Lancelot (Capability) Brown and John Spyers

By Ron Spiers, May 2003


Capability Brown, to give him his commonly used name. was born in the small village of Kirkharle, Northumberland, England in 1715 and died in 1783. Kirkharle is 20 miles North West of Newcastle upon Tyne. He is famous for the landscapes he built for the nobility. Prior to his work the gardens of big country houses were in the formal French style. His designs were based on opening up the views from the house so that the English countryside was exposed. To do that he often totally remodelled the landscape, creating lakes which although man-made looked natural, surrounded by wide sweeping lawns planted with what would become, in time, large trees. Anyone visiting the typical English Country House today would almost certainly be looking at what he created or his work influenced. Many such houses are open to the public, either through The National Trust or by courtesy of the owners.

Brown served as an apprentice to Sir William Lorriane and then moved to Buckinghamshire. He was working for Lord Cobham at Stowe in 1741 and came into contact with Vanbrugh and Kent, working with them until he set up his own architectural practice, often carrying out work for both house and garden. In 1764 he was appointed resident Royal Gardener at Hampton Court Palace, former home of Henry V111 on the banks of the Thames at Twickenham, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. Other houses, castles and gardens on which he worked include Audley End House and Gardens, Blenheim Palace, Broadlands, Burghley House, Charlecote Park, Chatsworth, Harewood House, Highclere Castle, Holkham Hall, Ickworth House, Longleat, Moor Park in Hertfordshire, Petworth House, Sheffield Park Garden, Syon Park, and Warwick Castle to name but a few. There are many publications which provide details of his work. Moor Park has another connection. Sir Lawrence Dundas bought it in 1763; his grandaughter Margaret married Alexander Speirs the Glasgow tobacco merchant in 1794, but John Spyers is not related to Alexander Speirs.

It had been assumed that Brown’s designs for his gardens were his own work, he left few working records, but he left an account book covering twenty three of his forty four years of activity and this has helped to piece together his work. It has come to light that John Spyers was his designer. In his genealogical researches in 1994 the author, Ron Spiers, had come across John Spyers, an 18th Cent draughtsman of Grosvenor House, near London Road, Twickenham. He had also found a J. Spires or Spyers, a draughtsman/gardener of Twickenham who in 1748 supplied trees to Horace Walpole, who was a member of Parliament and the younger son of Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1754). Robert had been British Prime Minister for twenty one years. In 1749 son, Horace (1717-1797) was living at Strawberry Hill, on the Thames riverside at Twickenham. In 1748/49 Joshua Spyers was the church warden of Twickenham church and it seemed that John was probably related to Joshua. However the author found no more on the pair, did not connect Spyers to Brown and so did no more research at the time.

In April 2003 a new publication was produced, Hermitage Magazine, by Cultureshock Media, of London. It is devoted to celebration of the 300th anniversary of one of the worlds most famous museums, the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. It includes an eight page article with eleven watercolour reproductions, entitled, Hampton Court Rediscovered. On a visit to England in 2001, the Hermitage curator, Mikhail Dedinkin, identified 149 drawings in the Hermitage store as the work of John Spyers, assistant to Capability Brown. It is the only surviving record of how Hampton Court gardens looked when Brown was in charge. Up until then the drawings were described as the work of an unknown artist.

Catherine the Great of Russia bought two albums of the palace of Hampton Court in the 1780’s, clearly buying Brown rather than Spyers. The first album is folio size and contains 100 views of Hampton Court gardens. The second album contained a mixed bag of sketches, landscape views, architectural designs and copies of heads by Raphael. By the end of the 18th century the significance of the albums was lost and one of the albums was found to be missing when Emperor Paul 1 drew up an inventory of the Hermitage collection in the late 18th century. It was Anthony Cross who provided a clue as to their authorship in his book of 1995 about the British in St. Petersburg. Cross mentions Catherine purchasing drawings by John Spyers. This led to the identification of drawings by Spyers which had been reproduced in a book, “Capability” Brown by Dorothy Stroud in 1950. In the author’s 1975 edition of the book, John Spyers is frequently mentioned. Hampton Court has four etchings published and signed by Jn. Spyers in 1786. The publishers details are given as John Spyers, Twickenham and Frances Jukes, Howland Street, London.

Spyers worked as a draughtman for ‘Capability’ Brown from 1746 to 1783. It was Spyers who prepared the drawings for many of Brown’s park and architectural projects over a period of 20 years. He is also noted in 1764 as being a surveyor, “Mr Spires, Mr Brown’s surveyor” spent three weeks, three days at Tottenham Park. It is obvious that Spires is the pronunciation of Spyers. Besides his attendance at many properties, amongst others, Highclere, Longford Castle, Taplow Court, Cardiff Castle, Belvoir Castle etc., he made the survey in 1771 of Brown’s own property, the Manor of Fenstanton in Huntingdonshire.

