Capability Brown: a landscape extraordinaire

23 December 2015

2016 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783), the landscape architect extraordinaire who almost singlehandedly created the character of the quintessential English landscape.

His work, revolutionary in its day, moved away from the traditional French formal style – all clipped and controlled hedges, offset by topiary and carefully constructed flowerbeds – towards the fashionable creation of a green and pleasant land.

Notionally this was to help his clients reduce the astronomical labour costs involved in maintaining the more formal gardens. However his work was all artifice, Brown created a vision of the English landscape apparently untouched by human hand, but the reality was very different.

He may not have moved mountains to create his vision of the pastoral idyll, but he moved practically everything else, and he worked on an epic scale! Brown diverted rivers so that they would follow a serpentine path, constructed artificial lakes that looked as though they had been there for centuries, and demolished and re-constructed hills to create long and undulating green vistas.

If this wasn’t enough he practised architecture, designing and constructing follies, bridges and artful ruins that acted as exquisite visual accents in his romantic landscapes. He planted woods, copses, and lone trees, all designed to perfectly complement the view, to shroud the unpleasant, to guide the eye, and provide focal points. The ha-ha – an invisible ditch that keeps livestock contained – was an important component of his art, helping to create the impression of the pastoral idyll. His obituary perfectly illustrated his art: “where is the happiest man he will be least remembered, so closely did he copy nature his works will be mistaken.”

Background and education

Born in Northumberland, Lancelot Brown left school at 16 and worked as an apprentice to the Head Gardener at Kirkharle Hall in the same county. At the age of 23 he headed south, and undertook his first landscape commission at Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire. At 26 he moved into the employ of Lord Cobham as under gardener at Stowe, working with William Kent, one of the founders of the new school of English landscape design. 

Brown was Head Gardener at Stowe from 1742-1750, being paid the exalted sum of £25 per year and Lord Cobham allowed him to supplement his income with freelance commissions from the landed gentry. By 1751 he had established a considerable reputation and he struck out alone, and though his style has fallen in and out of fashion over the last three hundred years, he is now regarded as the most celebrated English landscape architect of the 18th century.

Where to see Capability Brown's work

It is estimated that in the course of his career he worked on around 170 landscapes across England: a phenomenal achievement. Indeed it has been said that it is hard to find an English country house that Brown did not have a hand in designing. 

He designed the gardens at Harewood House, and it took him six years to transform this functional farmland into the romanticised landscape (later immortalised by JMW Turner) that remains virtually unchanged today. Harewood can be visited on Saga’s Gardens of Yorkshire holiday

Some of his other best known projects include Chatsworth in Derbyshire, Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, Longleat in Wiltshire, Croome Park in Worcestershire, Petworth in West Sussex, Syon Park in Middlesex, and naturally Stowe in Buckinghamshire.

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