Audley End House and GardensOriginal Source: Audley End House and Gardens
The impressive house that can be seen at Audley End today is only about a third of the size of the vast mansion created in about 1605–14. The gardens and landscape, shaped by various owners to complement the house, reflect many changes in English garden fashion.
Portrait of Sir John Griffin Griffin (1772) by Benjamin WestEnglish Heritage
In 1763, Sir John Griffin Griffin commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to undertake extensive changes to the landscape at Audley End. Brown is famous for creating landscapes which looked completely natural but in fact were carefully designed, using manmade lakes, rolling hills and tree planting.
A contract was agreed for the landscape to be completed within 13 months, by May 1764, for £660. This was accompanied by a series of plans showing the design in detail.
Interestingly, the plans don’t entirely reflect the changes that were made in the landscape. The river, for instance, bends in the opposite direction.
It was a substantial and ambitious scheme of work to undertake, and it was already behind schedule by the end of 1764.
Lancelot 'Capability' Brown's bill for the landscaping works undertaken for Sir John Griffin Griffin at Audley EndOriginal Source: AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Brown’s involvement with Audley End seems to have ended in 1767, and a series of stiff, formal letters show Sir John’s unhappiness with the work as completed and the amount of money paid.
Letter from Lancelot 'Capability' Brown to Sir John Griffin Griffin regarding the landscaping works undertaken at Audley EndOriginal Source: AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Brown complained that delays to his payment had resulted in a financial loss and requested extra money. Sir John was adamant that he owed nothing and was further angered when Brown wrote to him without including the doubled ‘Griffin’ in his surname.
Letter from Sir John Griffin Griffin to Lancelot 'Capability' Brown regarding the landscaping works undertaken at Audley EndOriginal Source: AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS, ENGLISH HERITAGE
The disagreement continued with Brown accusing Sir John of being unforgiving, dishonourable and blinkered. In response, Sir John outlined how he was dissatisfied with the work and the final cost. This is the final letter between them.
View of Audley End House over landscaped gardens designed by Lancelot 'Capability' BrownOriginal Source: AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Despite the disagreement between the two men, many of the changes suggested by Brown were realised and can still be seen in the landscape today.
The lawn in front of Audley End HouseOriginal Source: AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS, ENGLISH HERITAGE
The simplicity of the rolling lawn in front of the house was carefully designed to complement the house, river and carriage drives. The land was planted with grass and clover to cover any traces of the works.
Aerial view of Audley End showing the sweeping carriage drivesOriginal Source: AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Brown created sweeping carriage drives around his new lawn and leading up to the house. The drives were enclosed within loose groups of trees, through which glimpses of the house, bridge and river could be seen.
The river at Audley EndOriginal Source: AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS, ENGLISH HERITAGE
The canal form of the river was changed to a more flowing outline to create the illusion of a ‘natural’ smooth lake. It was intended to be 100 feet (30.5 metres) wide and 4 feet (1.2 metres) deep, but this was never achieved.
View of Audley End from the South East (1788)English Heritage
Divided from the house by the London Road, the park continues up to Ring Hill. At the top stands the Temple of Victory, designed by Robert Adam in 1772.
Designed to catch the eye, the temple provides a focal point in Brown’s spacious landscape.
Close to the house Brown designed a more formal garden, with flower borders and winding shrubberies. The garden was a gift from Sir John to his first wife. Only the large cedar of Lebanon (Cedrus libani) survives from these changes.
Brown used ha-has in many of his designs as they allowed an uninterrupted view while preventing animals from entering the formal gardens. At the time, they were often referred to as ‘sunk fences’.
‘View of Audley End From West 1782’ by Edmund GarveyOriginal Source: AUDLEY END HOUSE AND GARDENS, ENGLISH HERITAGE
Audley End is often described as a ‘Capability’ Brown landscape in miniature, because it has all of the features Brown is most famous for, including a haha, sinuous river, sweeping lawn and carriageways, as well as shelterbelts and clump tree planting.
Fortunately, the garden’s final design does not reflect the turmoil involved in its creation.Today, the landscape serenely stretches out in front of the house, a showcase for Brown’s overall vision.
Text by Emily Parker
All images are copyright of Historic England, except for ‘View of Audley End From West 1782’ by Edmund Garvey, which is from a private collection, and the letters between Lancelot ’Capability’ Brown and Sir John Griffin Griffin, which are reprodued courtesy of the Essex Record Office.