BELOW This undated oil painting of the house and lake at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, shows the mid-18th-century ideal of the house reflected in the lake. In this case, the picture was perhaps intended to show what the house would look like to future generations, because the trees would not have been as mature as this at the time when the house and lake were made. Such paintings also tell us about the ways in which lakes were used: for fishing and boating, as well as for bankside picnics and painting and reading excursions.

Looking at lakes as ornaments in the landscape

For a visitor to a late 18th-century country seat, the most striking feature of the landscape, apart from the house, would have been the lake. For that reason, it is all the more surprising these bodies of water have had such little attention from garden historians and archaeologists. Perhaps that is because it is assumed that they are natural, and that the house site was chosen to overlook the water, whereas the opposite is usually the case, as Chris Catling now reports.

Start

Imagine a stately home or historic park and the chances are that your mind’s eye sees a large and distinctive house fronted by a lake: perhaps Castle Howard in Yorkshire, or Bowood in Wiltshire. A large body of tree-fringed water, serving as a complement to the house, is almost part of the definition of stately home, and we tend to take for granted the pairing of the two. Yet, as Wendy Bishop points out in her newly published book on the origins and evolution of the ornamental lake, we need to take a closer look, because nearly all the lakes in England are artificial (with the exception of those in the Lake District and a handful elsewhere), and almost none of these existed before c.1720.

This undated oil painting of the house and lake at Buscot Park, Oxfordshire, shows the mid-18th-century ideal of the house reflected in the lake. In this case, the picture was perhaps intended to show what the house would look like to future generations, because the trees would not have been as mature as this at the time when the house and lake were made. Such paintings also tell us about the ways in which lakes were used: for fishing and boating, as well as for bankside picnics and painting and reading excursions. Image: The Trustees of the Faringdon Collection.

Information about when they were made, how, and by whom is very scarce. Historic England’s lists of designated buildings and designed landscapes might mention a lake but generally provide no further information. One reason for this is the lack of documentation. For her book, Wendy has had to approach the issue of dating by scouring maps to see when the lake is first shown (though that could be some years after its construction), as well as reading ledgers, letters, diaries, and published works for references to water. The task is not made any easier by the terms used to describe a body of water, including pond, pool, or mere. The term ‘lake’ was not routinely used to describe an artificial body of water until the 1790s. Before then, ‘water’ was the term commonly used, as in ‘the Great Water’, ‘the Piece of Water’, ‘the Intended Water’, and ‘the Broad Water’.

Above Garden buildings, like the Pantheon at Stourhead, Wiltshire, were carefully sited to create reflections in the lake. Many of the topographical paintings of the second half of the 18th century show the main house reflected in the lake’s surface, even when this is impossible (as at Corsham Court, Wiltshire) because the house is too far from the water and at the same level with it, rather than raised.
Garden buildings, like the Pantheon at Stourhead, Wiltshire, were carefully sited to create reflections in the lake. Many of the topographical paintings of the second half of the 18th century show the main house reflected in the lake’s surface, even when this is impossible (as at Corsham Court, Wiltshire) because the house is too far from the water and at the same level with it, rather than raised.

The author’s own definition is a body of water of a hectare or more, intended primarily for aesthetic pleasure and recreational use (although capable of being used to stock fish), and having a visual relationship to the house. A hectare is about the same size as London’s Trafalgar Square and is a large enough area to be depicted on most maps, estate plans, or topographical engravings. Size is one way of distinguishing a lake from a fishpond, moat, or millpond, and ornamental lakes tend to have an irregular outline, distinguishing them from the more rectilinear water gardens of an earlier age. The most significant difference is that a lake is replenished by a river and has to be sited along a suitable watercourse, whereas ponds, usually lined with puddled clay, can be located anywhere and they rely on rainwater or a leet or conduit bringing water to them from a nearby spring or watercourse.

