This painting, by one of the leading landscape painters of the Georgian period and the most famous Irish artist of his generation, depicts Gatton Park, near Reigate, widely considered one of the finest landscapes in Surrey. Barret came to England in 1763, by which time he had already established himself as a preeminent landscape painter in his native Dublin, and had worked for a number of distinguished collectors, including Lord Powerscourt. A regular visitor to North Wales, where he painted a number of early picturesque views, by the late 1760s he was in high demand among English patrons. In 1765-6 he was working for the 3rd Duke of Portland, at Welbeck Abbey, and in 1769 Lord Dalkeith, later 4thDuke of Buccleuch commissioned Barret for a series of views of Dalkeith Park. Exhibited in 1772, together with a companion view of the park taken from the house (Royal Academy, 1772, no. 9), this picture was painted at the height of Barret’s career, shortly after he had become a founder member of the Royal Academy (in the establishment of which he had been intimately involved). It is a masterly display of his artistic skills, particularly his handling of water, for which he was justly praised by contemporary critics.
The painting was commissioned by Sir George Colebrooke (1729-1809), who acquired Gatton from his brother Sir James Colebrooke (1722-1761), a prominent London banker and Member of Parliament for Gatton. In 1762, Sir George, who was Member of Parliament for Arundel and chairman of the East India Company, embarked on a series of improvements to the estate, commissioning Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to remodel the park. Brown spent nearly six years working at Gatton, taking the unusual step of actually supervising the gardening in hand, and transformed whatever formal gardens had existed before into sweeping Arcadian parkland. The southern terrace was levelled in order to afford unrestricted views from the house and a number of shrub borders and walks were planted, with informal clumps of trees to accentuate the rolling landscape. The central feature of Brown’s plan for Gatton however was the main lake, seen here with a distant view of the south-east front of the house and the Doric temple on the opposite bank, reflected beautifully in the clear surface of the water. Designed with two islands, one of which is home to the only heronry in Surrey, the main body of the lake narrows to the north to form an area known as the panhandle, seen here on the right of the composition. On the left stretches Temple wood, so named for the classical folly designed by Brown as a focal point upon which to frame the view from the house. Out on the lake itself a pond yacht catches the breeze, whilst in the foreground a group of estate labourers are at work; a clear reference to Colebrooke’s recent improvements.
A key figure in the world of high finance, Sir George Colebrooke's business interests were both diverse and extensive. He sat in the Commons for Arundel between 1754 and 1774, and as a close supporter of the Duke of Newcastle’s administration was able to secure a number of lucrative government contracts, including the remittance of money and the victualing of British forces in the American colonies. He speculated in land, with large estates in Lanarkshire and the West Indies, and projects in North America. The huge resources at his disposal enabled him to embark on a vigorous attempt to secure control over the affairs of the East India Company, of which he was made director in 1767, and chairman two years later. In 1771, however, heavy speculation in the commodities markets went badly wrong and he lost £190,000 on a single transaction in hemp. The following year his failure to corner the world supply of alum saw much of the rest of his fortune disappear when the market collapsed as part of a wider financial crisis. Colebrooke’s personal financial crisis coincided with the temporary collapse of the East India Company’s profits, for which he was heavily criticised. Despite a brief resurgence in his fortunes in 1772, when this picture was painted and during which time he completely restored the church at Gatton, in 1773 his bank closed, and the following year much of his property was sold, including Gatton Park. In 1777 he filed for bankruptcy and left England for Boulogne-sur-Mer where he survived on an East India Company pension, charitably voted for him by the directors.
Gatton passed through a number of hands in the following years and in 1830 was sold for £100,000 by Sir Mark Wood, 2nd Bt. (1794-1837) to Frederick John Monson, 5th Baron Monson (1809-1841). Monson redeveloped the house, commissioning Thomas Hopper, who designed a magnificent marble hall based on the Corsini Chapel in Church of St. John Lateran, in Rome, and Joseph Severn for frescoes of the Classical Virtues. Brown’s park remained largely intact however, and the estate descended in the Monson family until 1888, when it was sold by the 5th Baron’s grandson, William Monson, 1st Viscount Oxenbridge, to Sir Jeremiah Colman, a prominent Norwich based food manufacturer and financier whose fortune was founded on the famous Colman’s Mustard. The park is now administered by the National Trust, whilst the house is home to The Royal Alexandra and Albert School.