250 year old Owl House could be ‘long-lost’ Capability Brown Design
Is an 18th century banqueting house nestling in the heart of the Northumberland countryside a long lost Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown design?
The Owl House stands in Wallington’s picturesque walled garden, which it has always been suggested local lad Brown had a hand in moving to its present location.
National Trust staff at the property at Cambo just two miles from where England’s greatest garden designer was born and raised at Kirkharle, say that being the case, it’s not “inconceivable” to think he would have designed the charming Palladian-style Owl House set into the garden wall.
Now the public is to be asked to vote on whether they believe the attractive three storey brick building is a Capability Brown creation.
And with renovation work earmarked in the near future, the National Trust is also encouraging visitors to have their say on what use the Owl House should be put to.
The Brown conundrum comes as Wallington prepares to join in nationwide festivities marking 300 years since the birth of the man whose fluid and naturalistic garden designs are synonymous with England’s green and pleasant land.
A host of exhibitions, talks, walks and family-friendly events are planned over the coming months to celebrate the life of the Shakespeare of English garden design who would have walked through Wallington on his way to school in Cambo.
Yet despite Brown’s obvious links to Wallington, there has been little visible evidence to suggest he played an active role in the creation of the wider estate, other than advising Sir Walter Blackett on the design of his new pleasure grounds at nearby Rothley in the 1760s and 1770s.
But new information has now been unearthed that could indicate the contrary.
Another structure similar to the Owl House is attributed to Brown in a stately home garden in Wales. And plans held at the ancestral home of the Marquesses of Bute in Scotland also bear striking parallels.
Paul Hewitt, Wallington’s Countryside Manager, believes the signs point to the Owl House being Brown’s handiwork too.
“There is a building in Talacre Garden in North Wales that looks very like our Owl House that is ascribed to Brown, as well as drawings of something similar held at Mount Stuart on the Isle of Bute.
“Both are set into kitchen garden walls as our Owl House is, and both were banqueting houses.
“Brown never worked at Mount Stuart itself, but he was commissioned by the Bute family to design gardens for them in both England and Wales. It is possible that the Mount Stuart building is an imported design of Brown’s.
“Over the years it has been suggested that in the 1760s while visiting Northumberland, Brown advised Sir Walter Blackett not just on the Rothley scheme, but relocating Wallington’s walled garden from one part of the East Wood to its present location in the north east corner.
“As such, it is not inconceivable to believe he had a hand in designing the Owl House that now looks over it and beyond to Paine’s Bridge where the B6342 runs.
“James Paine and Brown certainly worked on other grand garden projects, including nearby Alnwick. And the setting for the Owl House and the view you get over the pastoral landscape towards the River Wansbeck, is typical of Brown.”
The Owl House only contains three rooms – one on each floor – and is modest by banqueting house standards. Rather than a place to hold lavish feasts, it would have been a retreat far from the house at the end of the pleasure grounds, where half a dozen people could take afternoon tea and enjoy the view.
So-called because of the carved stone owl that sits atop the pitched roof, the building was at some point in its 250 year history converted to a gardener’s retreat, a position it held until recently when Wallington’s team was moved into new office accommodation.
Now empty, it is currently undergoing investigation when it is hoped original features will be uncovered that may pinpoint further if Brown was responsible for its design.
Paul adds: “The evidence we have probably wouldn’t stand up in a court of law, but it’s good circumstantial evidence.
“Come the summer we will be laying out the proof we do have and asking the public to act as our jury to decide if they think the Owl House is a Brown building, and also the best use the space should now be put to.”
Author Sarah Rutherford is an expert on 18th century buildings whose new book, Capability Brown and his Landscape Gardens, is published on 14 April.
She is due to give a talk on Brown’s life and times at Wallington on 6 May, and while confirming there is nothing to directly attribute the Owl House to him, says: “It is a very beautiful and typical Brown building.
“We can’t say definitely that it is his design, but we do know he was at Wallington. We know the Owl House is contemporary with the garden as it is built into the wall, and Brown was working in the area in the 1760s.
“If he was working on the kitchen garden then it is quite likely he designed the Owl House.”
Sir Walter definitely instructed Brown on Rothley with its high and low lakes. If he had any actual involvement in the High Lake is hard to pin down, but five original plans and drawings of proposed garden buildings dated 1769 and confirmed to be by Brown, lay out his designs for the Low Lake, and a causeway over which the B6342 now runs.
These plans will feature in an exhibition of original Brown drawings due to open at Wallington on 11 June.
Paul Hewitt says: “The area around Wallington was Brown’s home for the first 20 or so years of his life, and it is hard to imagine that as he walked to school in Cambo that he wasn’t influenced by the landscape and that in turn that wouldn’t have inspired the naturalistic designs he became so famous for.
“By the same token it is hard to believe that he didn’t influence the Wallington landscape. Brown retained a close connection with his home county throughout his life, and his brother George was a stonemason at Wallington.”