From the data she has gleaned from maps and journals, Wendy has constructed a broad chronology of ornamental lakes, showing that the first irregular one in England dates from c.1719. They increased in numbers in the following decades and reached a peak in the 1760s to 1770s, when new lakes were being constructed at the rate of 60 a year. They continued to be made in smaller numbers throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, but the general trend was downwards, especially after c.1820 as landscape fashions changed.

below The Temple of Flora and the Palladian Bridge at Stourhead, illustrating the influence of Italy and the Grand Tour and of the idealised landscapes of paintings by Claude Lorrain and his followers on the design of lakes in the 18th century.
The Temple of Flora and the Palladian Bridge at Stourhead, illustrating the influence of Italy and the Grand Tour and of the idealised landscapes of paintings by Claude Lorrain and his followers on the design of lakes in the 18th century.

From Fisheries to fancy features

Bodies of water had, of course, been a feature of designed landscapes for many hundreds of years prior to the 18th century. The production of freshwater fish for the table using large breeding ponds (vivaria) and smaller storage ponds (servatoria) was a common feature of monastic and aristocratic landscapes throughout the medieval period. These tended to take the form of a series of rectilinear cavities, lined with puddled clay, with fish of different ages kept in separate ponds to prevent larger fish from preying on fry and to make it easier to take mature fish for consumption, gift-giving, or payment of dues. More naturalistic contour ponds could also be made, like those that survive today as ornamental features in Cirencester’s Abbey Grounds public park, originally built as a series of linked fish breeding ponds by diverting a branch of the River Churn.

Fish-production systems like this required investment in the creation of the ponds and their maintenance, all of which were skilled jobs. Glastonbury Abbey’s fish ponds were at Meare, in Somerset, 3.5 miles from the monastery, and the prestigious stone-built Fish House overlooking the mere is an indication of the value of the fish and of the status of the official in charge of the fishery, for whose accommodation it served. The late Christopher Taylor has also drawn our attention to the role of moats to surround monastic buildings, castles, and prestigious residences in the medieval period as symbols of power and status rather than primarily for defensive reasons, with notable examples at Kenilworth (Warwickshire), Framlingham (Suffolk), Herstmonceux and Bodiam (both East Sussex), as well as at Scotney and Leeds (both Kent).

above Prior Park, on the outskirts of Bath, Somerset, is an example of a split-level lake, where two separate bodies of water (both of them former fish ponds) are made to look like one large lake by the careful siting of the dam at the change of levels.
Prior Park, on the outskirts of Bath, Somerset, is an example of a split-level lake, where two separate bodies of water (both of them former fish ponds) are made to look like one large lake by the careful siting of the dam at the change of levels.

At Kenilworth, originally built by Geoffrey de Clinton in 1125, we can see the forerunner of the purely ornamental lake (the Great Pool) as it evolves from a part of the castle’s defences, with fish ponds to the south-west, into a stage set for aristocratic entertainment and the construction of a large walled garden, or pleasance, on the wooded banks of the lake in 1417, to which guests would be taken for half a mile by boat. Earlier still, the stone pavilion, or gloriette, overlooking the moat at Leeds Castle, built by Edward I in 1279 for his queen, Eleanor, emphasises the aesthetic role of the moat, here backed by vineyards like a scene from the Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry.

The origins of ornamental lakes

Despite these earlier examples, Wendy Bishop argues that ornament for its own sake did not apply to water in the landscape until the early modern period, and that most of the credit for the concept should go to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Brown’s contribution to landscape design was to break down the barrier between garden and park, extending the concept of the garden to the entire landscape, thus working with a far larger canvas than had been the case in the past, when the transition from the formal (and often rigidly linear) cultivated parterres, avenues, canals, orchards, and walled gardens close to the house and the more naturalistic meadows, woodland, and deer park beyond was much more abrupt.

Brown was not alone in this: the ha-ha – an invisible barrier designed to give the illusion of continuity between garden and meadow – was popularised in England by Charles Bridgeman and William Kent, beginning with their work at Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, from 1711 to 1730. But Brown was one of the first to use ornamental lakes as a link between the house and the park – using the water to enhance the views to the house from the rides, paths, and carriage drives around the park, as well as the outlook from the house itself.

left There is much evidence to show that fish ponds were appreciated as much for their aesthetic value as their role in food production: for example, this ambulatory at Horton Court, Gloucestershire, was built by Sir William Knight c.1521 for enjoying the views over his fish ponds.
There is much evidence to show that fish ponds were appreciated as much for their aesthetic value as their role in food production: for example, this ambulatory at Horton Court, Gloucestershire, was built by Sir William Knight c.1521 for enjoying the views over his fish ponds. Photo: Tim Mowl.

