What’s on : Lectures

Thomas White (c.1736-1811):Redesigning the Northern British Landscape

25 May 2022
Start time
7:30 PM
The Yorkshire Museum
Louise Wickham
Thomas White (c.1736-1811):Redesigning the Northern British Landscape

Event Information

Thomas White (c. 1736-1811): Redesigning the Northern British Landscape’.
Louise Wickham

Joint Lecture with the Yorkshire Gardens Trust.

This lecture, based on the book of the same title by Deborah Turnbull and Louise Wickham, aims to restore the reputation of Thomas White, who in his time was as well respected as his fellow landscape designers Lancelot “Capability” Brown and Humphrey Repton. By the end of his career he had produced designs for at least 32 sites across northern England and over 60 in Scotland. He has a vital role in the story of how northern English designed landscapes evolved in the eighteenth century.

This lecture will be held in the Tempest Anderson Lecture Theatre in the Yorkshire Museum, York at 7.30pm.

Member’s Report

Despite a long and successful career, during which he designed at least 32 landscapes in England and 45 in Scotland, Thomas White is much less well known than either Lancelot Brown, for whom he initially worked, or his near contemporary, Humphry Repton. This is in contrast to his reputation during his lifetime when he was a respected landscape designer, won more Society of Arts medals than anyone else for his tree planting, and made enough money from his work to buy his own estate, Woodlands, in County Durham.  Louise Wickham and Deborah Turnbull address this neglect in their book* and Louise presented their work at the joint YGT/YPS lecture in May, persuading us that White was, indeed, a significant figure in 18th century landscape design. She outlined what little is known of White’s family history, his early work alongside Brown, possibly as a surveyor, his extensive independent commissions from around 1765, and explored why his name and work were well-known in the 18th century but have since been all but lost to history.

After pointing out the challenges of establishing the family history of someone with a common name such as Thomas White, Louise concentrated on his work and why he deserved a more prominent place in landscape history.

White drew up ‘beautiful improvement plans’ for significant northern estates, including Harewood, Goldsborough, Newby, Burton Constable and Sledmere. While not all the plans were necessarily put in place, in full or even in part, many survive, which is one reason why it has become possible to give White back to history, building on the work that David Neave and Deborah Turnbull first carried out tracking the plans down. A technical glitch at the Temple Anderson Hall meant that the slides of the plans were difficult to see in detail, but they are well reproduced in the book, which should be an incentive to a purchase or library request for anyone interested in 18th century landscapes.

White earned nowhere near as much as Brown did annually, but his contemporary reputation seems to have been comparable. Louise quoted Thomas Shepherd who, in 1836, bemoaned, in the same breath, the loss of ‘Mr. Brown, Mr. White and Mr. Repton’ and their contributions to British landscape design. This reputation was based not just on White’s  beautiful plans but also on his working practices: he was valued for his attention to detail in his planting, his relationships with the nurserymen who supplied him, and for the management of his foremen, who were crucial intermediaries in getting the work carried out as he intended. It is also possible that he worked alongside significant architects, John Carr among them, at a number of northern sites, although Louise pointed out that the evidence for such relationships currently remains circumstantial.

So why do we know so much less about White than about Brown or Repton? A number of possible explanations were explored in the lecture. First, as happens so often in garden history, fashions change and this tends to diminish the reputation of those who came before, until they are ‘rediscovered’ much later. This has certainly happened with Brown; perhaps now it is White’s turn for his moment in the sun. Secondly, White has been characterised as a ‘follower’ of Brown, or as his ‘ex-foreman’ or ‘pupil’, but Louise and Deborah demonstrate that this was not the case. White had a style that became distinct from Brown’s as he established his independent career, but he also adapted his style over time, adjusting to new ideas about the picturesque. Rather than being a follower, Louise suggested that he was an innovator, influencing Repton and others, such as John Claudius Loudon.

Although Louise did not mention this, I would throw into the mix the issue of White’s work being largely in the north while the subject of garden history tends to be dominated by the gardens, landscapes, designers and nurseryman of London and the south-east. Louise and Deborah’s work provides a long-needed counterweight to that hegemony, and proved a very suitable subject for a lecture that celebrates the contribution of Yorkshire to intellectual history.

Gillian Parker

* Deborah Turnbull and Louise Wickham. 2022. Thomas White (c. 1736-1811): Redesigning the Northern British Landscape. Oxford, Windgather Press.