While history in its baldest telling is a matter of immutable fact, historical reputation is something altogether more fickle. The shifting sands of fashionable regard can be perfectly – and topically – exemplified by the career of Lancelot “Capability” Brown. As readers are probably aware, preparations are now well under way to celebrate in 2016 the tercentenary of the ‘genius’ Georgian landscaper’s birth, cementing his modern day standing as a more-or-less bulletproof heritage icon. In the era of Brown’s bicentenary, however, dissenting voices were not hard to find – ‘heritage hooligan’, more like:
‘It is to the 4th Earl of Scarbrough that attaches the reproach of having permitted Brown to work his wicked will on Roche Abbey. His lordship paid £3,000 to spoil the ruin and outrage its surroundings‘.¹
Being the trenchant reproof of an early-C20 correspondent to the Sheffield Daily Telegraph and not untypical of a prevalent antiquarian antipathy which by this time attached to Brown’s aesthetical approach. But at Roche Abbey and across the rest of the Sandbeck Park estate, which lies some ten miles east of Rotherham, Lancelot was only doing as he had quite literally been contracted.
That he should set about his work here ‘with Poet’s feeling and with Painter’s eye’ was the peculiarly florid stipulation laid down by Richard Lumley, aforementioned 4th earl, in his formal commission to Brown in 1774. Lumley desired uplifting views from the rooms of his substantially remodelled mansion; though the abbey was never visible from the house, a chestnut avenue arrows westward across the park directly towards the ecclesiastical ruin some 2km distant.
A Cistercian monastery founded in 1147, ‘Roche Abbey is an outstanding example of early Gothic architecture in England, a surviving account of its suppression [being] one of the most important sources describing a monastery’s destruction’. The remnants proved a boon for Lumley, however, providing the earl with a ready-made romantic ruin for which others would have to engage the likes of Sanderson Miller to create. Though ‘archaeologists curse Lancelot for dismantling the cloister and levelling the footprint of the building in the Picturesque cause’, Roche is also notable as Brown’s earliest essay in this direction.²
Today, Roche Abbey is managed by English Heritage but remains the property of the Lumleys, Earls of Scarbrough, part of a now 5,000-acre estate which has passed only by inheritance since 1549. (The original and considerably older family seat, Lumley Castle in County Durham, also remains in their possession, managed as a high-end hotel since 1976.)
In the post-Dissolution carve-up in this part of south Yorkshire it was the local Saunderson family’s land acquisitions which would become the foundation of the Sandbeck estate. Sir Nicholas Saunderson (d.1631) – ‘whose reputation as squire was not an altogether savoury one’ – never lived to see the completion of a house he had commissioned, no impressions of which survive. But the retention of a significant element during its Georgian remodelling would help to give Sandbeck as we see it today it’s singular stamp. Architect James Paine was engaged here in the 1760s, the end result being ‘no doubt one of his most dramatic designs. The garden front in particular, with its projecting portico [over] heavily rusticated arches…is not easily forgotten’.³
The last of the Saunderson line, James, Viscount Castleton died in 1723 leaving his ‘considerable estates’ in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire to his maternal cousin Thomas Lumley, younger son of the 1st Earl of Scarbrough. The two families’ estates would fully coalesce unexpectedly in 1740 when Thomas’ elder brother Richard, 2nd Earl, ‘blew his brains out, for reasons that remain mysterious’ at his house in Grosvenor Square.4 A bachelor when he perished, all now flowed to Thomas.
The latter’s only surviving son, Richard, succeeded in 1752 promptly engaging James Paine to work not at Sandbeck but in developing the 4th earl’s Lincolnshire property at Glentworth. However, his wife, Barbara Savile – herself an heiress who would bring Rufford Abbey in Nottinghamshire to the Lumleys – possibly had other ideas. Long before Lancelot Brown had been anywhere near the place she had declared Sandbeck to be “inexpressibly charming” and in time Paine’s energies would be redirected exclusively to their Yorkshire domain.‘Rising high and high-waisted out of the green park..Sandbeck is unlike any other English house of its date.’4 Its distinctive proportions and plan are largely a function of the major room, the saloon, Paine’s repurposing of ‘a huge chamber traversing the first floor front of the house’, an arrangement by then a century out of fashion.5 This epic space features ‘a superb plaster ceiling of c.1775, perhaps the best in any Paine house’.³
Doubtless beneficial in the project management of Sandbeck’s 1760s remodelling was the ready supply of limestone from the quarry at Roche Abbey, an estate asset never as commercial as it might have been due to poor transport links. (This did, however, leave all the more for other family development schemes – like Skegness. A Saunderson manor since the early C17, the 9th earl (d.1884) would develop its seaside resort potential in the 1870s replacing a coastal hamlet with an entirely new model town, the sea wall promenade built with Roche Abbey stone.)6
The eventual arrival of the railway locally made viable the exploitation of other Sandbeck mineral resources, Maltby colliery being established just NW of the park in the early C20. Not that any such brutal practicalities were ever visible from the big house, of course, thanks to the idyllic cocoon conjoured by Capability Brown in the 250 ha park and beyond. ‘Perhaps no great house in Yorkshire is more out of the way than the Earl of Scarbrough’s seat. Nothing can be seen of it until several sylvan labyrinths and luxuriant groves have been threaded’ – a 1900 observation which still broadly holds, Sandbeck remaining an essentially private domain.
¹ Sheffield Daily Telegraph 11 June 1904.
² Brown, J. The omnipotent magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783, 2011.
³ Pevsner, N. The buildings of England: Yorkshire The West Riding, 1967.
4 Girouard, M. Sandbeck Park, Yorkshire I/II/III, Country Life Oct 1965.
5 Harris, J. The architect and the British country house 1620-1920, 1985.
6 Beastall, T. A North Country estate, 1975.