In his 50-year career, Brown (1716-1783) designed some 250 landscapes, 70 of which included lakes. All told, he was responsible for the design of one third of all the lakes created in England during his lifetime. He could not have done so without being able to call on the resources of specialists in water and drainage engineering. Though lakes have the deceptive air of naturalness and simplicity, their construction, care, and management is complex and costly. Today they must be inspected at ten-year intervals by the Environment Agency because the consequences of a dam burst could be serious. The 9th Marquis of Lansdowne, owner of Bowood in Wiltshire, is quoted as saying that if the dam holding his 16ha lake were to fail, he would flood the centre of Chippenham. Had any of ‘Capability’ Brown’s early examples failed, it is unlikely that he would have been commissioned to design so many or have earned his ‘Capability’ soubriquet.

Brown was able to employ tradesmen who adapted the techniques of fish- and mill-pond construction to the making of ornamental lakes. Most such tradesmen are anonymous, though the account books for Bowood Park – where Brown created a lake in 1766 – record the expenses incurred by John Case and his assistant Richard Darch in travelling for two days (we do not know from where) to Bowood and the fee paid to them of £9.1s.0d for surveying the landscape for a suitable site for a dam, specifying the ‘necessary angles and resistance to the water’, and providing plans and section drawings.

below Ornamental lakes are created by building a dam across the course of an existing river and are not normally lined with clay; instead they rely on the water table and underlying geology to hold water. By contrast, ponds which can be as large as lakes are usually lined with puddled clay, can be located anywhere, and rely on being filled by rainwater or a leat or conduit bringing water to them from a nearby spring or watercourse. In this picture, the course of the original stream can be seen on the edge of the lake at Stourhead, which has been drained for maintenance.
Ornamental lakes are created by building a dam across the course of an existing river and are not normally lined with clay; instead they rely on the water table and underlying geology to hold water. By contrast, ponds which can be as large as lakes are usually lined with puddled clay, can be located anywhere, and rely on being filled by rainwater or a leat or conduit bringing water to them from a nearby spring or watercourse. In this picture, the course of the original stream can be seen on the edge of the lake at Stourhead, which has been drained for maintenance.

Testing the water

The two main sources of information available to Brown at the time were A Discourse of Fish and Fish-Ponds (1714) by Roger North (1653-1734) and the Ichnographia Rustica (1718) of Stephen Switzer (1682-1745), the garden writer and landscape designer who worked on the pools and fountains at Hampton Court Castle, Herefordshire. Switzer bemoans the lack of written instructions for dam-building, but says that ‘in the West, whence this is wrote [sic], every Ploughman and Shepherd is able to make good Reservoirs and Ponds for holding of Water’. Switzer might have been writing from Cirencester, where he influenced the 1st Earl Bathurst’s design of the woods and avenues of Cirencester Park, and it is likely that the skills he said were commonplace related to the creation of ponds and dewponds for watering livestock, rather than anything larger in scale. His comment suggests that a body of specialist knowledge existed that was orally transmitted rather than being written down.

Weirs can be used to construct lakes by holding water back and widening the river upstream, though the resulting lakes tend to be narrower and to hold less water. This combined bridge and weir at Kedleston Park, Derbyshire, was designed by Robert Adam and built c.1771.

Switzer drew heavily on North’s technical blueprint for dam-building, and North himself obtained much of his information, as his title tells us, from the construction of fish ponds. In describing how to create a large fish pond of 2ha, he specified a dam measuring 50ft (15m) at the base and rising to 14ft (4.3m), with sides sloped at an angle to give a top of 16ft (4.9m) in width. At the core of the dam was a substantial wall of puddled clay, which started 2ft (0.6m) beneath the site of the intended dam and rose almost to its entire height (care being taken to prevent the clay from drying while it was being built). The sloping sides and flat top were constructed using material dug out from the ground where the pond was to be located, piled up against the clay core. The dam had to be built 3ft (1m) higher than the required depth of the pond because ‘the earth will sink no matter how hard you ram it to make it solid’.

