Lancelot "Capability" Brown
Lancelot Brown (Baptised 30 August 1716 – 6 February 1783), more commonly known as Capability Brown, was an English landscape architect. He is remembered as "the last of the great English eighteenth-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".
Early life and Stowe
Lancelot Brown was born in the tiny village of Kirkharle, Northumberland, and educated at Cambo School. He mastered the principles of his craft by serving as a gardener's boy at Sir William Loraine's modest seat at Kirkharle Hall. In 1739 he moved south, where his first landscape commission was for a new lake in the park at Kiddington Hall, Oxfordshire. He moved to Wotton Underwood, Buckinghamshire, a minor seat of Richard Grenville, Lord Cobham. In 1741, he joined Lord Cobham's gardening staff at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, where he served under William Kent, one of the founders of the new English style of landscape garden. While at Stowe, Brown married a local girl named Bridget Wayet and had the first four of his children.
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.
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. This man who refused work in Ireland because he had not finished England was called "Capability" Brown, because he would characteristically tell his landed clients that their estates had great "capability" for landscape improvement.
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 criticized 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'". Brown's patrons saw the idealized 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.
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". 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 unrecognized 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".
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"
Humphry Repton observed that Brown "fancied himself an architect", 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 remodeling of Croome Court, Worcestershire, (1751–52) for the 6th Earl of Coventry, in which instance he was likely following sketches by the gentleman amateur Sanderson Miller. 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.
Brown's popularity declined rapidly after his death, because his work was seen as a feeble imitation of wild nature. A reaction against the smooth blandness of Brown's landscapes was inevitable; the landscapes lacked the sublime thrill which members of the Romantic generation (like Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price) looked for in an ideal landscape, where the painterly inspiration would come from Salvator Rosa rather than Claude Lorrain. During the nineteenth century he was widely criticised, but during the twentieth century his popularity returned. 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.
Brown died in 1783, in Hertford Street, London, on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget, who had married the architect Henry Holland. 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!". Brown was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish church of Brown's small estate at Fenstanton Manor (a fact memorialized on his tombstone).
His work has often been favorably compared and contrasted ("the antithesis") to the œuvre of André Le Nôtre, the French jardin à la française landscape architect. He became both "rich and honoured and had 'improved' a greater acreage of ground than any landscape architect" who preceded him.
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:
- Adderbury House, Oxfordshire (designs not thought to be implemented)
- Addington Place, Croydon
- Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
- Althorp, Northamptonshire
- Ampthill Park, Ampthill Bedfordshire
- Ancaster House, Richmond, Surrey
- Appuldurcombe, Isle of Wight
- Ashburnham Place, East Sussex
- Ashridge House, Hertfordshire
- Aske Hall, North Yorkshire
- Astrop Park, Northamptonshire
- Audley End, Essex
- Aynhoe Park, Northamptonshire
- Badminton House, Gloucestershire
- Basildon Park, near Reading
- Battle Abbey, East Sussex
- Beaudesert, Staffordshire
- Beechwood, Bedfordshire
- Belhus, Essex
- Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire
- Benham, Berkshire
- Benwell Tower, near Newcastle upon Tyne
- Berrington Hall, Herefordshire
- Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
- Boarstall, Buckinghamshire (unknown if work carried out)
- Bowood House, Wiltshire
- Branches Park, Cowlinge, Suffolk
- Brentford, Ealing
- Brightling, Sussex
- Broadlands, Hampshire
- Brocklesby Park, Lincolnshire
- Burghley House, Lincolnshire
- Burton Constable Hall, East Riding of Yorkshire
- Burton Park, West Sussex
- Burton Pynsent
- Byram, West Yorkshire
- Cadland, Hampshire
- Cambridge, The Backs
- Capheaton, Northumberland
- Cardiff Castle
- Castle Ashby, Northamptonshire
- Caversham, Berkshire
- Chalfont House, Buckinghamshire
- Charlecote, Warwickshire
- Charlton, Wiltshire
- Chatsworth, Derbyshire
- Chilham Castle, Kent
- Chillington Hall, West Midlands
- Church Stretton Old Rectory, Shropshire
- Clandon Park, Surrey
- Claremont, Surrey
- Clumber Park, Nottinghamshire
- Compton Verney, Warwickshire
- Coombe Abbey, Coventry
- Corsham Court
- Croome Park
- Dodington Park, Gloucestershire
- Darley Abbey Park, Derby
- Euston Hall
- Farnborough Hall, Warwickshire
- Fawley Court, Oxfordshire
- Gatton Park, Surrey
- Grimsthorpe Castle
- Hampton Court Palace, Surrey
- Harewood House, Leeds
- Heveningham Hall, Suffolk
- Highclere Castle
- Highcliffe Castle
- Himley Hall, Staffordshire
- Holkham Hall, Norfolk
- Holland Park, London
- The Hoo, Hertfordshire
- Hornby Castle, North Yorkshire
- Howsham, near York
- Ickworth, Suffolk
- Ingestre, Staffordshire
- Ingress Abbey
- Kelston, Somerset
- Kew Gardens, SW London
- Kiddington Hall, Oxfordshire
- Kimberley, Norfolk
- Kimbolton Castle, Cambridgeshire
- King's Weston House, Bristol
- Kirkharle, Northumberland
- Kirtlington, Oxfordshire
- Knowsley, Liverpool
- Kyre Park, Herefordshire
- Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire
- Laleham Abbey, Surrey
- Langley, Berkshire (was Buckinghamshire)
- Langley Park, Norfolk
- Latimer, Buckinghamshire
- Leeds Abbey, Leeds, Kent
- Littlegrove, Barnet, London
- Lleweni Hall, Clwyd
- Longford Castle, Wiltshire
- Longleat, Wiltshire
- Lowther, Cumbria
- Luton Hoo, Bedfordshire
- Madingley, Cambridgeshire
- Maiden Earley, Berkshire
- Mamhead, Devon
- Melton Constable, Norfolk
- Milton Abbey, Dorset
- Moccas, Herefordshire
- Moor Park, Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire
- Mount Clare, South West London
- Navestock, Essex
- Newnham Paddox, Warwickshire
- Newton Park, Newton St Loe, Somerset
- New Wardour Castle, Wiltshire
- North Cray Place, near Sidcup, Bexley, London
- North Stoneham Park, Eastleigh, Hampshire
- Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire
- Oakley, Shropshire
- Packington Park
- Paddenswick Manor, West London
- Patshull, Staffordshire
- Paultons Park, Hampshire
- Peper Harow, Surrey
- Peterborough House, Hammersmith, London
- Petworth House, West Sussex
- Pishiobury, Hertfordshire
- Porter's Park, Hertfordshire
- Prior Park
- Ragley Hall, Warwickshire
- Redgrave Park, Suffolk
- Roche Abbey, South Yorkshire
- Savernake Forest, Wiltshire
- Schloss Richmond (Richmond Palace) in Braunschweig, Germany
- Scampston Hall
- Sheffield Park Garden
- Sherborne Castle
- Sledmere House
- Southill Park, Bedfordshire
- South Stoneham House, Southampton, Hampshire
- Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire
- Stowe Landscape Garden
- Syon House
- Temple Newsam
- Thorndon Hall, Essex
- Trentham Gardens
- Ugbrooke Park, Devon
- Wallington, Northumberland 
- Warwick Castle
- Wentworth Castle, South Yorkshire
- West Hill, Putney, South London
- Weston Park, Staffordshire
- Whitehall, London
- Whitley Beaumont, West Yorkshire
- Widdicombe, Devon, near Slapton
- Wimbledon House, South West London
- Wimbledon Park, South West London
- Wimpole Hall, Cambridgeshire
- Woburn Abbey. Bedfordshire
- Wolterton, Norfolk
- Woodchester, Gloucestershire
- Woodside, Berkshire
- Wootton Place Rectory, Oxfordshire
- Wotton, Buckinghamshire
- Wrest Park, Bedfordshire
- Wrotham, Kent
- Wycombe Abbey, Buckinghamshire
- Wynnstay, Clwyd, Wales
- Youngsbury, Hertfordshire
More than 30 of the gardens are open to the public.
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- Lancelot Capability Brown at Find a Grave
- Archival material relating to Lancelot "Capability" Brown listed at the UK National Archives
- Portraits of Capability Brown at the National Portrait Gallery, London
- FT review of Compton Verney 2011 exhibition