Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is a name that sticks. Until I researched this post, I was under the impression that the ‘capability’ nickname referred to his capable abilities. It actually comes from his describing landscapes as having ‘great capabilities’. The man had vision.
These days, he might be considered a wrecker – he didn’t simply plant a few scrubs or seeds – he fundamentally transformed a garden or park. He was more of a builder, an architect, somebody who had the good fortune to be handed vast stretches of land at a time when palaces were springing up everywhere, and he was given free reign to reinvent those landscapes.
The number of locations associated with Capability Brown is astonishing. He was prolific, cropping up everywhere across the British Isles. Here are a few – a veritable list of great houses and palaces:
Alnwick Castle (home to Harry Potter films)
Blenheim Palace (built by the star of The Favourite, the duchess of Marlborough.)
Highclere (location of Downton Abbey)
… nearly 260 country estates and mansions. His enterprises were equally ostentatious. He moved hills and created lakes.
Brown was born in Northumberland in 1716 and employed by Lord Cobham at Stowe in 1741 for ten years as his head gardener. He rejected the French styles used by palaces like Versailles and preferred to accentuate the traditional English landscapes – grass meadows, lakes, follies, carriage drives and clumps of trees.
He did, however, destroy formal gardens, which isn’t perhaps his best legacy.
At Stowe he tricked the eye with hidden sunken ha-ha walls, which keep livestock off the gardens. He created a valley with Grecian temples sited at the highest points. Brown liked to offer the owners of grand houses sweeping carriage drives to impress their visitors. He moved roads to ensure there were glimpses of the property just visible through the trees, teasing the arrivals with the awaiting grandeur. His vast parks enabled pastimes like shooting and hunting, stretching the legs of nobles and the opportunity to show-off their wealth.
He wasn’t put off by the scale of the transformation. At Croome, he removed a Medieval church (something of a sacrilege these days) and built a Gothic one in its place. The marshlands were drained to feed a lake and one and three-quarter miles of a hand dug serpentine river – a characteristic of many of his parks, as was the importing of Lebanon Cedars. While at Wimpole Hall, he built a sham ruined castle as a folly. He was one busy man – dying in 1783.
2016 marked the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown’s birth. He might be long departed, but his landscapes live on.
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