below At Wotton Underwood, Buckinghamshire, ‘Capability’ Brown used an enlarged version of a bridge-dam to mark the changes in level between two bodies of water. To the visitor crossing the bridge, it looks as if the water flows naturally from one side to the other, whereas the flow from one to the other is controlled by a sluice gate. below right The conduits and sluices that were integral to 18th-century dams are prone to silting and are difficult to repair, so many dams of that period have since been modified to incorporate an open spillway, lined with stone. A by-pass channel, or leat, could also be used to divert water from the lake to the river on the downstream side of the dam.
At Wotton Underwood, Buckinghamshire, ‘Capability’ Brown used an enlarged version of a bridge-dam to mark the changes in level between two bodies of water. To the visitor crossing the bridge, it looks as if the water flows naturally from one side to the other, whereas the flow from one to the other is controlled by a sluice gate.
The conduits and sluices that were integral to 18th-century dams are prone to silting and are difficult to repair, so many dams of that period have since been modified to incorporate an open spillway, lined with stone. A by-pass channel, or leat, could also be used to divert water from the lake to the river on the downstream side of the dam.

At the base of the dam, it was necessary to insert a sluice to let surplus water out in times of flood. Letting the water flow over the top would erode it, although later lakes were built with stone-lined spillways or overflow channels for this purpose. In some instances, an entire hollowed-out tree trunk was used, passing through the base of the dam, and just such a sluice, made from elm, was found during repairs to the dam at Burghley (Lincolnshire) in the 1980s. The alternative was to build a box conduit from timber, sealing the joints with tar and horsehair. Various other refinements are suggested in North’s treatise, including the use of a timber palisade to hold the clay wall during construction and pitched stone to protect the slopes of the dam.

Unlike ponds, lake bottoms and sides were not routinely lined with puddled clay. When the engineer John Grundy was contracted to make a lake for the Duke of Ancaster at Grimsthorpe, Lincolnshire, in 1748, he was worried about the porous nature of the region’s limestone and so proposed a clay lining at the cost of £1,733.10s.0d (equivalent to £177,000 today). Probably because of the expense, the work was never carried out, and it highlights the role of the underlying geology in the creation of lakes, as well as the availability of a suitable watercourse.

above How to make an ornamental lake: first undertake a contour survey of the river valley with your client to determines the desired effects and the best place for the dam. The clay wall at the core of the barrier is critical to the dam’s ability to hold the river water back and prevent leaks that would undermine the structure. The sides are sloped to withstand the resulting water pressure, and a timber or brick-lined culvert is built into the base to let surplus water flow out rather than overtopping the dam.
How to make an ornamental lake: first undertake a contour survey of the river valley with your client to determines the desired effects and the best place for the dam. The clay wall at the core of the barrier is critical to the dam’s ability to hold the river water back and prevent leaks that would undermine the structure. The sides are sloped to withstand the resulting water pressure, and a timber or brick-lined culvert is built into the base to let surplus water flow out rather than overtopping the dam.
right Having built your dam, you can make a feature from it and build a carriage road across the top, or you can disguise it, as here at Bramshill House, Hampshire, with tree-planting and a path.
Having built your dam, you can make a feature from it and build a carriage road across the top, or you can disguise it, as here at Bramshill House, Hampshire, with tree-planting and a path.

The legacy of Lancelot Brown

‘Capability’ Brown’s ability to design naturalistic lakes that looked as if they had been created at the dawn of Arcadian time was based on his intimate knowledge of the landscape, which he surveyed and measured in detail, often walking the terrain with his aristocratic client, following the contours, discussing how high the owner wanted the water to be, planting stakes to mark the borders of the lake, discussing the location of bridges and roads, and drawing on the owner’s knowledge of the underlying soils, geology, and springs. Only then was he able to plan the location of the necessary dam or dams – for sometimes (as at Longleat), a chain of lakes was created, using bridge-dams, weirs, and islands to disguise the changes in level and thus create the illusion of one large lake. Another of Brown’s illusionistic ploys was to plant trees around the ends of the water in such a way as to make it look as if it continued out of sight.

