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Nature was his canvas

And this year it's the 300th anniversary of his birth. Stuart Logan takes a look at work of Capability Brown

Stuart Logan



Readers of a non-horticultural persuasion who, in a moment of lexicological serendipity, chanced to open their dictionaries at the word capability, would find the following definition: the quality or state of being capable. Those same readers might wonder why gardeners would not deign to look the word up.

The answer is simple; in horticulture the word capability is inexorably linked with one man whose tercentenary is being celebrated this year. Lancelot Brown, who was born during the summer of 1716, became a leading exponent of the English Landscape style. He was the first choice of the Whig aristocracy when they felt that their estates needed remodelling. Once engaged, Brown rode around their grounds on his horse surveying the place, absorbing a mental picture of the terrain, and characteristically returned to their grace’s stately home proclaiming: “It all has great capabilities, sir.”

Hence his epithet. When Brown set up his own landscaping practice in 1751 he continued to receive commissions from his mentor William Kent,who introduced the Palladian style of architecture into England and, as a landscape gardener, revolutionised the layout of estates, but had a limited knowledge of horticulture.

Brown also had recommendations from his former employer Lord Cobham of Stowe who, as Richard Temple, had inherited the Stowe Estate from his father in May 1697, becoming the 4th Baronet and Whig Member of Parliament for Buckingham later that year. He fought under John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough at the Battle of Venlo in September 1702, and was a political associate of William Pitt and George Grenville, both of whom became British prime ministers.

If Brown had been looking for advocates, he probably couldn’t have done better. However, after his death in 1783, Brown’s renown gradually declined as later landscapers thought his work formulaic and destructive of a place’s horticultural progenitors. His successors, such as Uvedale Price, Humphry Repton, John Claudius Loudon and even Gertrude Jekyll, castigated him for destroying examples of the preceding early-baroque parterre, Tudor knot-gardens and English baroque styles in an effort to Anglicise the stately-home landscape.

There has been something of a revival of his prowess during the last century, with such notables as Nicholas Pevsner postulating his work as a distinct style, rather than a mannered misrepresentation of nature. Because of his fame and the lack of any published works by Brown, it’s quite easy for gardens to find themselves linked to the great man’s name without actually being personally remastered by him. Locally, Basildon Park is a case in point.

The website ‘Capability Brown Festival 2016’ lists it as one of the 260 landscapes with which he is associated. However, the National Trust is more down to earth, in a manner of speaking, when they explain that the parkland was originally landscaped by Sir Francis Sykes, the first owner of Basildon, “inspired by the style of landscaper Capability Brown.” The problem is (and was even more so in those days of horse-drawn travel) that the landscaper could not be in more than one place at the same time.

So the time spent on each commission was necessarily limited, but Brown offered a number of options to his clients. He could simply provide a survey and plans for a landscape, leaving his client’s own workforce to execute his proposal. More often, he hired out a foreman to oversee the work, which would again be carried out by labour recruited from the estate. Eventually he had more than 20 trusted foremen on his books.

Alternatively, he could oversee and refine the work himself, usually by means of visits for a certain number of days each year. Each option carried a different price tag and probably a differing standard of execution, but that’s why so many of today’s stately homes have gardens ‘by’ Capability Brown. Some of the more famous examples of his handiwork, such as Stowe, show his influence overwriting the palimpsest of designs by Charles Bridgeman and John Vanbrugh, but he earns his spurs here under the tutelage of William Kent.

At Petworth, the 2nd Earl of Egremont commissioned Brown to landscape his 700 acres of grassland and trees. This was one of Brown’s first projects, and he removed the formal garden and fishponds of the 1690s before excavating 64,000 tons of soil to create a serpentine lake, which he bordered with poplars, birches and willows to make the ‘natural’ view pleasing. At Highclere Castle (right) 1,000 acres of sweeping parkland was designed for the 1st Earl of Carnarvon by Brown, and then developed by his son the 2nd Earl who, like his father, was passionate about the landscape. However, we need to visit Blenheim to see one of the finest examples of Brown’s work.

After being engaged by the 4th Duke of Marlborough in 1763, he transformed the surroundings of the relatively new palace. Here again he superimposed his design on original work by Vanbrugh, in this case a monumental bridge over the tiny River Glyme. In some gardens Brown’s works have been overwritten by subsequent owners. Sheffield Park in Sussex is an example where a major 20th-century woodland garden and arboretum has superseded the native trees and surrounded the lake. The collection of exotic trees and shrubs, was established by the 3rd Earl of Sheffield, from 1876-1909, and by Arthur Soames, who owned the estate from 1910-53.

After all, the earliest cultivated landscapes were simply man’s attempts at domesticating the wilderness by imposing a more agreeable arrangement of specimens, and that is what Brown excelled at. He took the best sort of view, from the realms of accidental natural occurrence, and mass produced it within the estate setting, so that the wealthy owners could view it at their ease. Nowadays we have a propensity to travel to the landscape rather than trying to bring the landscape to us, but in visiting his commissions we can see that he laid some of the most impressive foundation stones of modern landscape design.

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