Gatton Park is probably Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s least famous landscape. It is tucked away near Reigate Hill, just beyond the M25, and even in the 300th anniversary year of Brown’s birth it is an unlikely place to visit. Because it shares its plot with a school and stables, you can only go on the first Sunday of the month or if you arrange a tour in advance. A bother, I grant you, when there are so many glorious landscapes to explore elsewhere. But Gatton Park has other attractions, too.
For more than 50 years, from 1888, this was the estate of the ‘Mustard King’, Sir Jeremiah Colman. An hour or two spent touring the 260-acre plot by golf buggy may well leave you hungry for an old-fashioned Mustard Bath (‘It will supple your limbs…steady your nervous systems!’).
It might also make you feel like a member of the Mustard Club, the ingenious advertising idea dreamed up for Colman’s in the 1920s by the crime writer Dorothy L. Sayers. The club was designed to make Colman’s more than a condiment, and turn its members into living proof of the Wodehous-ian slogan that ‘Mustard Maketh Methuselahs’. It issued badges and formulated rules — no tips, for example, for waiters who left the mustard jar off the table.
You see the same dressing-up and fun-seeking at Gatton Park, even in elements that pre-date Colman. The most amusing is the little Doric temple at the entrance. Ian Nairn and Nikolaus Pevsner called it ‘a very English political joke’: in the 18th century Gatton was a rotten borough, and this was ‘Gatton Town Hall’, where an electorate of no more than 20 voted in two members of Parliament. Yet even the main house feels like Mustard Club territory. While Nairn and Pevsner considered its Corinthian portico to be the finest example of ‘Canova architecture’ in the country, they also observed that, for 1791, it looked ‘70 years late’.
The grounds were certainly spiced up by the mustard influence. As an expert in orchids, and a showman, Colman commissioned the butterfly-shaped Japanese garden, with its tea house, stone lanterns and towering ginkgo tree, and the rock garden, a craggy cascade dominated by alpines. Both are exceedingly pretty, but they depend on the context provided by Capability Brown, who came to Gatton Park 150 years earlier in the service of another baronet, the banking heir Sir James Colebrooke.
As so often, Brown’s work is not instantly obvious. There are no follies, no showy adornments — just sweeping vistas that integrate the architecture into the landscape and look as though they have been there forever. Water flows from one pond to another along one of Brown’s characteristic serpentines, and into a magnificent 30-acre lake. To create a seamless view from the house across the water, Brown constructed a ha-ha, over which Canadian soldiers later rode their amphibian machines as they prepared for the D-Day landings.
Best of all, Brown arranged the panoramic view of the house from the far side of the lake. Linger here, and the reflections of Capability and Colman slowly begin to merge in the water.