2016 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of the UK’s greatest landscape architects, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, with a year-long festival launched to celebrate his life, work and legacy.
Born in 1716, his panoramas of rolling grassland, mighty oaks and shimmering water still grace many stately homes and parks across England including Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth, Burghley, Compton Verney and Highclere Castle – the real Downton Abbey.
Lancelot Brown became known as ‘Capability’ because of his fondness of speaking of a country estate having a great ‘capability’ for improvement. His work, revolutionary in its day, moved away from the traditional French formal style, developing a ‘natural’ style of gardening with views and vistas.
Where it all began… Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown at Stowe
It was at Stowe that Brown made his mark. Getting a job as a member of Lord Cobham’s gardening staff, he worked under William Kent (1685-1748), one of the founders of the new English style of landscape gardening. It was Kent who coined the phrase “nature abhors straight lines” and Brown adopted the philosophy wholeheartedly.
Arguably his greatest creation at Stowe was the Grecian valley, a ground breaking realisation of an Arcadian vision of Ancient Greece. He became Master Gardener by the age of 26 and was quickly sought after by aristocrats with huge estates, as the must-have landscape gardener.
The 7-mile round grounds at the Burghley estate in Lincolnshire were one of the most important commissions of his career which took more than 25 years to complete.
Characteristics of his work included grass meadows in front of the mansion, serpentine lakes, follies and circular clumps of trees. This was gardening on a vast scale, creating parkland and woodland, and using trees to give the same effect as shrubs in regular gardens.
A mania was sweeping through the aristocracy, inspired by their Grand Tours in Italy and tastes for Claude Lorrain’s pastoral landscapes.
Brown was commissioned by the 4th Duke of Marlborough in 1763, to transform 2,000 acres of of Blenheim Palace Parkland which included creating the lake, two Ha Has, building a dam and the Grand Cascades and reimagining the Courtyard. Blenheim Palace’s Great Lake, situated in front of the Palace is declared by many to be Brown’s most magnificent piece of work.
The Doric Temple at Petworth House, West Sussex, one of the first country seats Brown ‘improved.’
Petworth has an expansive deer park, landscaped by Capability Brown, which contains the largest herd of fallow deer in England. His idealised vistas were later captured by artists including JMW Turner.
At Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire the Duchess of Rutland is creating a new landscape from a long-lost design drawn up by Brown himself… 235 years behind schedule. The document surfaced only recently in the castle archives, drawn up for the 4th Duke of Rutland in 1780, proposing a landscape with woodland and a river running through it. To complete Brown’s vision the Duchess planted tens of thousands of trees and dug three new lakes to create a stretch of water a mile and a half long.
Images & Licensing
See all Capability Brown images in the Bridgeman archive.
Bridgeman Images represents the collections of 28 historic houses in the United Kingdom for image licensing including Burghley, Chatsworth and Belvoir Castle.
The year of Capability
Throughout 2016, the 300th anniversary is being marked with the Capability Brown Festival. ‘He was the Shakespeare of gardening, and we want to place him back in the pantheon of important people who made Britain great, and recognise what he achieved,’ says festival director Ceryl Evans.
For details of the other events marking the anniversary this year, see capabilitybrown.org