The January Meeting 2019

The Capable Mr Brown

A talk by Russell Bowes


Russell began by telling us that Lancelot Brown [1715 – 1783] was an English landscape architect and designer.     He is remembered as England’s greatest gardener and earned the nickname ‘Capability’ Brown by landscaping the grounds of many large estates across the country.        His is a rags to riches story although by the nature of his occupation he has also attracted a lot of criticism and divides those in the gardening world in a similar way as Alan Titchmarsh does today. 


He did change the perceptions of people in the 18th Century throughout the country particularly in London and the South East but found Wales too difficult for his style of gardening because of the rugged landscape.


 At the beginning of the eighteenth century fashionable gardens had many straight paths with formal beds of plants always leading to a focal point such as a fountain or a statue.       The fashion at the time was to follow the concepts of the French even though they were seen to becoming rather old fashioned and decidedly European.    Brown never left Britain but was influenced by paintings from artists such as Claude Lorrain and Poussin which purported to depict the ancient classical landscapes.  These works were brought back to England by young men returning from the Grand Tour.  


 Brown saw that the paintings showed a more naturalistic view of the landscape.


He was born in 1715, one of five children.  His father was a general labourer, or at best, a tenant farmer, on the estate of Sir William Lorraine and his mother was in domestic service in Kirkhale House.  His formal education last 14 years where he was recognised as being an able student and quick to embrace new ideas.


After leaving school he worked as the head gardener’s apprentice at Sir William Loraine’s kitchen garden at Kirkhale House and then was sent south to work on further estates at Kidlington Hall in Oxfordshire.


Sir William Lorraine lived in Hanover Square next door to Lord Cobham of Stowe and Brown joined Lord Cobham’s gardening staff as undergardener at Stowe in Buckinghamshire, being officially appointed as Head Gardener at the age of 26 years.  He was paid £25.00 a year, and given accommodation in one of the Boycott Pavilions, a pair of matching classical folly buildings.       His duties subsequently included forest and wood management.


While at Stowe he began working as an independent designer and contractor and the Grecian Valley is a good example of his naturalistic style.


It was known that many trees, when moved to a new location soon died and Brown created a machine for their removal, complete with root systems, which had large wheels and a cradle to support the trunk and which could remove the tree in one piece and safely transport it to a new location.        He planned their locations with an eye for the future knowing they would take many years to reach maturity.


In 1744 he married after a whirlwind courtship, Bridget Wayet from Boston in Lincolnshire, at the local Stowe parish church.          They had several children but only three survived into adulthood.   Bridget their daughter and Lancelot, the elder son, showing little aptitude for gardening eventually became the Member of Parliament for Huntingdonshire.       The other son entered the navy and became an Admiral. 


On leaving Stowe, the Browns moved to Hammersmith, the market garden area of London, where his wife who could read and write, kept the accounts.   Brown was approached by David Garrick, the actor/manager of Drury Lane Theatre whose  property, on the Thames at Hampton, was cut in two by a local road.       Brown solved the problem in a novel way by running a tunnel under the roadway,  enabling the riverside garden to be accessed without crossing the busy road.


In 1764 Brown was appointed King George III’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace which included Richmond Park.       It is estimated that Brown was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding some of the finest country houses and estates and which are still treasured and viable.    


  In 1765 he was involved with redesigning the grounds of Blenheim Palace where Sir John Vanbrugh had previously designed a bridge which was out of scale with the rest of the existing design.       Brown decided to flood the valley and bring the bridge back into visual proportion with the rest of the new design, creating a natural landscape complete with lake.            His removal of physical barriers extended to their replacement by the digging of trenches in strategic places which still formed a barrier, for example to cattle, but did not interrupt the visual field of any onlooker [the Ha Ha]



His landscapes became very fashionable as they were fundamentally different to the well- known formal gardens of the past which had aimed to show man’s domination over nature.        His style was to replace them with natural combinations including buildings surrounded by lawns.        The idea was that ‘the house should graze in its own grass’.    


   Views from the houses included clumps of trees and shrubs carefully placed in  the land together with large lakes.




However new colourful plants and trees are now entering the country which are incompatible with the traditional natural landscape and provide a very good example of how fashion and images change.       For example the gardens of Sheffield Park are in the process of being redesigned with colourful and vibrant trees from abroad.


In 1758 Brown accepted the lordship of the Manor at Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire as part payment of an unpaid bill for a landscaping commission.          While there Brown worked on his final project at Berrington Hall where the Oak and Beech trees have naturally matured many years after he planned the landscape.        He was continually working until his sudden death in 1783 of a heart attack and he is interred in the church at Fenstanton.       There are no records to show exactly where his body lies, but it would have been usual for the Lord of the Manor to be interred under the Nave.

His obituary refers to his quickness and correctness of eye which gave truth and effectiveness to his landscapes.


When answering questions Russell replied to Colin Kyte that Brown marked every tree on his master plans together with their shadows.     Keith Nicol mentioned that he knows Kirkhale in Northumberland very well and that the estate is a very good example of the wonderful style of Capability Brown 

 When giving the Vote of Thanks John Turner thanked Russell for having given a superb insight into the life and personality of Capability Brown which confirmed that an interest in gardening is innate in most of us.


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