Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716 – 1783) was one of the UK’s most talented landscape designers who changed the face of Britain for ever. Born in the small Northumberland village of Kirkharle, Brown’s name is today linked with over 250 estates, covering 200 square miles throughout England and Wales.
Brown worked on large country estates and popularised the English Landscape style in Britain. The style became fashionable throughout Europe and beyond during the 18th century. His talents were not limited to gardens; he also designed great houses, churches and garden buildings and undertook large engineering projects moving huge amounts of earth and diverting water courses.
A landscape garden may often look completely natural but is in fact man made. Brown believed that if people thought his landscapes were beautiful and natural then he had been successful in his aim.
He created pleasure gardens that were also very practical, enabling practical agriculture and appreciation of beauty to work side by side.
Brown’s genius was in his abililty to see how a work of art could be created out of raw land or an existing formal garden. Not everyone, however, approved of Brown’s sweeping away the traditional formal gardens to create his ‘natural’ landscapes. Was he a visionary or a vandal?
Brown, a relatively poor boy with some education, trained in gardening. His talent blossomed while he was Head Gardener in the 1740′s at Stowe, Buckinghamshire the most famous garden of the day. At Stowe he replaced the parterres, fussy formal gardens, with a smooth open lawn, but his first masterpiece there was the romantic Grecian Valley. This echoed the fashion for classical antiquities which became popular as rich young men went on “the Grand Tour” of Europe as part of their education and brought home some works of art that inspired new design for indoors and outdoors.
When Brown set up his own business in 1751 combining his artistic talent, technical skills in architecture, engineering and landscaping, with sound business sense and scrupulous honesty, he quickly became the face of 18th century garden design. His nickname ‘Capability’ is though to come from his ability to size up a site, saying to a client, ‘the place has its capabilities’. His friendly nature and way of dealing with difficult customers lead to an impressive client list which included six Prime Ministers and half of the House of Lords. In 1764 he became the Royal Gardener to King George III.
Brown was a driven man who criss-crossed the country for his work, but his letters show how dearly he loved his wife and children. His happy family life was interrupted by bouts of illness, but he continued to work hard until his death in 1783 aged 67.
Brown’s enduring parks and buildings continue to speak for him and we can still enjoy many of them today. The 300th anniversary of his birth in 2016 is the chance to re-discover his artistry and celebrate his work as part of our national culture.
The best way to learn more about Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s work here at Weston is to go out and explore the landscape.