Lancelot Brown was born in Kirkharle, Northumberland in 1716. Born into a rural community, he was fortunate to have been educated to the age of 16, and following this completed a gardening apprenticeship for the local landowner Sir William Lorraine. It will have been Kirkharle where Brown built his knowledge of plants and land management, before moving south aged 23, in due course gaining employment at the impressive Stowe, Buckinghamshire as an under-gardener for Lord Cobham. Only two years later he was promoted to Head Gardener, showing something of his strength of character, horticultural knowledge and ability.
Stowe provided opportunity for Brown to study the work of William Kent, amongst others, and before long Lord Cobham gave his blessing for Brown to begin working elsewhere, the first commission appearing to be for the Duke of Grafton on the Wakefield Estate, where William Kent had also worked. Brown married Bridget Wayet whilst at Stowe, in the November of 1744, and over the following six years they produced four children, Bridget, Lancelot, William and John. In the late 1750s, Bridget gave birth to two further children; Margaret and Thomas. Alas, William lived just a few months, but what inspirational environments all those children shared, their father busy in the background courting commissions whilst growing his name.
Brown left Stowe and relocated his family to Hammersmith c1750, which was nearer to the key plant nurseries and seed merchants that became his lifeblood. In this location, Brown would also benefit from access to a steady stream of potential clients, and it was from this time that Lancelot focused his efforts full time towards that of a ‘Place-maker’. A useful family friendship also developed at this time with the Holland family, who brought building and architectural trades to Capability’s finger tips. The collaboration allowed complete commissions to be undertaken, giving Lancelot direct influence over architectural styles to be employed in his landscapes, and allowed an all-embracing approach to new commissions. Brown was then able to fashion the house and landscape as one, which made much sense to prospective clients. In the coming years, the younger Henry Holland grew closer to and married Brown’s first born Bridget.
Croome Park, the Worcestershire estate of Lord Coventry became Brown’s landmark commission in 1751. Here he relied on all his acquired knowledge and skill, in order to drain and create a successful landscape of vast proportions. Croome included many architectural elements, notably the mansion itself that still stands impressively amongst Brown’s trademark smooth lawns, which reach from the house to the slopes of the Croome River. The ‘river’ is effectively an immense drainage channel shaped as a serpentine river. Known as his first major commission, it signifies his confidence, ability and skill, and endures to this day.
At Croome, as elsewhere, Brown used trees to great effect. He dressed the hills with dense shelter belts, adding height, protection and valuable timber in one swoop, at Fisherwick in Staffordshire for example, he reputedly planted 100,000 trees. He dropped single specimens, small and large into open parkland, along with bulkier clumps of trees. He retained old specimen trees from out of date avenue plantings, retaining a sense of maturity, and was even known to relocate mature trees for instant effect. Whilst he stuck to a relatively simple pallet of reliable native trees, he also planted newly introduced conifers, adding his trademark Cedar of Lebanon in many locations, its distinctive tiered branch network working effectively, both in open parkland and smooth lawn areas, such as Compton Verney in Warwickshire.
Equal in scale to his tree planting was Brown’s manipulation of water, and he was quick to ascertain how water could be utilised in his landscapes. Indeed, Lancelot’s nickname of ‘Capability’ came from his technique of swiftly assessing the capabilities of a site, a technique that won him favour with prospective clients. Brown’s lakes and serpentine rivers were often created from nothing, fed frequently by the most modest of stream inlets, supplemented sometimes by the installation of hidden brick channels; water engineering often on a vast scale. His lakes brought many qualities to his gardens, providing space, light and reflection amongst other things. They also created a place for boating, which allowed yet another way to travel through the landscape, and another way to view the architecture. Many lakes also featured boat houses.
Brown created numerous landscapes throughout Britain, his style certainly touching many more besides. He was successful in picking up the lead from William Kent and Charles Bridgeman, forming his own naturalistic style in the process. He developed his own aesthetic at a time when formalised landscapes were falling from fashion, and many exist in their mature form to this day. Brown landscapes have formed what many think is the idealised English landscape, and include some of the finest estates in England: Blenheim Palace; Chatsworth House; Burghley House; Sheffield Park; Petworth House; Alnwick Castle, and many more.
If his mammoth landscaping achievements weren’t enough, in 1764 aged 48, Brown attained the position of Master Gardener to King George III at Hampton Court Palace, recorded as ‘H.M. Surveyor of Gardens and Waters’. He moved his family into the aptly named ‘Wilderness House’ at Hampton Court, yet continued to work on commissions around the country. It is certain that Brown spent much time travelling, being much in demand, and would have endured all weather conditions, this not made any easier by his asthma affliction. Along with his new found position at Hampton Court, came a need to expand, and he employed assistants to work both with him and remain at the court during his long absences.
Success brought its rewards in 1767, when Brown purchased Fenstanton Manor, a country manor for his family more appropriate to his standing. In 1770 he was made High Sheriff of Huntingdonshire, perhaps another indicator to his character. Brown was well established and respected, but like many who embark on work of an artistic nature, he did have his critics. The work continued to roll in however, and Brown accepted long distance commissions into his 60s. A commitment to continue, stubbornness to give in, or need to keep earning must have occupied much of Lancelot’s time, although little of it was spent recording his thoughts for posterity. Apart from the physical evidence in the beautiful remains of his work, we fortunately have numerous maps and plans around the country to indicate his imaginative style. In addition to this we have but a handful of images as an indicator of the great man himself.
After a few years of ill health, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s life ended suddenly, from a heart attack whilst arriving at his daughter’s house in London. In 1783, aged 67, he left a loving family behind, and a legacy of landscapes that pepper the land for all to still see and enjoy. True, he gained criticism from some quarters, yet his professionalism and skill has endured. Brown’s work has been preserved and cared for at many of the estates that he touched, some of which are now our most popular visitor attractions.
The trees that Brown placed so precisely may continue to age, but are nurtured by caring people. Lakes he carved out of nowhere continue to clog, but are cleared with commitment by willing folk. The parklands he laid to pasture are being nurtured again to give the butterflies a future. The fences he sunk and ha-ha’s he built, in their restoration, once again provide employment to trades people. The buildings and landscapes he designed for people continue to attract, interest and fascinate people around 250 years later. His contribution to this country’s history was immense, if hidden by the passage of time. I for one have an appreciation and love of his work; do you?
My reading in support of this post:
Capability Brown, Joan Clifford. Shire Publications.