Capability Brown

From Academic Kids

Lancelot Brown (1716 - 6 February, 1783), more commonly known as Capability Brown, was an English landscape gardener, now remembered as "the last of the great English eighteenth-century artists to be accorded his due", and "England's greatest gardener". He designed over 200 parks, many of which still endure.

Born in Kirkharle, Northumberland, and educated at Cambo School, he began work by serving as a gardener's boy in the service of Sir William Loraine. From there he moved on to Wotton, owned by Lord Cobham. He then joined Lord Cobham's gardening staff, at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. There he served under William Kent, one of the founders of the new English style of Landscape Gardening, and Brown married Kent's daughter.

As an exponent of the new English style, he became immensely sought after by the landed families. By 1751, Horace Walpole wrote of his work at Warwick Castle: "The castle is enchanting; the view pleased me more than I can express, the river Avon tumbles down a cascade at the foot of it. It is well laid out by one Brown who has set up on a few ideas of Kent and Mr. Southcote".

It is estimated that he was responsible for some 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain. His work still endures at Blenheim Palace, Kew Gardens, Warwick Castle, Bowood House, Milton Abbey (and nearby Milton Abbas village) and many other locations. This man who refused work in Ireland because he had not finished England was called "Capability" Brown because he would tell his landed clients their estates had great "capability" for landscape improvement.

His style of smooth undulating grass in which would run straight to the house, clumps, belts, scattering of trees and his serpentine lakes was a new style within the English landscape, and hence opened Brown to criticism by many landscape theorists. However, Brown has not only been criticised, he has also been praised by many.

His landscapes were at the forefront of fashion and they were fundamentally different to what they replaced. The well-known formal gardens of England that were the predominant style before his time were criticized by Alexander Pope and others in the early 1700s. Starting in 1719, first William Kent, and then later Brown, replaced these with more naturalistic compositions, which reached their greatest refinement in Brown's grammatical landscapes.

Russell Page described Brown's process as "encouraging his wealthy clients to tear out their splendid formal gardens and replace them with his facile compositions of grass, tree clumps and rather shapeless pools and lakes". Richard Owen Cambridge, the English poet and satirical author, declared that he hoped to die before Brown so that he could "see heaven before it was 'improved'" this was a typical statement reflecting the controversy about Brown's work, which has continued over the last 200 years. By contrast, a recent historian and author, Richard Bisgrove, described Brown's process as perfecting nature by "judicious manipulation of its components, adding a tree here or a concealed head of water there. His art attended to the formal potential of ground, water, trees and so gave to English landscape its ideal forms. The difficulty was that less capable imitators and less sophisticated spectators did not see nature perfected ... they saw simply what they took to be nature". This deftness of touch was not unrecognized in his own day; one anonymous obituary writer opined: "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".

Brown died in 1783, in Hertford Street, London, on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget who had married the architect Henry Holland. Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: "Your dryads must go into black gloves, Madam, their father-in-law, Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead!". He was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish church of his small estate of Fenstanton Manor.

See also: landscape architecture

Gardens and Parks

Many of Capability Brown's parks and gardens may still be visited today. A partial list of his landscapes follows.

Further reading

  • Thomas Hinde, Capability Brown: The Story of a Master Gardener (W. W. Norton, 1987)
  • Roger Turner, Capability Brown and the Eighteenth Century English Landscape (Rizzoli, 1985)
  • Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown (Faber and Faber, 1975)

External links

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