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Capability Brown

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Capability Brown

Lancelot "Capability" Brown
Capability Brown, by Nathaniel Dance, ca. 1773 (National Portrait Gallery)

Birth name Lancelot Brown
Born baptised 30 August 1716
Kirkharle, Northumberland
Died 6 February 1783
Parents William Brown and Ursula, nee Hall
Spouse Bridget Wayet
Occupation Gardener, Landscape Architect

Lancelot Brown (baptised 30 August 1716 – 6 February 1783),[1] more commonly known as Capability Brown, was an English landscape architect. He is remembered as "the last of the great English 18th century artists to be accorded his due", and "England's greatest gardener". He designed over 170 parks, many of which still endure.

His influence was so great that the contributions to the English garden made by his predecessors Charles Bridgeman and William Kent are often overlooked; even Kent's apologist Horace Walpole allowed that Kent had been followed by "a very able master".[2]

Early life and Stowe

Lancelot Brown was born as a land agent's and chambermaid's fifth child in the village of Kirkharle, Northumberland, and educated at Cambo School till he was 16. Brown’s father had been Sir William Loraine’s land agent and his mother in service at Kirkharle Hall. His eldest brother John became the estate surveyor and later married Sir William's daughter. Elder brother George became a mason-architect.

After school Lancelot worked as the head gardener's apprentice at Sir William Loraine's kitchen garden at Kirkharle Hall till he was 23. In 1739 he journeyed south arriving at the port of Boston, Lincolnshire.[3] Then he moved further inland where his first landscape commission was for a new lake in the park at Kiddington Hall, Oxfordshire.[4] He moved to Wotton Underwood House, Buckinghamshire, a minor seat of Sir Richard Grenville, Lord Cobham.[5]

In 1741,[6] Brown joined Lord Cobham's gardening staff as undergardener at Stowe, Buckinghamshire,[1] where he worked under William Kent, one of the founders of the new English style of landscape garden. At the age of 26 he was officially appointed as the Head Gardener in 1742, earning £25 a year and residing at the western Boycott Pavilion. He married a Lincolnshire solicitor's daughter Bridget Wayet at Stowe in 1744 and they had six children in the following 15 years.

Brown was the head gardener at Stowe 1742-1750. He made the Grecian Valley at Stowe which, despite its name, is an abstract composition of landform and woodland. Lord Cobham let Brown take freelance commission work from his aristocratic friends, thus making him well known as a landscape gardener.

As a proponent of the new English style, Brown became immensely sought after by the landed families. By 1751, when Brown was beginning to be widely known, Horace Walpole wrote somewhat slightingly of Brown's work at Warwick Castle:

The castle is enchanting; the view pleased me more than I can express, the River Avon tumbles down a cascade at the foot of it. It is well laid out by one Brown who has set up on a few ideas of Kent and Mr. Southcote.

By the 1760s he was earning on average £6000 a year, usually £500 for one commission. As an accomplished rider he was able to work fast, taking only an hour or so on horseback to survey an estate and rough out an entire design.

In 1764 Brown was appointed Hampton Court Palace, succeeding John Greening and residing at the Wilderness House.[5]

Landscape gardens

It is estimated that Brown was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain. His work still endures at Croome Court (where he also designed the house), Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Harewood House, Bowood House, Milton Abbey (and nearby Milton Abbas village), in traces at Kew Gardens and many other locations.[7] This man who refused work in Ireland because he had not finished England[8] was called "Capability" Brown, because he would characteristically tell his landed clients that their estates had great "capability" for landscape improvement.[9]

Badminton House: features of the Brownian landscape at full maturity in the 19th century

His style of smooth undulating grass, which would run straight to the house, clumps, belts and scattering of trees and his serpentine lakes formed by invisibly damming small rivers, were a new style within the English landscape, a "gardenless" form of landscape gardening, which swept away almost all the remnants of previous formally patterned styles.

His landscapes were at the forefront of fashion. They were fundamentally different from what they replaced, the well-known formal gardens of England which were criticised by Alexander Pope and others from the 1710s. Starting in 1719, William Kent replaced these with more naturalistic compositions, which reached their greatest refinement in Brown's landscapes.

At Hampton Court, Brown encountered Hannah More in 1782 and described his "grammatical" manner in her literary terms: "'Now there' said he, pointing his finger, 'I make a comma, and there' pointing to another spot, 'where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject'".[10] Brown's patrons saw the idealised landscapes he was creating for them in terms of the Italian landscape painters they admired and collected, as Kenneth Woodbridge first observed in the landscape at Stourhead, a "Brownian" landscape (with an un-Brownian circuit walk) in which Brown himself was not involved.