Little is known about Spyers except that as well as work for Brown he exhibited landscape watercolours. In 1780 he submitted Design of a Grotto to the Royal Academy and in 1783 A View of Richmond Park. His work is precise, of high quality and carefully composed. Without his drawings what is now known about Hampton Court and many other great gardens would have been be lost. Many of the gardens sketched by him have since been changed by later development. John Spyers is no longer a nobody and it is expected that much more of his work will come to light in collections. Brown, of course, is widely recognised as a genius.

          What is not known about John Spyers is his family background, was he married, did he have siblings, was his father, Joshua the churchwarden and who was his wife? The author has note of a Joshua Spyers who married Mary Jackman at St Clement Danes, London on 24 February 1746. John was probably born about 1720 but to whom? Dedinkin mentions that Spyers is an unusual name, however it is not that unusual. Of 113 Spyers in the authors database most are from Oxfordshire and London, with fewer from Surrey, Kent and Buckinghamshire. There are eleven John’s and three Joshua’s. Fifteen were born before 1700. Bridget Spyers was buried at Hampton in 1768, Mary Spyers married William Mitchell at Hampton in 1791. If one considers that the pronunciation, Spires, also covers Spiers as well as Spyers then there are many more possibilities. Spiers are thick on the ground in London, Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

The author has searched registers of churches close to Twickenham to try to ascertain who John Spyers and his parents were. These searches provide the following possible clues -


Twickenham Baptisms, 1538 – 1794

There are no Spyers or any similar name from 1538 - 1794

There are no Spyers or any similar name  from 1795 – 1812


Twickenham Baptisms, 1813 – 1831

Eliza Spyers baptized 1 May 1822, daughter of Henry (a sawyer) and Elizabeth.

Elisabeth Spyers baptized 19 December 1824, daughter Henry Spyers (a sawyer) and Elisabeth.

Alfred William Spyers baptized 23 August 1829, son of Henry Spyers (a sawyer) and Elizabeth.

Thomas Spyers baptized 9 November 1831, son of Henry Spyers (a sawyer) and Elizabeth.


Twickenham Marriages –

24 October 1757. Thomas Hughes married Eliz Spyers.

13 July 1772. Will Vincent married Sarah Spyers of Chertsey by licence.


Twickenham Burials, 2 August 1719 – 1812 -

Wife of Joshua Spires, no first name given, buried on 30 April 1740.

Joshua Spires buried on 3 March 1768.


Others –

Mary Spier dau of Richard, buried 31 August 1669.

John Spires buried 20 Oct 1767.

Mary Spyers buried 1 July 1802.

James Spyers, aged 15, abode Twickenham, buried 30 October 1825.

Fanny Barbara Spiers buried 8 October 1837, aged 1 year.


The record of Monumental Inscriptions for St Mary’s Twickenham

has the following –

In 1748 Joshua Spiers was a churchwarden, the choice of the Vicar.

In 1749 Joshua Spiers was a churchwarden, the choice of the parish.

The Vestry Minutes may provide further information.

Note that the record is for Spiers not Spyers.


Hampton Marriages, 1657 – 1812

17 July 1791. William Mitchell, widower, of St Clement Danes, London married Mary Spyers by licence.


Chertsey Presbyterian Chapel, 1758 – 1837

Baptism - Benjamin Speer  1 Jan at Hammersmith.


Farnham Bible Christian Mission Chapel, 1835 – 1837

Fred Lintott, born 16 Aug, chr 16 Oct 1836 son of Henry and Ann (daughter of James and Maria Spier) of Binsted, Hants, labourer


Teddington, St Mary Marriages, 1560 – 1837

There are no Spyers or any similar spelling.


There are records of a similar surnames, Steers, Steirs and Stiers but they appear to be a different name with the earliest being recorded as Steres in 1563, Steere in 1566 and Steirs in 1662. It is apparent that they are not related to Speers, Speirs or Spiers.


Besides Teddington and Hampton other parishes close to Twickenham, St Mary  include Petersham, Isleworth, Hounslow and three in Richmond. All are yet to be searched. Couples travelled long distances to marry in the churches, e.g., from London and it will not be easy to identify John Spyers the draughtsman or his parents, be they Spyers, Spires or Spiers.



Capability Brown by Dorothy Stroud, published 1975 by Faber & Faber, London.

Hermitage Magazine, April 2003, published by Cultureshock Media, London.