Cattle in the park at Luton, with a Birch to the left, 1765
Commissioned from the artist by John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute (1713 – 1792), Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire.
Works of Art from the Bute Collection; Christie’s, London, 3 July 1996, lot 110.
Private collection, USA, acquired at the above sale.
John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute acquired Luton Park in Bedfordshire from Francis Hearne MP for the sum of £94,700 in late summer 1763. On 8 April he had resigned his position as First Lord of the Treasury in the wake of growing political unpopularity, and he sought to move outside of London. The existing house, which had been built for the Napier family, was deemed insufficiently grand for Bute’s plans, so he charged the celebrated architect Robert Adam with the redesign of the house itself, while the fashionable landscape designer Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was entrusted with the layout of nearly 4,000 acres of parkland. Although architectural renovations were delayed, Brown made quick progress implementing his design scheme for the gardens, commencing work in October 1764. According to a letter dated 11 March 1767 he even acquired trees ‘from the Princess of Wales’s garden’ (British Library, London, Add MS 5726, fol. 86). The agriculturist Arthur Young, who visited Luton in 1768, described the grounds as ‘prettily diversified with scattered trees’ and a ‘spot wonderfully capable’: ‘We entered through the Lodge from the town of Luton, and drove along the banks of the river, which was naturally a trifling stream, but is now forming…the finest water I have anywhere seen…the roads winding among some scattered trees towards the right appearing through them in an elegant manner; there are many fine beeches as you advance up to the house, from the dark side of which the water is seen at a distance in a very picturesque manner’ (A. Young, A Six Months Tour Through the North of England, Dublin, 1770, pp. 8-9). By 1779, Bute had spent at least £11,663 (with a possible additional £1,627) on the re-landscaping, double that spent at Harewood (£6,203) and triple the expenditures at Bowood (£4,300). Only the landscape scheme at Blenheim cost more, with a bill of £21,500.
According to Prof. Luke Herrmann, who catalogued the drawings on the occasion of their sale in 1996, Sandby’s views of Luton fall into two main groups. The majority are panoramic views of the park, freshly coloured and populated by small-scale figures and groups of animals. They belong stylistically to Sandby’s work of the 1760s and were presumably painted shortly after Bute acquired the estate in 1763; this particular example is signed and dated 1765. It is likely that Sandby was introduced to Lord Bute by Lord Harcourt, the artist’s patron and pupil. There is no reference to Sandby’s Luton drawings among Bute’s papers, but the inscription on the album cover in which they were kept, ‘Sandby Drawings of Luton’, confirms that they were commissioned by the 3rd Earl. He is known to have taken an interest in natural history, and the Sandby views of Luton Park pay particular attention to the native tree species and woodland. Here, the park landscape is dominated by a graceful birch, underneath which a group of cattle rests in the shade. The parkland stretches away toward a low horizon, with no sign of the house itself or any human presence interrupting the tranquillity of the grounds.
The exceptional condition of the watercolour is due to its having remained in its original album until the drawings were dispersed in the Bute Collection sale, held at Christie’s in 1996.