Lancelot 'Capability' Brown - a short history 1716-1783
Capability Brown was arguably Britain’s foremost landscape designer with over 200 commissions to his name, many still in evidence today. The name ‘Capability’ Brown came about because he was apt to inform clients of the ‘capability’ of their land for landscaping and agriculture.
Lancelot Brown was born into a yeoman farming family in Kirkharle, Northumberland in 1716 and attended school in nearby Cambo until the age of 16 – unusual for the times. He began by working on land and drainage improvements for Kirkharle landowner Sir William Loraine. Moving south in 1739, he was recommended to Lord Cobham at Stowe in 1740. A year later, this ‘temporary’ job turned into the permanent position of steward and head gardener. In 1744 he married Lincolnshire-born Bridget Wayet and together they had ten children, five surviving.
Stowe’s celebrated gardens were an inspiration to Brown, thanks to previous designers Vanbrugh, Bridgeman and especially the ‘new-style’ naturalistic planting of William Kent. Following Lord Cobham’s death, Capability Brown moved to London in 1750 to set up his own architectural and improvement practice – a move which would result in the creation of many of the finest landscapes and gardens in Britain. In 1764 he was appointed ‘Chief Gardener’ at Hampton Court Palace, a post he held alongside his own business until two months before his death in 1783.
The formal style of previously-fashionable Dutch and French garden design was swept away by Brown. He brought lawns right up to the front door and gave his clients magnificent ‘modern’ views through drawing-room windows across acres of parkland to elegant bridges over his lakes. He controlled vistas to distant horizons and churches with strategically-planted trees, notably Cedars of Lebanon, oak, Scots pine and beech. Less well-known is his architecture. Besides many major house alterations and interiors, such as Burghley, Brown designed several houses including Croome Court and Claremont. He formed a lasting working relationship and friendship with gentleman builder Henry Holland whose talented son Henry Holland Junior married his daughter Bridget and became a partner.
Many of Capability Brown’s designs have endured and can be enjoyed by us today, most notably at Alnwick Castle, Petworth House, Burghley House, Chatsworth, Longleat, Sherborne Castle, Milton Abbey, Blenheim Palace, Croome Court, Castle Ashby, Combe Abbey, Audley End and Warwick Castle.
Capability Brown bought Fenstanton Manor, Cambridgeshire, in 1767. He died a rich, respected and much-loved man and lies buried in Fenstanton churchyard.
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