Celebrating 300 years of Capability Brown

PUBLISHED: 15:11 11 August 2016 | UPDATED: 15:20 11 August 2016

© Portrait of Lancelot Capability Brown, c.1770-75, by Richard Cosway (1742-1821)

© Portrait of Lancelot Capability Brown, c.1770-75, by Richard Cosway (1742-1821)

© Portrait of Lancelot Capability Brown, c.1770-75, by Richard Cosway (1742-1821) Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

These days he’d have been a garden superstar, sought by A List celebrities across the world to transform their estates and secret hideaways

It is 300 years since ‘Capability’ Brown was born and so celebrations of his visions are being held up and down the land as some prestigious gardens – and others not so well known – mark their connection with England’s revered genius landscape gardener.

During the height of his work his fame was extraordinary by even today’s standards as the rich and famous clamoured for his expert eye and imaginative designs. He changed the face of 18th century England, designing country estates and mansions, moving hills and making flowing lakes and serpentine rivers, a magical world of green.

One of the first surprises is that he didn’t come from a landed gentry background – Brown, born in August 1716, was the fifth of six children of a Northumberland yeoman farmer and his wife. After village schooling he began work as a gardener at the nearby ‘big house’, Kirkharle.

His nickname of ‘Capability’ is though to have come from his describing landscapes as having “great capabilities”.

Down to Stowe

By the age of just 25 he had moved on to Stowe in Buckinghamshire, the estate where his work would bring fame and fortune (not that he was particularly good at managing the latter). It was also here that he met Bridget Wayet. They married at St Mary’s Church there in 1744 and made their home in one of the Boycott Pavilions, where four of their eventual nine children were born.

It was also an influential time for the garden. In the 1720s, Charles Bridgman had shaped Stowe along formal lines, with three levels of garden parterres and a tight poplar avenue leading to an octagonal lake. William Kent followed in the 1730s with a looser style that saw the parterres swept away to become lawn with a more informal lake and views opened up to the countryside beyond.

Capability Brown was influenced by the ideas of Kent and took them further, working with Lord Cobham, then owner of Stowe, to create the Grecian Valley. There was an existing shallow valley, but Brown had it dug out in an attempt to make a lake. When that didn’t work he created a picturesque, natural-looking valley instead.

Visitors enjoying the sights at Stowe © National Trust Images/Solent News & Photography AgencyVisitors enjoying the sights at Stowe © National Trust Images/Solent News & Photography Agency

Under Lord Cobham’s influence, the Grecian Valley has more iconography within it than many of Brown’s designs before or since, with temples and statues providing punctuation points in the landscape. However, Brown was also honing the landscape techniques which he would develop in later work and become known for.

Where Bridgeman had planted trees in straight lines, Brown created looser collections of trees – groves with an understorey of laurel and the beginnings of shrubberies. He introduced serpentine paths and created planting schemes to both frame views and shield them in order to create the surprise of a long-range vista when visitors arrived at a certain point. Where there were no views, he created horticultural or landscaping interest with gravel or grass paths designed to carry visitors through the landscape.

Brown used trees and planting in other ways to influence the viewer. The eastern side of the Grecian valley is planted with conifers such as yew and Scots pines, creating dense shade and an introspective mood, whilst the western side is planted with more deciduous trees, giving a lighter feel. He also used trees such as cedar and plane as ‘eye catchers’ to draw the viewer’s eye along the length of the valley. There’s a plane tree in the Grecian Valley with a six-metre circumference, meeting the criteria of a tree that dates from that time.

Long after Capability Brown had left Stowe, in the 19th century, fashion changed again. The naturalistic, wide-ranging landscapes made famous by Brown gave way to more intimate gardens. There was a nod to this with the Lamport Garden at Stowe, but essentially the owners were going bankrupt at the time, and couldn’t afford to keep up with changing styles. For this reason, and fortunately for us, Stowe has retained the true spirit and structure of its 18th century landscape.

Stowe is overseen by the National Trust and has a ‘Capability Found’ exhibition running until 30 October. For the first time, visitors can explore The Temple of Concord and Victory to discover more about Brown and his life and the exhibition includes installations by the Embroiderers’ Guild and exhibition souvenirs.

See nationaltrust.org.uk/stowe

Pastures new

While at Stowe, Brown also began working as an independent designer and contractor and in 1751 he moved with his family to the Mall, Hammersmith, then the market garden area of London.

The Oxford Bridge in the autumn at Stowe © National Trust Images/John MillerThe Oxford Bridge in the autumn at Stowe © National Trust Images/John Miller

Brown offered a number of different services to his clients: for a round number of guineas, he could provide a survey and plans for buildings and landscape, and leave his client to execute his proposal; more frequently he provided a foreman to oversee the work, which would be carried out by labour recruited from the estate.

At Highclere Castle, set within 1,000 acres of parkland, the landscape was designed for the 1st Earl of Carnarvon by Brown in 1771. Prior to Brown’s landscaping, Highclere, well-known as being the real-life Downton Abbey, was surrounded by more formal gardens and woodland. Today Brown’s vision can still be experienced throughout the natural-feeling hills and lakes.

Even in 1753, when he opened his account with Drummond’s Bank, Brown was employing four foremen and by the end of the decade he had over 20 foremen on his books. Finally, he could oversee and refine the work himself, usually by means of visits for a certain number of days each year. In 1764 he was appointed to the gardens of Hampton Court, Richmond and St James and he then moved to Wilderness House, Hampton Court.

His habit of constant travel, lifelong asthma and a failure to often not bill clients for his work (sometimes he simply left them to decide how much it was worth) affected both his health and finances. He eventually collapsed in London and died at his daughter’s house there, before being buried at Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire, the only place he is known to have owned property, and where he became Lord of the Manor. 

Brown’s local legacy

The master landscape gardener worked up and down and across England, playing a significant part in the reshaping of an estate or garden, at other times simply supplying plans.

Brown enjoyed travelling to estates all his life and didn’t always keep records. Experts have been rebuilding a definitive list, often disagreeing. Some of the places listed below have a clear ‘Brown provenance’ while others have been subject to debate or are believed to have been influenced by his style:

Stoke Park: Humphry Repton was commissioned to upgrade ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscaping of the grounds in 1791 (Photo by Maureen McLean)Stoke Park: Humphry Repton was commissioned to upgrade ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscaping of the grounds in 1791 (Photo by Maureen McLean)


• Basildon Park, Lower Basildon

• Benham Park, Marsh Benham, Newbury

• Caversham Park, Reading

• Ditton Park, Riding Court Road, Datchet

• Highclere Castle, Hampshire / Berkshire border

• Maiden Earley, near Reading

• Sandleford, West Berkshire


• Boarstall Tower, Brill Road, Aylesbury, near Bicester

• Chalfont Park, Chalfont St Peter

• Cliveden, Taplow

• Denham Place, Denham

• Fawley Court and Temple Island, Henley

• Gayhurst Court, Gayhurst, Newport Pagnell

• Langley Park, Iver Heath

• Latimer House, Latimer

• Stoke Place, Stoke Green, Stoke Poges

• Stoke Park, Park Road, Stoke Poges

• Stowe near Buckingham

• Taplow Court, Taplow

• The Manor House, Chenies

• Wooton House, Wotton Underwood

• West Wycombe Park, West Wycombe

• Wycombe Abbey, High Wycombe

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