Head gardener at Stowe on Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s ‘tricks of the eye’

PUBLISHED: 11:21 20 September 2016

The impressive Palladian Bridge (flickr.com/photos/flowcomm)

The impressive Palladian Bridge (flickr.com/photos/flowcomm)


Stowe’s head gardener tells Sandra Smith how Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s provided scenic beauty at the magnificent estate

For 300 years the name of one of the country’s most influential gardeners has been synonymous with naturalistic landscapes whose undulating topography interspersed with architectural follies once provided his wealthy customers with vistas and seclusion, a legacy the public continues to enjoy centuries later.

Yet Lancelot Brown, born in the Northumberland village of Kirkharle, owes his success to far more than green fingers. A man overflowing with foresight, charisma and determination, he equally excelled in business, art and engineering whilst his reputation to appreciate the potential of a project earned him the moniker for which he is most familiar, Capability Brown.

Lord Cobham’s Stowe estate already basked in Europe wide fame when the 25 year old journeyed south to take up employment as Under Gardener 1741. With tutelage from William Kent (celebrated by some as the father of modern gardening) Brown rose through the ranks to become Head Gardener. Using his visionary and creative skills he transformed the hitherto French preference in vogue during the early 18th century - a geometric layout oozing formality - into a more open, nature-inspired terrain. Initially this approach polarised views. Eventually, however, his innovative style earned a following that proliferated not only throughout this country but across the Continent.

Whilst strolling around 250 acres of Grade 1 listed gardens there is little evidence of Stowe village that once inhabited part of these grounds. The Parish Church still stands – Brown married Bridget Wyatt here in 1744 and their four children were christened in the church – but all other buildings were demolished and residents evicted to make way for the unique garden Brown planned for his employer.

To today’s visitors these hills, lakes and pastures appear timeless in their simplicity, a nod to nature but with the addition of classical architecture and every inch accessible. Pathways such as Lord Cobham’s Walk explore much of the eastern portion of the gardens starting from the Temple of Friendship. The Palladian Bridge crossing the tranquil Octagon Lake offers an opportunity to absorb a quintessential English setting – nearby grazing sheep and banks of mature trees – before the Path of Liberty ascends to Lord Cobham’s pillar, a 110’ high monument Brown built for his patron and employer.

Perhaps one of the most appealing aspects of Stowe is the harmony of nature within such a manufactured setting. Yes, statues, paths and woodland were designed yet wildflowers are allowed to grow, even patches of weeds flourish, in parts. The vegetation is not perfectly clipped, and all the better for it.

The gentle, flowing curves of the grounds are a delight for visitors (flickr.com/photos/flowcomm)The gentle, flowing curves of the grounds are a delight for visitors (flickr.com/photos/flowcomm)

Walking here is like stumbling across an oasis that formed itself. This is, of course, down to Brown’s skill, as Barry Smith, Stowe’s Head of Gardens, explains. “Brown’s influence can be seen across this country. He swept away formal gardens and paved the way for nature. All a trick of the eye, the valleys and lakes are manmade but purposely look like rivers. We’re still inspired by his work and we meticulously prune the large views across the gardens to make it appear as though no work has been done, preferring traditional methods to modern machinery.”

Stowe’s immense project initially included a lake. Over 18,000 square metres of earth were scooped out and removed by a local workforce using no more than spades and barrows while ha-has kept livestock away from the construction site. Relentless leakage, however, forced the idea to be abandoned and workers instead created the Grecian Valley.

The vast vale continues to boast eye catching impact with unbroken views extending across the parkland, one of the finest from the monumental Temple of Concord and Victory (the first Greek revival building in England) at the west end where refreshments and a selection of delicious cakes are available. The building currently doubles as a free exhibition space detailing the life and work of Capability Brown as well as A Stitch in Time, a display of Embroiderers’ Guild textile works based on English landscapes.

Not surprisingly, birdsong is in abundance throughout these acres, adding yet another dimension to the Stowe experience along with viewpoints via grassy knolls or classical references such as Greek inspired temples which provide shade and scenery. Open spaces are complemented by sheltered corners and choreographed routes such as the Path of Vice and Path of Virtue – colourful maps make them easy to follow - enable visitors to explore lakes and monuments.

Capability Brown’s rolling expanses of grass framed by trees and shrubs were copied by many including the extravagant Imperial ruler, Catherine the Great of Russia, at Tsarskelo Palace near St Petersburg. Indeed, such was Brown’s growing reputation that he gathered patronage from many, his enlightened employer, Lord Cobham, allowing the Head Gardener to travel during his latter Stowe years in order to meet prospective clients and advise landowners. Following Cobham’s death in 1751 the celebrated gardener departed to establish his own business as a consultant, leaving behind his first and only place of employment.

“Brown’s vision was incredible,” Barry Smith concludes, “and to make that become reality is truly remarkable. The scale of his work at Stowe was one of his most important lasting legacies, where it all began for him. The connections he made whilst working here and the patronage given by Lord Cobham shot him off to new pastures where he soon worked for the noblest gentry and even the King.”

Looking back across the lake to Stowe House (flickr.com/photos/flowcomm)Looking back across the lake to Stowe House (flickr.com/photos/flowcomm)

Brownian landscapes provided estate owners with grounds which reflected their great houses. Status, hunting and privacy were each accommodated and in doing so elegant landscapes seamlessly melted into each other thus creating what has become idyllic English scenery. 
No wonder the impact of this visionary brought fame and success during his lifetime. Capability Brown’s legacy and prevailing skills also ensure he continues to be a household name 300 years later. 

Plan your day out

The Capability Found Exhibition and Embroiderers Guild installations continue daily (11am – 5pm) until 30 October. Visitors can take tea in the Temple of Concord and Victory. The excellent café at Stowe offers snacks and meals including estate reared beef and herbs from the farmhouse garden. Local producers provide many of the vegetables and Chiltern Brewery’s New Inn Restoration Ale is available.

Stowe is 3 miles north-west of Buckingham just off the A422 (M40 take exits 9 to 11). Parking: Free for NT members, £2 non-members. Grounds entry prices: adults £12.40/£11.20 (first price with Gift Aid); child £6.20/£5.60; family £31/£28; 1 adult, 3 children £18.60/£16.90. Explore at your own pace or guided tours of the State Rooms at Stowe House are also available during September, £6.20/ £4.80 NT members, child free with paying adult.

nationaltrust.org.uk/stowe | embroiderersguild.com | stowe.co.uk

Latest from the Berkshire Life