Exhibition | The Empress and the Gardener

Posted in books, catalogues, exhibitions by Caitlin Smits on March 16, 2016

Press release from Hampton Court:

The Empress and the Gardener
Hampton Court Palace, London, 28 April — 4 September 2016

Curated by Sebastian Edwards

Psyers-Privy-Garden-FI-500x281A remarkable collection of watercolour paintings and drawings once owned by the Empress Catherine the Great of Russia will go on show at Hampton Court Palace this spring, as part of the nationwide commemorations marking the 300th anniversary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birth. Never displayed before, the exhibition of almost 60 intricately detailed views of the palace, park and gardens vividly captures Hampton Court during the time when Capability Brown served there as Chief Gardener to King George III. The intriguing history of this collection, which lay forgotten in the stores of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia for over two centuries, will be explored in The Empress and the Gardener.

Arguably Britain’s most famous landscape gardener, Capability Brown served as Chief Gardener to King George III at Hampton Court Palace from 1764 to 1783. The job came with a handsome salary and residence at the palace, but Brown, who famously transformed landscapes across the country, actually did very little to change the palace’s Baroque formal gardens, choosing instead to preserve them out of respect for his predecessors. Nevertheless, by the time he moved into royal service, he was already operating a busy landscaping business, and winning international acclaim as one of the most famous proponents of the ‘English Style’ of landscape design.

Famously a voracious consumer of foreign culture, Catherine the Great was a great admirer of all things English, declaring to the philosopher Voltaire that “Anglo-mania rules my plantmania.” She built herself an ‘English Palace’ and ‘English Park’ at her palace at Peterhof, with the help of British designers but was unable to find a Capability Brown of her own. Seizing a lucrative opportunity, a figure in the shadows, John Spyers, assistant to Brown, sold two albums of his detailed drawings from Brown’s home and workplace, Hampton Court Palace, to the Empress for the huge sum of 1,000 roubles.

Quite how Spyers managed to achieve this extraordinary coup remains a mystery, but ironically the Empress found herself the possessor of an album of drawings of a palace landscape which Brown himself had barely touched. The albums, which alone had cost Catherine a tenth the price of creating her new gardens, disappeared in her collection at the Hermitage (now the State Hermitage Museum) and lay forgotten for over two centuries before being rediscovered by Hermitage curator Mikhail Dedinkin in 2002.

Today, the Spyers views are a unique survival: the richest and most revealing record of how Hampton Court gardens looked when Brown was in charge. Together they are considered one of the most complete visual records of any historic landscape ever captured before the dawn of photography. From rare glimpses of the ordinary people who lived in or visited the palace and its gardens, to evocative details of Hampton Court’s celebrated courtyards, passageways and picturesque corners, they explore an almost-forgotten period in the palace’s history in vivid detail.

The Empress and the Gardener will see these rare works go on public display for the first time, in the very setting that inspired their creation. The exhibition will also feature contemporary portraits of Capability Brown and the Empress Catherine, previously unseen drawings of Catherine’s ‘English Palace’ in the grounds of Peterhof near St. Petersburg and several pieces of the famous ‘Green Frog’ dinner service, a triumph of British design created for the Empress by Wedgwood, featuring images of some of the celebrated landscapes where Brown worked across England.

Sebastian Edwards, exhibition curator, said, “We are thrilled to be able to present this remarkable window into a forgotten Georgian era in the palace’s past, in the year when garden lovers up and down the country are celebrating the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown’s birth. We hope that after enjoying The Empress and the Gardener our visitors will follow in John Spyers’s footsteps, out into Hampton Court’s magnificent gardens and discover how they have changed over the centuries.”

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From Artbooks.com:

Mikhail Dedinkin and David Jacques, The Hampton Court Albums of Catherine the Great, (London: Fontanka 2016), 160 pages, ISBN: 978-1906257224, £32 / $45.


This album publishes, for the very first time, 100 hitherto unknown watercolours/drawings of Capability Brown’s designs for Hampton Court Palace gardens. These were purchased by Empress Catherine the Great of Russia through her own gardener James Meader, a disciple of Capability Brown, and then forgotten in the Hermitage stores. John Spyers, the artist to whom the albums have been attributed by Hermitage curator Mikhail Dedinkin, was Brown’s surveyor. Catherine the Great paid the huge sum of 1,000 roubles for them in the early 1780s and they were clearly bought as Capability Brown drawings. Almost no other visual material about Hampton Court and its gardens and park at the period when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was the resident Royal Gardener has survived, so the importance of these views, which have never been published or on exhibition before, cannot be overstated.


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