Born 300 years ago this summer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was England’s greatest gardener, and his visionary landscapes changed the face of the British countryside.
At the peak of this career in the1750s, Lancelot Brown was the toast of the aristocracy. Acknowledged as the greatest landscape gardener of his generation, he was in huge demand, repeatedly crossing and re-crossing the country on horseback, visiting some of England’s richest and most powerful people to check progress on dozens of ambitious landscaping projects.
Poet William Cowper wrote in mock awe:
The omnipotent magician,
He speaks. The lake in front becomes
Woods vanish, hills subside,
and valleys rise.
So popular was Brown, and so widespread the impact of his work, that author Richard Owen Cambridge is said to have professed his desire to die before Brown–so that he could “see Heaven before it was ‘improved’”.
Brown’s rise was particularly spectacular, given his relatively humble origins. He began life in Kirkharle, Northumberland, the son of a land agent and a chambermaid. During his teens he worked as a gardener for Sir William Loraine’s estate, of which his father was steward.
Yet these formative years laid the ground for Brown’s future success. Soon he had learned the basic skills of building and land management, proving himself highly competent. Showing an unusual combination of creative vision, practicality and organizational skills, he could both design and project-manage. Just as significantly, Brown could think quickly, turning out new designs fast, and on a grand scale. Soon he began consulting on other estates nearby.
When Brown moved south in 1741, his work was noticed by Lord Cobham at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, one of the most famous gardens in England. He joined Cobham’s staff and soon became head gardener, tasked with implementing the earlier designs of the landscape gardener William Kent and architect James Gibbs, and he rapidly absorbed their ideas.
Lord Cobham loaned Brown’s landscaping talents to close friends, and his reputation burgeoned. In 1750 he began working independently, eventually lending his talents to more than 170 gardens across Britain.
Brown’s first major parkland commission came in 1751, when the fashionable 6th Earl of Coventry, who had inherited his estate aged 28, asked him to redesign both the landscape and house at Worcestershire’s Croome Court. Coventry wanted the new-look estate to be at the forefront of contemporary design; so Brown swept away the formal garden and drained the surrounding marshy parkland.
He channeled the water into a new meander off into the distance (actually, it came to an abrupt halt behind a perfectly placed clump of trees). He planted a shrubbery walk punctuated by follies and temples, and even moved and rebuilt a village to enhance a view.
There was also an impressive tree collection, said to be second only to Kew’s. Many of the trees he planted have survived, though many are now over-mature. Over the past decade, the lake and a river that appeared to National Trust, custodian of Croome, has planted 10,000 trees there, often using GPS to ensure they are planted according to his 18th-century plan.
In 1754 Brown began another triumphant transformation: creating a masterplan to improve the house and grounds for the 9th Earl of Exeterat Burghley in Lincolnshire, which took more than 25 years to complete. Brown dammed a stream to form a lake, and added several new buildings. One of only two portraits of Brown hangs in the Pagoda room.
Three years later he started work at Longleat. Soon the formal garden had disappeared, while the garden, terrace park and lakes were modified and extensive plantations added – 91,000 trees were planted during one winter.