At Blenheim Brown dammed the paltry stream flowing under Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge, drowning half the structure with improved results

Russell Page, who began his career in the Brownian landscape of Longleat but whose own designs have formal structure, accused Brown of "encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless pools and lakes".[11] Richard Owen Cambridge, the English poet and satirical author, declared that he hoped to die before Brown so that he could "see heaven before it was 'improved'". This was a typical statement reflecting the controversy about Brown's work, which has continued over the last 200 years. By contrast, a recent historian and author, Richard Bisgrove, described Brown's process as perfecting nature by

"judicious manipulation of its components, adding a tree here or a concealed head of water there. His art attended to the formal potential of ground, water, trees and so gave to English landscape its ideal forms. The difficulty was that less capable imitators and less sophisticated spectators did not see nature perfected... they saw simply what they took to be nature".

This deftness of touch was not unrecognised in his own day; one anonymous obituary writer opined: "Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken". Sir William Chambers, who considered himself a garden authority as well, complained that Brown's grounds "differ very little from common fields, so closely is nature copied in most of them".[12]


Capability Brown's essays in the field of architecture were a natural outgrowth of his unified picture of the English country house in its setting:

"In Brown's hands the house, which before had dominated the estate, became an integral part of a carefully composed landscape intended to be seen through the eye of a painter, and its design could not be divorced from that of the garden"[4]

Humphry Repton observed that Brown "fancied himself an architect",[13] but Brown's work as an architect is overshadowed by his great reputation as a designer of landscapes. Repton was bound to add: "he was inferior to none in what related to the comfort, convenience, taste and propriety of design, in the several mansions and other buildings which he planned".

Brown's first country house project was the remodelling of 6th Earl of Coventry, in which instance he was likely following sketches by the gentleman amateur Sanderson Miller.[4] Fisherwick, Staffordshire, Redgrave Hall, Suffolk, and Claremont, Surrey, were classical, while at Corsham his outbuildings are in a Gothick vein. Gothick stable blocks and decorative outbuildings, arches and garden features constituted many of his designs. From 1771 he was assisted in the technical aspects by the master builder Henry Holland, and by Henry's son Henry Holland the architect, whose initial career Brown supported; the younger Holland was increasingly Brown's full collaborator and became Brown's son-in-law in 1773.

Subsequent reputation

Brown's reputation declined rapidly after his death, because the English Landscape style did not convey the dramatic conflict and awesome power of wild nature. A reaction against the harmony and calmness of Brown's landscapes was inevitable; the landscapes lacked the sublime thrill which members of the Romantic generation (such as Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price) looked for in their ideal landscape, where the painterly inspiration would come from Salvator Rosa rather than Claude Lorrain.

During the 19th century he was widely criticised,[14] but during the twentieth century his reputation rose again. Tom Turner has suggested that the latter resulted from a favourable account of his talent in Marie-Luise Gothein's History of Garden Art which predated Christopher Hussey's positive account of Brown in The Picturesque (1927).

Dorothy Stroud wrote the first full monograph on Capability Brown, fleshing out the generic attributions with documentation from country house estate offices. Later landscape architects like William Gilpin would opine that Brown's 'natural curves' were as artificial as the straight lines that were common in French gardens.[15]

Brown died in 1783, in Hertford Street, London, on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget, who had married the architect Henry Holland. Brown sent two of his sons to Eton. One of them, Lancelot Brown the younger, became the MP for Huntingdon.

Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: "Your dryads must go into black gloves, Madam, their father-in-law, Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead!".[16] Brown was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish church of Brown's small estate at Fenstanton Manor .[17]

Brown's portrait by Nathaniel Dance, c. 1773, is conserved in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

His work has often been favourably compared and contrasted ("the antithesis") to the œuvre of André Le Nôtre, the French jardin à la française landscape architect.[1][18] He became both "rich and honoured and had 'improved' a greater acreage of ground than any landscape architect" who preceded him.[1][15]

Gardens and parks

Many of Capability Brown's parks and gardens may still be visited today. A partial list of the landscapes he designed or worked on:

More than 30 of the gardens are open to the public.[23]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d
  2. ^ at Internet Archive
  3. ^ Brown 2011
  4. ^ a b c Colvin 1995.
  5. ^ a b c
  6. ^
  7. ^ a b
  8. ^ B. Bryson p 377
  9. ^ B. Bryson. At Home p 375. Transworld. London 2010.
  10. ^ Quoted in Peter Willis, "Capability Brown in Northumberland" Garden History 9.2 (Autumn, 1981, pp. 157–183) p. 158).
  11. ^ ISBN 978-0-00-271374-0
  12. ^
  13. ^ at Internet Archive.
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^
  20. ^ Boarstall people
  21. ^
  22. ^ Pevsner, N., et al. 1992, The Buildings of England: Northumberland
  23. ^


  • ISBN 978-0-7011-8212-0.
  • ISBN 0-09-163740-6.
  • ISBN 0-571-13405-X.
  • 2nd edition, Phillimore, Chichester (1999) ISBN 0-297-78734-9, ISBN 1-86077-114-9.

Further reading

  • Publisher: Hacker Art Books; Facsimile edition (June 1972) ISBN 0-87817-008-1; ISBN 978-0-87817-008-1.
  • Gothein, Marie. Geschichte der Gartenkunst. München: Diederichs, 1988 ISBN 978-3-424-00935-4.
  • ISBN 978-0300102239

External links

Media related to at Wikimedia Commons

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