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Capability Brown, by Nathaniel Dance, ca.1769 (National Portrait Gallery)

Lancelot Brown (1716 – 6 February 1783), more commonly known as Capability Brown, was an English landscape architect. He is remembered as "the last of the great English eighteenth-century artists to be accorded his due", and "England's greatest gardener". He designed over 170 parks, many of which still endure. His influence was so great that the contributions to the English garden made by Charles Bridgeman and William Kent are often overlooked; even Kent's apologist Horace Walpole allowed that Kent had been followed by "a very able master".[1]



Lancelot Brown was born in Kirkharle, Northumberland, and educated at Cambo School. He began work by serving as a gardener's boy at Sir William Loraine's seat at Kirkharle Hall. From there, he moved to Wotton Underwood in Buckinghamshire, a minor seat of Lord Cobham. In 1742,[2] he 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 garden. While at Stowe, Brown married a local girl named Bridget Wayet and had the first four of his children.

As a proponent of the new English style, Brown became immensely sought after by the landed families. By 1751, Horace Walpole wrote of Brown's 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 Brown was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain. His work still endures at Croome Court (where he also designed the house), Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Harewood House, Bowood House, Milton Abbey (and nearby Milton Abbas village), in traces at Kew Gardens and many other locations. This man who refused work in Ireland because he had not finished England was called "Capability" Brown, because he would characteristically tell his landed clients that their estates had great "capability" for landscape improvement.

Badminton House: features of the Brownian landscape at full maturity in the 19th century

His style of smooth undulating grass, which would run straight to the house, clumps, belts and scattering of trees and his serpentine lakes formed by invisibly damming small rivers, were a new style within the English landscape, a "gardenless" form of landscape gardening, which swept away almost all the remnants of previous formally patterned styles.

His landscapes were at the forefront of fashion. They were fundamentally different from what they replaced, the well-known formal gardens of England which were criticized by Alexander Pope and others from the 1710s. Starting in 1719, William Kent replaced these with more naturalistic compositions, which reached their greatest refinement in Brown's "grammatical" landscapes. At Hampton Court, Brown encountered Hannah More in 1782 and described his manner in her terms: "'Now there' said he, pointing his 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'".[3] Brown's patrons saw the idealized landscapes he was creating for them in terms of the Italian landscape painters they admired and collected, as Kenneth Woodbridge first observed in the landscape at Stourhead, a "Brownian" landscape with an un-Brownian circuit walk in which Brown himself was not involved.

At Blenheim Brown dammed the paltry stream flowing under Vanbrugh's Grand Bridge, drowning half the structure with improved results

Russell Page, who began his career in the Brownian landscape of Longleat but whose own designs have formal structure, accused Brown of "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".[4] 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". Sir William Chambers, who considered himself a garden authority as well, complained that Brown's grounds "differ very little from common fields, so closely is nature copied in most of them".[5]

Brown's popularity declined rapidly after his death, because his work was seen as a feeble imitation of wild nature. A reaction against the smooth blandness of Brown's landscapes was inevitable; the landscapes lacked the sublime thrill which members of the Romantic generation (like Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price) looked for in an ideal landscape, where the painterly inspiration would come from Salvator Rosa rather than Claude Lorrain. During the nineteenth century he was widely criticised, but during the twentieth century his popularity returned. Tom Turner has suggested that the latter resulted from a favourable account of his talent in Marie-Luise Gothein's History of Garden Art which predated Christopher Hussey's positive account of Brown in The Picturesque (1927). Dorothy Stroud wrote the first full monograph on Capability Brown, fleshing out the generic attributions with documentation from country house estate offices.

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!".[6] Brown was buried in the churchyard of St. Peter and St. Paul, the parish church of Brown's small estate at Fenstanton Manor.

Humphry Repton observed that Brown "fancied himself an architect",[7] but Brown's work as an architect is overshadowed by his great reputation as a designer of landscapes. Repton was bound to add: "he was inferior to none in what related to the comfort, convenience, taste and propriety of design, in the several mansions and other buildings which he planned". Some of his architecture was carried out in collaboration with his son-in-law Henry Holland, whose initial career Brown supported. Fisherwick, Staffordshire and Claremont, Surrey, were classical, while at Corsham his outbuildings are in a Gothick vein.

Brown's portrait by Nathaniel Dance, c. 1768, is conserved in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Gardens and parks

Many of Capability Brown's parks and gardens may still be visited today. A partial list of the landscapes he designed or worked on:

  • Topland House, 73, South Audley Street, London (unconfirmed)

See also


  1. ^ Walpole, On Modern Gardening, 1780.
  2. ^ Brown, Lancelot (2007). In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved September 14, 2007, from Encyclopædia Britannica Online:
  3. ^ Quoted in Peter Willis, "Capability Brown in Northumberland" Garden History 9.2 (Autumn, 1981, pp. 157-183) p. 158).
  4. ^ Page, Education of a Gardener.
  5. ^ Chambers, A Dissertation on Oriental Gardening (1772) p. v.
  6. ^ The Letters of Horace Walpole: Earl of Orford page 331
  7. ^ Repton, Observations on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, 1803.
  8. ^ Conservation Area Appraisal
  9. ^ Boarstall people


  • Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, 3rd ed. 1995.
  • Thomas Hinde. Capability Brown: The Story of a Master Gardener. New York: W. W. Norton, 1987. ISBN 0-393-02421-0, ISBN 0-09-163740-6.
  • Dorothy Stroud. Capability Brown. London: Faber and Faber, 2nd revised ed. 1975. ISBN 0-571-10267-0, ISBN 0-571-13405-X.
  • Roger Turner. Capability Brown and the Eighteenth Century English Landscape. New York: Rizzoli, 1985. ISBN 0-8478-0643-X, ISBN 0-297-78734-9, ISBN 1-86077-114-9; 2nd edition, Phillimore, Chichester, 1999.

External links

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