William Cowper- A critic of Lancelot Brown

Although we are celebrating Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown this year, he was not without his critics. One was the poet William Cowper who lived in Olney – famous for the Pancake Race- and later Weston Underwood, a short distance away.

Cowper is known for his love of the countryside, so you would expect him to enjoy an English Landscape Garden, not a formal one. Yet this is not the case. In a letter to Lady Hesketh he mentions the recent pruning of the Lime Avenue. This was part of the  park garden of the Throckmorton’s of Weston Underwood and ran from the outside of the Wilderness Garden towards the Alcove which Cowper would often visit on his walks.


The Alcove


28 July 1788. To Lady Hesketh.

‘We also, as you know, have scenes at Weston worthy of description, but because you know them so well, I will only say that one of them has, within these few days, been much improved; I mean the Lime Walk. By the help of the axe and the woodbill, which of late have been constantly employed in cutting out all straggling branches that intercepted the arch, Mr Throckmorton has now defined it with such exactness, that no cathedral in the world can show one of more magnificence or beauty. I bless myself that I live so near it; for were it distant several miles, it would be well worth while to visit it, merely as an object of taste; not to mention the refreshment of such a gloom both to the eyes and the spirits. And these are the things which our modern improvers of parks and pleasure grounds have displaced without mercy, because, forsooth, they are rectilinear! It is a wonder they do not quarrel with the sunbeams for the same reason.’



Some of the surviving trees from the Lime Walk.

Cowper is equally forthright in his poem, ‘The Task‘ where he calls Brown the ‘Omnipotent Magician’ who waves his wand to alter the courses of streams and causes valleys to rise. In this case, although he criticises Brown, he also is more intent on ridiculing the vanity of the owners of estates who squander their money and bankrupt themselves to follow the latest trends in gardens and for the sake of being at the height of fashion, they bankrupt themselves, and somebody else gets to enjoy the fruits of their spending.


Storer, who later wrote a book about Cowper’s walks around Olney, claimed that Weston Underwood Park had in fact been designed by Brown, but he was mistaking his Westons; Brown designed Weston in Shropshire. Weston Underwood seems to have been created by the Throckmorton’s themselves and even a cursory visit shows a landscape completely at odds  to brown’s design preferences.

I have been trying to discover more about the gardens at Weston Underwood, but there are very few records concerning the. One document is an agreement to build walls around the garden; the other is an agreement for iron railings to be made at Bedford, which were probably intended for Weston as the surviving pictures do show such railings in front of the house.




I am a garden historian, but a practical one. I resarch how gardening was carried out in the past, rather than just researching gardens. It can be very interesting. Some things that I learn seem to be rather unbelievable. Some other methods are still very practical. Visit my web site- www.historicgardener.co.uk

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One comment on “William Cowper- A critic of Lancelot Brown
  1. While planning a visit in UK under the pretext of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown celebrations, I’m getting more and more interested with his contemporary critics. Thank you for this insight!

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