On the sixth of February, 1783, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown found himself preparing to face his maker at the Mayfair home of his daughter Bridget, the home she shared with husband and architect Henry Holland. Brown had been staying there and was returning having visited his friend in Piccadilly. Ironically, the ‘friend’ or Lord Coventry to be precise, awarded Brown his first major landscape commission at Croome, Worcestershire c1750. Their relationship was over thirty years in the making, and I can only hope that for Lancelot, their last meeting was jovial and pain-free.
Slightly different accounts are made of the closing hours of Brown’s life, but all agree that Brown collapsed during his return walk to Mayfair. Dorothy Stroud suggests he died ‘almost at once’, and quite possibly so, but I find the following account in Jane Brown’s ‘The Omnipotent Magician’ more palatable:
‘He fell – and, being a big man, fell heavily – and being Lancelot Brown, the King’s Master Gardener and a familiar figure, he was soon surrounded by willing helpers. Tradition has it that he fell outside Lord Sandwich’s house, also in Hertford Street, where the footmen knew him well, and so in safe hands he was carried home to his daughter’s house.’
If this latter version is correct, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, then at least Brown made it home to a warm and loving environment. It is believed also that his wife ‘Biddy’ made it to Lancelot’s side, before he passed away during the evening. At the age of 67 Lancelot Brown left behind a very long list of notable landscape commissions: a nineteen year stint as the King’s Master Gardener, a manor house in Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire and a sturdy family. Brown walked and relaxed with, charmed and satisfied some of the most influential people of his time. He courted the aristocracy, delighted the King and drained the last drop of sweat from many a hardworking navvy.
Many of Brown’s contemporaries disliked both the man and his work, and many people still do. I believe however that his work deserves a greater degree of praise, and his enduring effort and dedication to the landscaping cause is worthy of more study, understanding and respect. I’d be negligent to overlook the grand gardens he removed, or the workers cottages that disappeared in the course of his work, in the same way that I’d be negligent in failing to mention the land that through his artful hand returned to production.
In the very least, Brown brought work to many which put food in the mouths of their families. He broke the moulds of numerous rigidly formal gardens across the land and created enduring landscapes that we continue to love and enjoy. Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is believed to be buried with his wife Biddy at the Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul, Fenstanton; a family memorial is sited within.
Lancelot Brown. 1716 – 1783 – Rest in Peace.
Jane Brown – The Omnipotent Magician.
Capability Brown – Dorothy Stroud.