Birthday of “England’s Greatest Gardener”: Capability Brown

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Portrait of “Capability” Brown.

August 30, 2016 is the 300th anniversary of the birth of the man known as England’s greatest gardener, Lancelot Brown, much better known under the nickname “Capability Brown”. It came from his habit of always making sure he pointed out to his wealthy potential clients that their land had a “good capability” for landscaping.

 

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Highclere Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed, is a Capability Brown garden.

Although at the time he was called a gardener, in modern terms, he was more a landscape architect and landscape contractor. He designed and built more than 170 parks for the landed gentry of England, including many, like Blenheim Palace, Kew Gardens and Highclere Castle (where the television show Downton Abbey was filmed) that still exist today. More than 30 are now open to the public.

Revolutionizing Landscaping

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Brown’s landscape style was considered the anithesisis of the French classical garden (above), with its perfect symmetry.

Brown largely revolutionized landscaping during his lifetime. He abandoned the rigid French Classical garden style or “jardin à la française” developed by Frenchman André le Nôtre less than a century earlier, with its straight lines, symmetrical ponds, and closely cropped boxwood hedges, which dominated the properties of English nobles at the time, in favor of a more natural style, characterized by vast undulating lawns, meandering streams, clumps of trees, and lakes with irregular contours. He was not the first promoter of this style, which came to be called the picturesque or English landscape style (William Kent, from 1685 to 1748, one of Brown’s mentors, had already been promoting a more natural landscape style as early as 1717), but it was Brown who perfected it.

During his over 50-year career, Brown completely redesigned many of England’s landed gentry’s country estates, giving them the appearance of an idealized version of nature, a style both easy on the eyes and relatively inexpensive to maintain.

He had his critics, though… mostly among his competitors. Landscape gardener Russell Page, for example, complained that Brown was “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”. Sir William Chambers, another competitor, commented that Brown’s landscapes “differ very little from common fields, so closely is nature copied in most of them”.

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This painting of Audley End House shortly after its transformation shows the bucolic appearance of Brown’s landscape style.

In spite of such criticism, Brown was very influential during his time and wealthy aristocrats competed for his services. Towards the end of his life, he was earning about 6,000 pounds a year, nearly a million dollars in today’s money, and lived on his own estate in Fenstanton.

A Bit of History

Capability Brown was the son of a land agent and a chambermaid and received a modest education before starting work as an apprentice gardener at age 16. He later worked as a gardener on various estates until hired by Sir Richard Grenville, Lord Cobham, to work on one of his lesser estates, Wotton Underwood House.

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A small section of the vast gardens at Stowe House.

Recognizing his talent, Lord Cobham, brought him to his primary residence, Stowe House, considered then as it is today one of the England’s grandest estates. For a while he worked there  with his mentor, the landscape architect William Kent, before going on to become head gardener. Lord Cobham allowed Brown to take commissions from his aristocratic friends and that really launched his career.

Brown was known to work very quickly. It’s said he could do a tour of an estate on horseback and prepare a rough sketch within barely an hour.

From the 1750s on, Brown was firmly established as a “gardener” (landscape architect) and no longer worked for any but the wealthiest families. Among others, he worked at Croome Court (the first time he designed both the house and gardens), Warwick Castle, Milton Abbey, Harewood House, and even Hampton Court Palace as head gardener under King George III.

Capability Brown died in London on February 6, 1783 after a life filled with accomplishments, but his influence did not stop at his death. Already during his lifetime, his ideas had reached the European continent. Many jardins à la française in Holland, Germany, Spain, and even France were ripped out and replaced by the easier-to-maintain English landscape style. The style even reached as far as Russia where the Pavlovsk Palace gardens near St. Petersburg were done in this new style from England.

In North America, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams visited several Brown gardens in England in 1786 and brought the style to North America. Almost a century later, the famous American architect William Law Olmstead designed Central Park in New York and Mount Royal Park in Montreal using Brown’s basic style as a theme.

Even today, city parks in very many countries showcase the English landscape style with undulating lawns and natural looking ponds. And what are modern golf courses, with their neatly trimmed turf, groves of trees, and small irregularly-shaped ponds if not somewhat watered-down copies of Brown’s plans? There is probably a municipal park near you that clearly carries the imprint of this master of the naturalized landscape!

List of Gardens

Here is a list of over 100 of Capability Brown’s gardens: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Gardens_by_Capability_Brown20160830A

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