Running an 18th Century Landscaping Business

Having unearthed the previously unpublished work of Britain’s greatest landscape designer, Thomas White, two experts provide insight into how this infamous designer ran his landscaping business…in the 1700s.

Although I have been researching historic designed landscapes for over 15 years, it was only when I started looking at the work and career of the 18th century landscape designer, Thomas White, did I appreciate what challenges he and his colleagues faced in redesigning the estates of their clients. In my former career as a business consultant, I advised firms on the best way to organise their people and processes and market their products and services. Whereas I had the benefit of modern communications, a (usually) motivated team and clear outcomes from the consulting project, White and his fellow ‘improvers’ had no such luxuries. This makes his achievements all the more impressive.

White had an excellent mentor as he worked for Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown for 6 years prior to setting up his own business in 1765. Brown must have recognised something in himself in the young White, who was about 23 when he started as one of Brown’s ‘associates’ or foremen. White had already trained as a surveyor prior to his employment with Brown but this was not enough if he was going to run a complex landscaping business, at which Brown was the undisputed master.

The first challenge was to get an introduction to the client. Now it is easy to advertise in a myriad of ways but in the 1760s, you had to rely on word of mouth and introductions. He was lucky to have as one of his first clients, the very wealthy landowner and MP, Edwin Lascelles of Harewood House. This must have opened doors for him and he was soon working at many other estates in Yorkshire and beyond. This though was the first step. The next was to persuade the owner that you could transform their landscape with just a plan, so an ability to persuade the customer was vital. Today the modern designer can do detailed 3D drawings showing the client what his parkland would look like after completion. Brown was said to have had an abundance of charm that helped him move from being a working gardener to a landscape advisor to the upper echelons of society. We know nothing of White’s family background but with his early surveying skills, he soon learnt an attractive detailed plan was key to securing the commission (see below).

© Burton Constable Foundation

Turning the plan into reality was also fraught with difficulties, which is still a challenge today. Inevitably there were discussions over what the designer would do and what the client would pay for both in the first instance and during the project. Part of Brown’s success is that he offered his customers a ‘full service’, i.e. he implemented the design. It also meant that Brown took a percentage for himself and although how much is not known, he died a rich man. While White started in a similar way, later clients though only wanted his design ideas and it was left to others to implement them (or not in some cases). At Burton Constable Hall for instance, he was paid 10 guineas for a plan in 1768 (see below) but it seems he received no more payments.

© Burton Constable Foundation

There had to be a lot of trust on both sides as the client could change their mind or run out of money. Only a couple of contracts from the mid 1780s survive between White and John Christian Curwen of Workington Hall in Cumbria. One is for the implementation of two designs for Workington and Belle Isle on Lake Windermere that belonged to Curwen and another is a 10 year maintenance contract for the latter. We do not know whether there were earlier ones but perhaps White felt he needed more security that a formal contract would bring.

Having got the commission, White needed reliable foremen to direct the labourers who would undertake the work, as this was all done by hand – no handy diggers for them. These foremen had to liaise with the owner, the latter’s steward or land agent on site, the workmen employed and also White himself. They were also responsible for handling the wages of the men with payments coming direct from the client or via White. We have a fascinating series of surviving letters White wrote to his foreman, William Stones, who was working for him at Newby Hall and Copgrove Hall in North Yorkshire in 1767 and 1768. It shows that men like Stones not only had to be literate but also numerate. In one White berates Stones for his lax approach:

When in perusing your accts I find many bills that I ought to have been made acquainted with before. I desire no money may be payd for token work with receipts from some of your partners (West Yorkshire Archives Services Leeds, WYL100/C23a/38)

The fact that White operated for 30 years on over 100 designed landscapes across northern Britain shows his success at running the business. Clearly his combination of technical ability and man management skills contributed to this and no doubt 250 years later, he would probably be equally successful.

Thomas White (c. 1736-1811): Redesigning the Northern British Landscape
By Deborah Turnbull and Louise Wickham

This volume aims to restore the reputation of Thomas White, who in his time was as well respected as landscape designers such as Brown and Repton. For the first time, the authors make available over 90% of White’s known plans and surveys for England and in doing so, sheds light on the work of other famous designers of the time. Alongside this are maps, estate surveys and contemporary illustrations to help us understand which part of improvement plans were implemented.

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