above ‘Capability’ Brown made use of a combined bridge and dam at Bowood, Wiltshire, to create two smaller lakes and avoid having to build the very large dam that would have been needed to create a single body of water. The viewer walking across the bridge sees water on both sides; those following the lakeside path see a cascade. In either case, one is not overly conscious of the difference in water levels.
‘Capability’ Brown made use of a combined bridge and dam at Bowood, Wiltshire, to create two smaller lakes and avoid having to build the very large dam that would have been needed to create a single body of water. The viewer walking across the bridge sees water on both sides; those following the lakeside path see a cascade. In either case, one is not overly conscious of the difference in water levels.

Nor was the creation of the lake the end of the story: Brown’s Longleat and Bowood contracts show that he did a great deal of earth-moving to create smooth, uncluttered grassy slopes gently falling to the banks of the water. Simplifying the landscape had the effect of drawing the eye towards the house, and wherever he could (for example, at Longleat) Brown insisted on the kitchen gardens and stables being relocated away from the house so that the main house and water feature were all that filled the view.

left This view of the lake at Bowood House, Wiltshire, shows the mid-18th-century ideal of a gentle slope from house to lake. Another of ‘Capability’ Brown’s innovations was to include nitrogen-fixing and drought-resistant Dutch clover (Trifolium repens) in the grass seed mix to eliminate the need for fertiliser and ensure an attractive green sward all year round. below Another view of Bowood, Wiltshire, showing how the dam, to the right, has been disguised by tree planting, but is given away by the spillway grill that carries surplus water to the other side of the dam to prevent potentially erosive overtopping.
This view of the lake at Bowood House, Wiltshire, shows the mid-18th-century ideal of a gentle slope from house to lake. Another of ‘Capability’ Brown’s innovations was to include nitrogen-fixing and drought-resistant Dutch clover (Trifolium repens) in the grass seed mix to eliminate the need for fertiliser and ensure an attractive green sward all year round.
Another view of Bowood, Wiltshire, showing how the dam, to the right, has been disguised by tree planting, but is given away by the spillway grill that carries surplus water to the other side of the dam to prevent potentially erosive overtopping.

Carriage drives were planned to choreograph the views of the house and lake as visitors entered the park, catching glimpses through woodland from carefully staged viewpoints, then enjoying the grand panoramic view as they emerged from the trees. Garden historians have suggested that there is something almost cinematic about the effect of views constructed to entertain and surprise, and the title sequence of many a TV costume drama or feature film has continued to capture this experience today. Such effects could involve planting trees and flattening hills (as at Bowood) on a substantial scale. Perimeter carriage drives were planned around the water so that visitors could enjoy the landscape in the new light carriages (phaetons) that were becoming popular at the time.

above Lakeside walks became a popular form of outdoor activity, especially for women, as this watercolour (c.1845) by Caleb Robert Stanley illustrates: it shows guests of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert taking a stroll around the perimeter of the lake to enjoy the birdlife.
Lakeside walks became a popular form of outdoor activity, especially for women, as this watercolour (c.1845) by Caleb Robert Stanley illustrates: it shows guests of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert taking a stroll around the perimeter of the lake to enjoy the birdlife. Image: The Royal Collection Trust

Brown was the pre-eminent lake-maker of his day, responsible for some of today’s best-known landscapes (at Croome and Compton Verney in Warwickshire, Longleat and Bowood in Wiltshire, Blenheim in Oxfordshire, and Burghley in Lincolnshire). We only know the names of approximately eight other lake-makers from the 18th century and none of them was very prolific, most designing only one or two each. That means that some two-thirds of the lakes made during the peak period for construction were the work of unknown designers – very probably the owners themselves, inspired by Brown’s landscapes and perhaps collaborating with their head gardeners or estate labourers.

Troubled waters and the turn of the century

By the time of Brown’s death in 1783, lake-making was already in decline. Just as the irregular naturalistic landscape was the early 18th century’s reaction against the more formal gardens of the previous century, so the later part of the century began to see Brown’s placid waters and smooth lawns as old-fashioned and just a little too tame. The new fashion was for the Picturesque, which in terms of water translated into the turbulence of rushing mountain streams and the crash and roar of cascades.

