Lancelot “Capability” Brown was Britain’s most famous landscape gardener who changed the face of 18th-century English country estates, moving hills and creating flowing lakes and serpentine rivers. Juliet Rix explores his legacy…
A perfect English pastoral scene of rolling green pasture, dotted with clumps of mature trees and grazed by sheep of pure black and white, spreads out before me as I lean back in the sofa flanked by ionic columns and take a sip of wine. I am sitting in the orangery of the Temple of Diana, garden house of the Earls of Bradford, in the idealised landscape created by England’s greatest landscape gardener, Lancelot “Capability” Brown.
Brown, whose 300th anniversary was celebrated throughout 2016, changed the face of England’s great estates – and thence of private landscapes across Europe. Out went formal geometry, rod-straight avenues and parterres; in came the natural world, impeccably designed to provide panoramic vistas, surprise views, reflections in calm waters, and pleasurable meanders.
The Temple, which has recently opened as a holiday let, is at the heart of Capability Brown’s landscape at Weston Park. It was the Earl’s Garden House, where exotic plants were grown, music played, and cream and butter produced in the stone dairy (now a high-spec kitchen) by the lady of the house in a hobby made fashionable by Marie Antoinette.
Upstairs the Countess served her produce to friends in the orangery or in the circular tearoom decorated with cherub-filled murals of Diana, goddess of hunting. This room opens out on to Temple Wood and Temple Pool, a rare surviving Brown pleasure garden that would once have included a menagerie of exotic birds. The columned, glass-walled orangery looks in the opposite direction over an expansive view of the park.
Sheep and deer are kept away from the house by a ha-ha, a wall sunk into a ditch so that it does not obstruct the view. The ha-ha – named for the expression of people first seeing the hidden construction (“Ah-ha!” Or “Ha! Ha!”) – is a typical feature of Capability Brown landscapes. He probably learnt its use, along with much else, while on Lord Cobham’s payroll at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Here he worked under one of the most successful landscape architects of the day and an early exponent of “improved” nature (the New English Style), William Kent, whom Brown went on to eclipse thoroughly.
Brown was brought up in the little Northamptonshire village of Kirkharle, the fourth of five children of a Yeoman farmer. He started work as a gardener’s boy on the Kirkharle estate before working his way south to Stowe, where in 1741 he was appointed head gardener at the age of 25. He not only implemented Kent’s designs but also began to create his own including for Cobham’s friends at Charlecote (Oxfordshire), Petworth (Sussex) and Warwick Castle.
By 1751 when Lord Cobham died, Brown had sufficient clients and confidence – not something he ever seems to have lacked – to set up on his own as a landscape architect. He based himself in Hammersmith, then an area of market gardens west of London. Brown was known as “Capability” because he would tell his clients that their land had great “capability” for improvement and he quickly became the must-have man for the English aristocracy. In the next 30 years he worked on some 170 different commissions leaving a legacy that made his style of “natural beauty, airbrushed on the sly” (as Buckingham University lecturer Laura Mayer describes it) ubiquitous across the country.
Brown’s first large-scale commission was at Croome in Worcestershire where the 6th Earl of Coventry wanted a total update of his house and grounds in the new fashion. Brown was nothing if not ambitious. He drained Croome’s marshy surroundings, moved the village away from the house and hid it behind trees, replaced the Medieval church with a Gothic one, created a Neo-Palladian great house (Croome Court) which he designed himself, and had a “river” and lake hand-dug to look like a naturally picturesque feature. As at Weston, the river makes a curving sweep out of sight… and abruptly ends. “It’s all illusion,” says Weston’s head gardener, Martin Gee, the sixth generation of his family to care for this landscape – a very successful one.
The Earl of Coventry was very pleased with his illusion and he and Brown became lifelong friends. When Brown died in 1783 he was on his way home from dining with Coventry in London. The Earl had a memorial set up by the lake at Croome with the inscription: “To the memory of Lancelot Brown, who by the powers of his inimitable and creative genius, formed this garden out of a morass.”
