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The Hampton Court Albums of Catherine the Great

Containing drawings, mainly of the palace and its surrounds,

by Capability Brown's draughtsman and surveyor, John Spyers,

purchased by Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia


Mikhail Dedinkin and David Jacques

Foreword by Mikhail Piotrovsky


London: Fontanka, 2016

Hardback. 144 pages. 175 illustrations. 320 x 230mm. ISBN 978-1906257224. £32


Reviewed by Isabelle Baudino

École Normale Supérieure de Lyon




The Hampton Court Albums of Catherine the Great was published to accompany the exhibition "The Empress and the Gardener" held at Hampton Court Palace (April 28th-September 5th, 2016) as part of CB300 – the national festival that celebrated the tercentenary of the birth of Lancelot "Capability" Brown throughout 2016. Featuring interesting portraits of Catherine the Great by Richard Brompton, of Capability Brown by Richard Cosway, as well as impressive pieces from the Wegdwood Green Frog service, the exhibition paid tribute to Catherine's well-known passion for English landscape gardens, while also presenting a new chapter in the story of her self-described anglomania. Focusing on two albums of 149 unsigned drawings found, in the early 2000s, in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, the exhibition has thrown new light upon John Spyers (c. 1731-1798), the artist from whom the Empress had purchased those views of Hampton Court palace and parks in 1783. Spyers was Capability Brown's draughtsman and surveyor when the latter was serving as Chief Gardener to George III, and residing at Hampton Court, between 1764 and 1783. Spyers' topographical views seem to have been instrumental in helping the Russian ruler picture the English style of gardening and the Gothic architecture she wished to emulate. Intending them as guidance for the gardeners at her palace in Peterhof, near St Petersburg, where she was redesigning the park, she spent a tenth of the cost of the whole project on Spyers' drawings.

The book draws together a selection of 100 watercolours and drawings of Hampton Court Palace, parks and gardens, never shown to the public before. This large-format publication with its high-quality reproductions beautifully showcases this remarkable collection [34-141]. Preceded by a foreword by Mikhail Piotrovsky, the Director of the State Hermitage Museum, the views are further introduced by two essays, "The Hampton Court Albums of Catherine the Great" [9-20], by Mikhail Dedinkin, the Hermitage curator who discovered the two albums containing the drawings and attributed them to Spyers, and "John Spyers, Capability Brown's Draughtsman and Surveyor, and his Views of Hampton Court" [23-31], by the distinguished garden historian, David Jacques, former Inspector of Historic Parks and Gardens at English Heritage.

The first essay – a captivating piece on archive fever – recalls the rediscovery of the albums and convincingly documents their attribution to Spyers. It details the composition of Album I (100 views of Hampton Court Palace and its parks) and Album II (49 mixed drawings, out of the original 50, for one has been missing since the 18th century), while also describing the 14 preliminary pencil sketches that were found beneath, or even on the back, of drawings during the restoration procedures undertaken in preparation for the exhibition. The second essay gives an account of Spyers' life and career from his birth, in a family of gardeners and nurserymen, to his becoming Capability Brown's assistant. It argues that Spyers' surveying skills were central to Capability Brown's method of work, providing the gardener with the bases for his designs. Jacques also highlights Spyers' ambition to be recognised as a topographical artist in the 1770s, and argues that his views gathered in Album I, together with his studies of the Raphael cartoons and copies of works by Nicolaes Berchem found in Album II [128-129], testify to his artistic aspirations. Both authors aptly underline the historical significance of those unique visual records of Hampton Court that represent the parks and gardens at the time when Capability Brown ran them. His service there being limited to the maintenance of royal parks, it would be incorrect, however, to see the views as records of Capability Brown's specific works, even though they can be studied as an expression Brown's feeling for nature and ideas about landscape. Both essays also point to shortcomings in Spyers' staffage, and at a certain clumsiness, but without further seeking to define his manner. While his stiff strollers lack the elegance and vividness of Paul Sandby's figures, the Sandbys' Eight Views of Windsor Great Park (1754-1755) could nonetheless be seen as precursors to Spyers' works. His highly finished architectural drawings, on the other hand, are reminiscent of Samuel Wale's accurate portrayals of monuments, in the latter's 1751 views of Vauxhall gardens, similarly peopled with polite visitors, and in his illustrations for Robert Dodsley's London and its Environs Described (1761) which can be consulted as a source on Georgian London's appearance.

On two views (plates 61 [74] and 96 [102-103]), Spyers shows amateur draughtsmen enjoying the parks as pictures. Their presence underlines the picturesque qualities Brown enhanced in his designs and recalls how the appreciation of gardens had become widely pictorialised in Britain. Presenting a collection of hitherto unknown views of Hamtpon Court, this book is thus a valuable source on a historic landscape and on how the vision of a quintessential English garden was shaped.


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