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The quest to explain to you exactly what the effect of an Ha-ha looks like continues. I posted about the history of Ha-ha some time ago, here, and on the Ha-ha at Stowe, here but earlier this week one of my correspondents emailed to ask me to explain again as he had not quite grasped the concept, and had difficulty envisaging one when he recently re-read Mansfield Park. I am happy to oblige….

I visited Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, above, a few weeks ago. This is the magnificent Adam designed home of the Curzons now owned by the National Trust and the images of the ha-ha that exists there might finally do the trick. So here goes…

The ha-ha runs around the whole of the house and its pleasure grounds, creating a sort of island within the parkland.

As we know, the ha-ha is a sunken fence, one that very importantly prevents livestock from entering the formal gardens of the great house. It is a ditch, sunk beyond a retaining wall, and the great advantage of this type of border enclosure is that, visually,  the view from the house is uninterrupted by walls fences or hedges. This allows the owner or visitor to the house to gaze over the acres of parkland, in the safe and secure knowledge that  the livestock -cattle, deer and sheep- are being prevented from grazing close to the house.

At the formal entrance to Kedleston there is an ironwork fence attached to the retaining we all of the ha-ha, which you can see above

But this, as you can see from this picture take from the entrance to the house, is not particularly visually intrusive. Note the sheep are firmly kept the other side of the ha-ha.

The Ha-ha continues around the pleasure gardens, and from this point on does not have the additional railings found a t the formal entrance facade.

This, above, and below is part of the retaining wall beyond the stables.

You can clearly see how the land has been cut away from the retaining wall: the bench on the right is almost level with the top of the retaining wall.

The rear of the house has views over lawns to the rising hills of the parkland…

You can see the ha-ah- but only by noticing the difference in the grass colour. The cultivated lawns as opposed to the less well tended parkland (complete with sheep) are of a slightly different hue .

But this difference lessens the further away from the ha-ha you are, as you can see from this photograph:

A small summer-house has been built upon the ha-ha at one point in the garden.

You can see the parkland (and a sheep!) beyond it….

This is a delightful building, and when you enter it, you can, by looking through the windows,see the slope of the ha-ha falling away dramatically from the retaining wall :


This, above, is the view from the right hand window looking out onto the parkland.

You can see how dramatically the parkland falls away from the wall: this prevents any animals in the park begin able to jump over the retaining wall and enter the pleasure gardens.

And of course, it is really the view from the house that is important: this view is of the lawns at the rear of the house, leading towards the ha-ha onto the rising hills of the parkland

The ha-ha is virtually invisible.

I do hope this helps you visualise exactly what is the effect of the ha-ha on the landscape,and how ingenious it was.

First, a warning: I so enjoyed this book that I devoured it and cannot really be truly objective about it.  It is a wonderful immersion into Brown’s world, with a fascinating list of well written characters, noble or otherwise.It is a page turner and a beautiful tribute to Lancelot Brown, the creator of many wonderful country house landscapes.

Jane Brown has long been one of my favourite writers on the history of gardening and gardeners. Her books on Gertrude Jekyll ( Gardens of a Golden Afternoon) and Vita Sackville West (Vita’s Other World and Sissinghurst)  have long been in My Favourite Books pile, and so I was delighted when she turned her inquisitive eye and elegant prose to “Capability” Brown. (An epithet never applied to him during his lifetime, it ought to be noted)

Lancelot Brown was responsible for creating some of the most sublime country house landscapes made in the eighteenth century. His work, which  achieved a timeless, effortless, natural effect, was distinguished from other lesser designers by allying beauty with practicality. He incorporated every need a great house possessed into  the surrounding coherent landscape, providing forestry areas, lakes, drives and ornamental walks that abutted working fields.Ever practical as well as aware of the art of landscape, he was also known as an agricultural improver. He worked at  most of the most famous and grand estates, and his work can still be enjoyed by visitors to these estates today. In fact so ubiquitous did his work become that many are under the impression that the effect was the result of nature, not his genius. Not so, as Griff Rhys Jones recently commented,  in a BBC programme about  Chatsworth. After viewing  the Brownian landscape that surrounds the house which is so exquisite, he irreligiously and wittily noted:

This is what God would have done had he had the money

And while God didn’t have the money, Brown’s many aristocratic patrons did. One of the first was Lord Cobham at Stowe in Buckinghamshire,(shown below in an engraving from my own collection). Brown’s work and the methods he employed there are very satisfyingly described by Jane Brown in great detail. Visitors to Blenheim, Chatsworth, Harewood, Burghley,Warwick Castle, Charlecote, Lacock Abbey and Wimpole Hall to name a few, can still see his work, in the landscape that surrounds these great houses. And there are many many more examples too numerous to list here (but most are mentioned in the book)

Jane Brown tells Lancelot’s story with ease and with a vivacity that makes it  as easy to read as the very best fiction. We not only follow his career, accompanying him on his ‘circuits’ around the grand estates of England and latterly in Wales, but we also are given insights  into his happy domestic life, meeting  his family and his circle, including his son-in-law the architect Henry Holland.  My favourite  character was his devoted Lincolnshire born wife, Bridget, known  as “Biddy”,  who ,while convivial enough with their friends, such as Pitt the Elder and the actor David Garrick, refused to be patronised by the grand dames who were the wives of Brown’s aristocratic patrons.

He began life in humble circumstances as  as the son of a Northumbrian yeoman farmer  but  due to connections and advantageous commissions expertly executed he became the man who set the fashion and style of English landscape gardening, rising to become The King’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court.

My only gripe with the book is that it while it is copiously illustrated in black and white line drawing and with colour prints within the text, they are few large-scale illustrations to show exactly what effect Brown achieved. For those of us lucky enough to be familiar with his greatest creations Petworth, Blenheim, Harewood, Stowe,etc- it is not much of a problem. But for those who may not be so familiar, I think it does him a disservice. While Turner’s impressionistic view of Blenheim – the sweep from the gate at Woodstock to the house is the magnificent view shown (see below)is included – a modern photograph might have conveyed  a little more of  Brown’s legacy, an effect that now seems so “natural” it is often taken as such.

Here is a photograph of mine of Chatsworth, taken last summer,  and the stunningly beautiful Brownian landscape can clearly be seen.(Please do click on this picture to enlarge it to see in detail how beautiful this landscape truly is)

Did Jane Austen approve of Brown and his works?Probably not. Her maternal family, the Leighs, had steadfastly refused to follow the fashion for landscape gardens at Stoneleigh, given their allegiance to the Stuarts and the old anti Hanoverian order. The 18th century  was a time when adopting fashions in grand gardens was very much a matter of personal and court politics, and their refusal to update Stoneleigh until the early 19th century reflects their stance.

The title  of the book, The Omnipotent Magician is taken from a passage in Cowper’s poem, The Task, wherein he directly criticises Brown and his profession:

He speaks. The lake in front becomes a lawn,

Woods vanish, hills subside and valleys rise,

And streams,as if created for his use,

Pursue the track of his directing wand,

Sinuous or straight,now rapid and now slow,

Now murmuring soft, now roaring in cascades,

Even he bids.

As we know that Jane Austen was an admirer of Cowper and one of her heroines, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park, “her Fanny”, loved him too, and furthermore despised  “improvers”, it is probably safe to assume that she would not have been enamoured of this book or its intriguing subject. But I have been and recommend it to you wholeheartedly.

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