Lancelot "Capability" Brown, English landscape architect, 1715 - 1783

"Placemaking, and a good English Garden depend entirely on principle and have very little to do with fashion." - Capability Brown
"Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken."  - Anon

Ask anyone in England to name a landscape architect, and they possibly won't know what you mean. Ask them about the greatest landscape designer, and they will doubtless answer "Capability Brown". He is, for most people, the name most commonly associated with large-scale garden design, having worked on many well-known buildings and parks, notably Alnwick Castle, Chatsworth House, Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle and Kew Gardens. Much of his work is still to be seen in these, and other places, and although he was not the first great worker in his field, in many ways he eclipsed his forerunners.

Born in Kirkhale in Northumberland, his beginnings were humble. Born in 1715 to William Brown, a farm labourer, he was named for his grandfather, and was baptised in the village church in 1716. Not much is known about his early life - even his mother's name is not recorded, and sources vary on his year of birth. What is known is that he attended the village school for a while, though he left in later years to attend a better school in Cambo, a two-mile walk each way, where he stayed until the relatively advanced age of 16. This was unusual for his time and social status, given that his father died when Lancelot was only five or six - most children would have been working to support the family from the age of about 12.

So it was that he started work in 1732 to work in he vegetable garden at Kirkharle Tower for Sir William Loraine. Without doubt his skill and intelligence were recognised by Sir William during his remodeling of the estate, because he was "lent out" to other local landowners for their own landscaping projects. After five years of gaining experience, he moved to Surrey to work for Sir Richard Grenville, and at this point he began to attract even more attention, becoming head gardener at Stowe Park in Buckinghamshire. Here he learned a great deal, not just about gardening itself, but also about landscapes themselves. Lord Cobham was well aware of the trends in landscape design - his grounds had been reworked by William Kent in 1730, and Brown must have been aware of Kent's desire to "achieve perfection of nature, landscaping on a large scale using hills, water and trees, mossy cavern, sham ruins (garden follies) to create a picture landscape of classical but 'natural' results".

The State of the Art

Up until this time, most landscape design had been highly planned and formalised - knot gardens in Tudor style, geometrically-perfect flower beds and lawns, formal fountains and water features. Think of the gardens at Versailles, all straight lines and clipped hedges. Kent had begun to work away from these principles, toward more naturalistic settings, and here it was the Brown had his genius - taking these ideas and using them not just for small-scale gardens, but whole estates.

Taking the ideas of Charles Bridgeman and William Kent, he began to design gardens and landscapes on a truly massive scale, laying out woodlands, lakes and even moving rivers and small hills, to achieve a vista of magnificent proportion, brought to the very back door, so to speak, using the ha-ha to effect a smooth visual transition. Working at Stowe enabled him not only to learn (many of Lord Cobham's visitors were well versed in the new developments) but to share his vision.

What a vision it was! Working with the landscape, eschewing the traditional models of using statuary and set pieces, even buildings, he brought the landscape up to the house itself, using the natural forms of the landscape, enhancing them when necessary with realistic-looking features. He was much in demand from both gentry and public bodies to carry out his work of "improving" landscapes and creating views that were reminiscent of the ideal English landscape. This wasn't to say, however, that his work had universal appeal. One William Chambers said of his work that his landscapes "differ very little from common fields, so closely is common nature copied in most of them". The poet Richard Owen Cambridge was also critical of him, allegedly saying of Brown that "I hope to die before him, so I may see heaven before it is improved!". This wasn't to be.

To his Rest

In amongst all his work, he found time for a private life - in 1744 he married Bridget Wayet. During their stay at Stowe they had four children, Bridget, Lancelot, William and John. Following John's birth, they moved to Hammersmith in 1750. It was here that he became close friends with the master mason Henry Holland, who was the only person he trusted with any building works on his many and various projects. His daughter was to marry Henry, who was one of the family in every respect. Now that he was away from the day-to-day business of running estate gardens, Lancelot could focus on his own business as an independent designer, and indeed, his first commission was in 1751, for Lord Coventry.

From here he went from strength to strength, gaining not only a reputation but also a nickname. When he met with his clients, he would tell them that their gardens had "great capabilities". The name stuck, as did his reputation for creating "grammatical" landscapes. It is said that when he met with the writer Hannah More, he said "Now there", pointing to a landscape feature, "I make a comma, and there, where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject".

He himself came to a full stop in 1783 - on the 6th of February, he died on his daughter's doorstep in Hertford Street, London. He beat at least one of his critics, Richard Cambridge, to Heaven, where he presumably left his own mark on the celestial landscape.

"The Genius of the Place", MIT Press, 1993
Encyclopædia Britannica