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‘Capability’ Brown: a celebration

Very few landscape gardeners, past or present, have ever reached the levels of prominence and accomplishment achieved by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown


"Brown’s style of working alongside the flow of a landscape, and method of creating gardens that appear as if they could be natural, was hugely ground-breaking"

As the most celebrated of his cohort of 18th Century gardeners, Capability Brown changed the face of countless English country views, designing estates and mansions, moving hills and creating flowing lakes and serpentine rivers: a magical world of green

 

Born in 1716 in the village of Kirkharle in Northumberland, Brown first worked as the head gardener’s apprentice at Kirkharle Hall, a nearby country house, until the age of 23. His first personal landscape commission was at Kiddington Hall, near Woodstock, and by 1764 he was appointed as King George III’s master gardener at Hampton Court Palace.


 

The name “Capability” comes not as a compliment of his abilities but, so the legend goes, from his habit of seeing the “great capabilities” in gardens to become glorious landscapes.

Despite the surprising lack of definitive records of where he worked, there are more than 250 attributed and recognised sites across the UK designed by Brown, including Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Bowood House and Milton Abbey. His style of smooth undulating grass (which would tend to run straight to the estate’s house), clumps, belts and scattering of trees and his trademark lakes were a new style within the English landscape, which replaced the much more “formal”-styled gardens which came previously. Of his style, Brown saw comparisons to the technique of the poet or author. The writer Hannah More, after an encounter with Brown at Hampton Court, reported that he described his gardens in literary terms, saying of his work:

“Now there”, pointing a finger, “I make a comma, and there”, pointing to another spot, “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.”

Brown’s style of working alongside the flow of a landscape, and method of creating gardens that appear as if they could be natural, was hugely ground-breaking. The trend in landscape gardening before Brown was heavy on geometric structures, alleys and parterres, with a very deliberate, elaborate and formal style exemplified by jardin à la française landscape architect André Le Nôtre. (Le Nôtre’s work is often thought of as the antithesis to Brown’s style; whether this is for better or worse is up for debate). Brown’s subtle approach was so ingenious and close to raw landscapes that one anonymous obituary writer wrote of his work: "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".

This glowing reputation, however, did not last unchallenged throughout the centuries; the popular opinion of Brown’s work declined quite rapidly after his death. Perhaps due to the inevitable cycles of fashion, his landscapes fell out of favour in the early 19th century, being replaced by the more featured landscapes which were characteristic of the Romantic generation. At the beginning of the 20th century, however, his style was rediscovered and he is now considered by many as the greatest landscape gardener of all time, an accolade that we at OX Country think is well deserved, given the abundance of his stunning works that surround our locale. So here’s to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, the godfather of the English landscape garden.

2016 is the 300th anniversary of Brown’s birth, and where better to celebrate his achievements than at what is arguably his finest work and pièce de résistance, Blenheim Palace.

To commemorate the year, the Palace will be joining a nationwide celebration and will be hosting a range of commemorative activities across 2016 to honour his life and work. The Palace will reopen in 2016 with a new temporary exhibition that will share his work at Blenheim Palace across the 11 years he was commissioned (1763 – 1774). This will be achieved through detailed accounts of how he designed and executed such a masterpiece through photography, drawings, equipment and costumes, with a number of never-before-seen elements. The exhibition will run from 13th February until 2nd May.

 

Related Articles: BBC’s Countryfile Live at Blenheim Palace