Brown exhibitions are free and run until 12th June: Winchester Discovery Centre, Jewry Street SO23 8SB. For more information on the Hampshire Cultural Trust, see here

images: HCT/Lena Samuels

To Winchester

Here are some of Sarah Sheldrake’s images from Uppark. On Thursday 31st, this developing clay will join the fired terracottas of The Northumbrian and the first Brown attempt at the Capability Brown exhibitions in Winchester, for an afternoon session working on the clay and an evening Private View. I’ll be at the Winchester Discovery Centre 3.30 -7pm answering questions and working on the developing head!CB_collage01 CB_collage02

Uppark and a second Brown study

As Brown may well have been at National Trust’s Uppark, surveying the scene to look where the landscape’s capabilities lay, I had planned to be outside the Game Larder all day on March 6th, working on the clay head and talking with visitors. As Mother’s Day was bright, over 900 people circulated and the cafe sold out of food – my Brown sources were the nearest I got to the hot bacon baps on the menu close to where I was working.

Two recent blogs here and here give some background to the landscape at Uppark House, in a sleepy bit of the South Downs away from the disturbance of the larger roads. It is a mid eighteenth century informal walled garden, laid out to a plan perhaps attributed to Lancelot Brown, altered and added to in the early nineteenth century by Humphry Repton. The evidence is only the surviving plan in the West Sussex Record Office detailed in Sarah Rutherford’s 2013 Garden Conservation Statement for Uppark. Here for comparison are the References in an attributed 1768 Brown plan for Hills, Horsham (left), with the Uppark plan. It feels like the latter is by an apprentice, but supports the layout style Brown used personally. Brown expert John Phibbs gives a 55% chance of attribution for Uppark (Phibbs (2013), Journal of the Garden History Society 41:2)

There was ice on the ground when I arrived at 9.30 to set up, and my hat stayed in place all day. (I am confident Brown would have probably worn a forerunner to 19C longjohns whilst surveying in such temperatures). The cold meant that the clay stayed in good condition whilst working outside, where the sun normally dries the tips of the clay very quickly.

I was alerted to TWO Dance portraits in the main house at Uppark, which could have given some good comparison to the surfaces of the Brown portraits I had already inspected at the National Portrait Gallery. Alas, they were too high and in rooms in conservation-minded shade – they might have well have been posters.

So, what has emerged?

A0 BROWN.inddWhilst readying the headpeg for Uppark after my interpretative ‘reference’ board had arrived from the printer, I quickly threw up some clay late into one evening. A distorted head developed, nearly collapsed through much cutting and chopping around, but I have saved the evidence for firing, covering it and not looking back before putting clay back on the headpeg for Uppark once again. Thus, after Uppark, TWO heads will exist – the former with the Dance wig, the latter with Cosway informality – i.e. a semblance of Brown’s real hair. Comparing the two will be extremely interesting as it will contrast two independent periods of observation of the Brown sources, the second perhaps benefiting from the experience of the first. But it feels that the retention of these works – rather than continual reworking of one clay – could be useful for the third build which will be visible in progress at the Brown exhibition at Winchester on the afternoon of 31st March.

It will also be more useful for the viewer, able to see the stage development of a sculptor’s perception of Capability Brown. With two other 2016 Brown sculpture projects – Haddonstone bust and a full-figure statue – now having released their images, I still think there is Brown left to find.

Photographer Sarah Sheldrake captured progress through the Uppark day; some of her images in the next Journal post.




The Northumbrian (2016)

Chasing old paintings is all very well but let us return to more serious matters; a sitting which will fill in some of the gaps in knowledge for the posthumous portrait head.

Susan Campbell is a garden historian specialising in walled kitchen gardens and currently researching kitchen gardens, nation-wide, that might have been designed by Brown. A neighbour was born in Northumberland and she thought that he might share some of Brown’s facial characteristics. Indeed, on comparing his features with the Dance portrait, there was some similarity which I was keen to investigate further.

I am grateful for her perception and help in making this portrait come about, and for my sitter’s time and patience. I am hollowing the clay now so, whilst it will not be fired for Uppark on 6th March, it might accompany me to Winchester for the opening night of the two Brown exhibitions there. It will contribute to the thoughts for the Brown head, but it is, most importantly, an interesting portrait in its own right.

So how many Nathaniel Dances are there?

Hmm. So we have observed one in the National Portrait gallery. My guess is the original, as stated. NPG6049; rectangular image, dark surroundings, thickish paint. Inscription. Acquired 1989 from a Brown descendent.(detail – my image)

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There is also a copy or ‘after Dance’, acquired much earlier. NPG1490, acquired 1908 from one Warren Trevor Esq. It has an oval visible canvas, thinner paint; canvas character visible.(detail – my image)

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There is one at Burghley, which is shown in two web images. Jane Brown’s biography refers to the Burghley portrait sitter’s jacket as in ‘a sober green’.

interior-with-a-portrait-of-capability-brown-by-nathaniel-dance-burghley-houseThere was also recent TV coverage of Belvoir, where a Dance hangs behind Alan Titchmarsh. Here is a screen grab; Karen Lynch of Yorkshire Gardens Trust identifies that it is the same frame and panelling as our Burghley above, but with television lighting:Screen Shot 2015-09-24 at 21.41.26There is an image on National Trust’s main web site which is much more ‘polished’ (did they use lip gloss in the 18th century? or LED spotlights?) and does not appear to be any of the former. It appears to be at Wimpole, here.Screen Shot 2016-02-16 at 21.06.58So that is four. Are there more Dance copies out there? Please make contact if you know of another location of a permanent work akin to these, as an inventory in 2016 would be a fine achievement if it does not exist already. Their lines of provenance may indeed give clues to the degree in which the portraits were originally valued or even hint at how and when they were created… as well as when and if they were restored.

Note: the use of photo editing and management by website staff may mean that generalisations are made here with images that are in easy public web access. Access to the originals is the only way of judging properly – seek out the works and study them. The Dance original will be travelling from NPG, London (not currently on view) to several locations during the 2016 Tercentenary. Get thee to Harrogate for 24th June!