Two prolific and influential writers are associated with the new style: John Claudius Loudon (1783-1843) and William Sawrey Gilpin (1761-1843). Neither of them designed any lakes, but they were very clear about the desired effects. Loudon recommended giving the shoreline a more broken and rocky character, ‘excavating the ground work’ to allow swirling water to undercut the banks in places and deposit shallows of stone or gravel in others, encouraging the exposure of tree roots and lakeside geology. Gilpin was completely opposed to the Brown ethos of linking house and park, and called his predecessor’s landscapes ‘bald’ and ‘insipid’. He wanted banks to be broken by workmen with pickaxes and left to find their own natural form. Trees should be planted right up to the lake margin and even encouraged to lean over the water for the benefit of their reflections, rather than being stepped back to allow for a carriage drive.

above Like the Serpentine in Hyde Park, the lake in the grounds of London’s Buckingham Palace was originally fed by the River Westbourne, which rises on Hampstead Heath to flow into the Thames just south of Chelsea Bridge. By the late 1830s, the river was so polluted that it was diverted into a sewer, and the two lakes are now fed by water pumped up from deep boreholes.
Like the Serpentine in Hyde Park, the lake in the grounds of London’s Buckingham Palace was originally fed by the River Westbourne, which rises on Hampstead Heath to flow into the Thames just south of Chelsea Bridge. By the late 1830s, the river was so polluted that it was diverted into a sewer, and the two lakes are now fed by water pumped up from deep boreholes. Photo: The Royal Collection Trust.

Where the topography allowed, cascades were added to existing lakes, but the difficulty of creating animated water was acknowledged by both authors. The Picturesque ideal of water tumbling over rocky cascades was not commonly realised until the mid-19th century and the invention of Pulhamite, a synthetic rock that could be made to resemble many different types of natural stone. The ability of James Pulham & Co to supply rocks of any type led to the proliferation of waterfalls from the 1850s, as well as cliffs, caves, gorges, and canyons that blended in with the natural geology and that could be deployed on a relatively small scale. Many a low cascade falling into a small pond was built in public gardens or in the grounds of the relatively restricted gardens of the Victorian nouveaux riches, as well as much more ambitious examples, such as those at Sheffield Park (East Sussex), Audley End (Essex), Waddesdon Manor (Buckinghamshire), Sandringham (Norfolk), and Buckingham Palace.

below Many a cascade was constructed in the later 18th and early 19th centuries as the taste for moving water superseded that for calm reflective surfaces. This cascade at the head of the lake on the grounds of Buckingham Place now does double duty: as well as introducing sound and movement, it aerates the water entering the lake, for the benefit of aquatic wildlife.
Many a cascade was constructed in the later 18th and early 19th centuries as the taste for moving water superseded that for calm reflective surfaces. This cascade at the head of the lake on the grounds of Buckingham Place now does double duty: as well as introducing sound and movement, it aerates the water entering the lake, for the benefit of aquatic wildlife. Photo: The Royal Collection Trust.

The story of lakes does not stop in 1900, although very few new ornamental lakes have been made since then. Instead, the technical blueprint that was passed on from medieval fish ponds to early modern ornamental lakes was adopted and improved by the reservoir-builders of the late 18th and 19th centuries, supplying the water that powered the Industrial Revolution. Early reservoir dams, like that built by Robert Thom (1774-1847), the inventor of the sand-based water filtration system that is used to this day to supply clean drinking water, evolved out of ornamental lakes. He built Loch Thom in 1827 to provide water to the town of Greenock, using the same clay-core dam techniques that ‘Capability’ Brown deployed. Arguably these reservoirs are the ornamental lakes of our day, bodies of water that are the arena for a variety of leisure activities, including walking, sailing, fishing, and bird-watching.

Further reading
Wendy Bishop (2021) Ornamental Lakes: their origins and evolution in English landscapes, Routledge, £34.99, ISBN 978-0367894184.
Claire Masset (2021) Buckingham Palace: a royal garden, Royal Collection Trust, £14.95, ISBN 978-1909741690.
Images: Wendy Bishop, unless otherwise stated.