As the paperback edition of her book is published, Fiona Cowell explains how an interest in the history of her house started a long journey that would culminate in the first full biography of Richard Woods, a landscape designer that for too long was overshadowed by his more famous contemporary.
Little did I think when we moved to a decrepit mansion in Essex in 1979, that within a short time I would become obsessed by Richard Woods – or more precisely, by the lack of information about him. With an established interest in architectural and social history, straight after moving in I made a bee-line to the Record Office to see what documents might survive about our house, and discovered that the entire collection consisted of some deeds and a Plan for the Improvement of the grounds round Hatfield Priory, signed by one Richard Woods. Great disappointment, as my sum total of awareness of eighteenth-century landscape design lay in recognition of the name of Capability Brown.
There began an enquiry that lasted on and off for twenty years, into garden history in general and Woods in particular. It started with a booklet by Hugh Prince called Parks in England which was one of the few printed works with a mention of Woods, continued with information from Howard Colvin’s magistral work on architects, and involved many a trip to London to the National Register of Archives (remember, this was before the days of the all-embracing Internet) to browse through the collections of the Record Offices of England. We were restoring the house all that time, the children absorbed all my attention in the holidays, and the usual domestic duties had to be seen to, but fortunately my husband’s work involved a lot of foreign travel and the moment he announced an absence of three days I was on the phone to the next Record Office on my list to book a desk and then a b&b in the locality. As I discovered that much of Woods’s work was in Yorkshire, it usually involved getting up at 3.00 a.m. to be in position at my desk at opening time, typing up my notes on my knees in the evening, and then getting back on the third day in time to collect my husband from his train home. And I found some wonderful documents!
Eventually Garden History published three articles, but of a very factual nature describing what Woods had done where. Some time later I decided to take it a step further, and studied for three years under the charismatic Tom Williamson at UEA. Woods began to emerge as a far more interesting character than I had originally realised, on two main counts: first, that he was a Catholic practising under the penal laws (which incidentally meant that I failed to find records of his birth and first marriage); second and even more important that he was not a “Brownian” – neither pupil not follower of the great man, but with a definite style of his own, best expressed on a terrain probably too small to be contemplated by Brown and for a clientele at gentry rather than aristocratic level. Woods had followers and pupils of his own, and it is obvious that by no means all the designed landscapes that proliferated in the second half of the eighteenth century were in the sweeping style of Capability. This is a facet of the history of garden and park design that is still not fully acknowledged, and that I hope any reader of this book will understand and disseminate it.
This guest post is written by Fiona Cowell