In other places the starting point was not a morass and some critics saw Brown’s destruction of formal gardens as vandalism. English poet and humorist Richard Owen Cambridge wrote that he hoped he would die before Brown so that he could “see heaven before it is ‘improved’”. Brown’s business however went from strength to strength, both because every aristocrat wanted to keep up with his fashionable neighbours, and because Brown’s designs, once installed, were more practical than formal gardens. They were cheaper and less labour intensive to maintain, often included productive elements of agriculture and kitchen gardens, and provided for popular aristocratic pastimes including hunting, shooting and fishing as well as gentler pursuits like boating, carriage drives and taking tea amidst beautiful views.
Brown’s popularity reached the social summit in 1764 when he was appointed Royal Gardener to King George III and moved into Wilderness House on the Hampton Court Palace estate. Brown’s home is still there, as is a vine he planted in 1768 which is now the largest and best known grape vine in the world. Interestingly, Brown is said to have refused the king’s request to cut down the formal avenues of trees planted under William III and, unable to completely remodel the place, Brown apparently found the “day job” of maintaining it rather uninspiring and occasionally neglected it. The monarch and his gardener nonetheless became friends and royal approval did nothing but good for Brown’s business which continued apace.
The landscapes of Weston Park and Sherborne Castle are amongst those that survive from this period, along with one of Brown’s most famous commissions at Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Oxfordshire, then as now the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough. Here Brown created a 150-acre lake with a series of cascades, a feature that remains central to the park’s vista, proudly described by its later owner, Lord Randolph Churchill (father of Winston), as “the finest view in England”.
Brown’s success made him a wealthy man and in 1767 he joined the land-owning classes for whom he had always worked. He became the owner of a small estate at Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire and it is in the parish church here that he is buried, along with his wife. After Brown died, the writer and politician Horace Walpole (son of Sir Robert) wrote to Lady Ossory whose Ampthill Park had been remodelled by Brown: “Your dryads must go into black gloves, Madam, their father-in-law, Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead.”
As the sun sets over Weston Park and the Temple of Diana’s gorgeously peaceful panorama, we raise a glass to the creator of the idealised English landscape, immortalised by his work, and wish him a very happy 300th birthday.
Where to find Capability Brown
Brown’s work survives on estates across England, many of which are open to the public. You can walk his paths, take in his views and in a few cases even stay in houses and follies in his landscapes. Several properties have restored aspects of Brown’s landscape for the anniversary and many are hosting exhibitions and special events so this is an ideal time to explore his vision.
Visit for the day or stay at the newly renovated Temple of Diana or in the main house on a Dine & Stay weekend or a special Capability Brown 300 tour, which includes other Brown sights in the area. Weston is also hosting Capability Brown guided walks by the head gardener whose family has worked here since 1803, and an exhibition including Brown’s original plans for the park. Temple Wood (above), one of only five pleasure grounds created by Capability Brown, is open to the public at Weston Park during May as part of the celebrations to mark 300 years since the birth of the legendary landscaper.
Brown’s first large commission and a rare place where Brown designed the buildings as well as the landscape. The house has undergone major restoration and the Chinese bridge – the only element of Croome’s earlier landscape Brown chose to retain – has just been rebuilt. 2016 will be marked by special tours, lecture, two exhibitions, a new carriageway opening up more Brown landscape to cyclists and walkers, and a 300th birthday party to celebrate Brown’s baptism (his birth date is unknown) in August.
At Blenheim, 2,000 acres of Capability Brown parkland surround a vast early 18th-century English Baroque mansion where Winston Churchill was born.
An extensive Brown landscape – with all his characteristic features – surrounds the seat of the Duke’s of Devonshire, one of the great houses of England with one of the most important private art collections in Europe. The Brown “improvements” here took 25,000 man and horse hours and cost a staggering £40,000. Visit for the day or stay in one of the estate’s holiday cottages and hotels. The 16th-century hunting tower offers fabulous views over Capability Brown’s landscape. Special walks, talks and tours are planned throughout 2016.
One of England’s greatest Elizabethan houses, Burghley was reshaped (literally) by Brown who removed a wing of the house to open up views of the landscape he created around it. He also designed the orangery that is now the visitors’ restaurant, stables and a Gothic summerhouse. Probably Brown’s longest commission, he said of working at Burghley that it was “25 years of pleasure”. The estate is now restoring many of his intended views and 2016 brings a new self-guided Capability Brown trail, an exhibition on his work here, lectures and specialist small-group tours.
To find out where else Capability Brown landscapes can be seen, see www.capabilitybrown.org