Landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783) carved hills and streams into some of the finest private estates in Georgian-era Britain. Inarguably the most successful practitioner in his field during his lifetime, Brown improved scenic vistas at nearly 300 properties, among them Highclere Castle of Downton Abbey fame and Blenheim Palace, the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
Brown was baptized on the last Sunday in August of 1716 in the church at Kirkharle, a village named after one of the great estates in Northumberland, near England's border with Scotland. Drawing on parish records and other sources, historian Jane Brown reported in her book The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot “Capability” Brown, 1716–1783 that Brown's parents, William and Ursula, likely came from Otterburn in Northumberland. Both were likely descended from Anglo-Scottish clans of “reivers,” groups that were active in this border region of Northum-berland during the late medieval period. Known for their excellent equestrian skills, the reivers were—for religious, ethnic, and economic reasons—a largely undocumented populace well into the 17th century. Brown was a common surname among this group and was rooted in the camouflaging woolen jackets and cloaks the reivers wore that were made from undyed natural fibers.
The fifth child and third son in his family, Brown was named after a paternal grandfather whose given name paid homage to one of the knights of Arthurian legend. Brown's father was the land agent for Sir Thomas Loraine, first baronet of Loraine and owner of Kirkharle Hall. This 2,000-acre property was one of the great estates abutting Northumberland's border with Scotland, and its vast tracts of pasture and multiple cottage industries were knitted into the local agrarian economy. William Brown's death in April of 1720, a few months before his son's fourth birthday, was a setback for the family, but they kept their home on the Loraine estate, and Brown's older siblings likely curtailed their schooling or apprenticeships in favor of full-time work. Two of his sisters went into domestic service at nearby estates.
Brown's older brother John became the surveyor for the second Loraine baronet, Sir William, and eventually married one of the Loraine daughters, and the next-oldest Brown son, George, worked as a stonemason at Walling-ford, a neighboring estate at Northumberland. Their successes allowed him to spend more time at the local school than his siblings.
Brown began an apprenticeship in 1732, the year he turned 16, as assistant to the head gardener at Kirkharle. He likely had some access to the great library at the main house, whose shelves contained precious illustrated works on agriculture, fruit-tree cultivation, and similar topics of interest to the Loraines and their social circle. His interest in soil, shrubs, and plant variants from far-flung parts of the British Empire dovetailed nicely with the science of land surveying, a relatively new profession whose basics he gleaned from his brother William.
Around 1739, the end of the traditional seven-year apprenticeship period, Brown left Kirkharle and the greater Morpeth region and lived in the Lincolnshire port city of Boston for at least a year. In 1744 he married Bridget “Biddy” Wayet, a native of Lincolnshire, after securing gainful employment as the head gardener at Stowe House, the palatial estate of Richard Temple, the first viscount of Cobham.
Cobham was a decorated military officer and had been raised to the peerage for his service to King William III in armed conflicts in Ireland and Spain, among other achievements. The viscount was in the final decade of his life by the time Brown arrived at Stowe to assist in landscaping the grounds surrounding this magnificent Buckinghamshire estate. The young gardener was especially eager to bring Cobham's idea for a mythical Grecian valley to fruition on the property. After removing and rearranging enormous mounds of earth, he shaped a vista of gently undulating hills dotted with scenic temples and other ornamental features.
Brown's emerging reputation as a preternaturally gifted landscape architect at Stowe House secured him new commissions from friends of Cobham. His surveying skills paired nicely with his knack for creating landscaped vistas on behalf of the earl of Denbigh at Newnham Paddox and Lord Guernsey at Packington Hall, both in Warwickshire, who became his patrons in the latter half of the 1740s. After Cobham died in 1749, Brown struck out on his own as an independent landscape architect and became an efficient manager of multiple commissions, each of which often took several years to complete.
Brown's impressive career trajectory in late-18th-century England coincided with favorable economic conditions in Great Britain as well as emerging trends in estate management. His namesake grandfather had died in 1699 after living through the ravages of the English Civil War, which ended in 1660 with the restoration of King Charles II to the throne. That sovereign's descendants had then engaged in long and costly skirmishes abroad, and it was only in Brown's generation that scions of England's landed gentry began making grand tours of France, Italy, and other parts of continental Europe that were previously inaccessible during wartime. Their experiences abroad sparked interest in ambitious design schemes, often modeled on scenic French châteaux or vistas that had inspired painters of the Renaissance period.
British colonial trade further enriched the aristocracy while also creating immense new mercantile fortunes. The 18th century was a period of ambitious construction of new stately homes across England, and the landowning class competed with one another to create awe-inspiring edifices surrounded by splendid parkland. In previous times, these large feudal estates were farmed or grazed by livestock; economically profitable, they could support their owners with income and foodstuffs during times of political strife. During Brown's time, it was a sign of status to have vast tracts of land that served entirely aesthetic purposes as scenic backdrops to great houses and their elite owners. “Brown always gave his clients something to do: water for boating and angling and fireworks, pic-nic pavilions, pheasant-shooting drives, circuits of different sizes for each stage of the eighteenth-century park triathlon of walking, riding, and carriage-driving,” wrote Nicola Shulman in the New Criterion. “Groups of merrymakers could gallop around Brown's parks on one of his elevated perimeter rides, where the screen of trees would open now and then to allow a glimpse across the whole landed estate, and even beyond.”
Brown's most notable landscape-architecture achievements stretch from the early 1750s to his death three decades later at age 66. For the sixth earl of Coventry, he designed a majestic park out of what had previously been a soggy Worcestershire marshland adjacent to the 55-bedroom Croome Court. Brown would also serve as architect for the earl's neo-Palladian villa, whose honey-toned Bath stone façades were quarried in Somerset and transported across several shires.
Later in the 1750s, Brown designed a meandering serpentine river that wound through the grounds of Petworth House, the West Sussex estate that came into the possession of Charles Wyndham, second earl of Egremont. Wyndham also commissioned Brown to create a 700-acre deer park at Petworth that was still home to descendants of the original cervine population well into the 21st century.
In the early 1760s, Brown secured a plum commission from one of England's grandest aristocratic families, the dukes of Marlborough, whose descendants include future prime minister Winston Churchill and Diana, the princess of Wales. His task was to renovate the immense 2,000-acre grounds enclosing their magnificent Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. He created an enormous lake with an ingenious drainage system, among other notable features, making Blenheim Palace England's grandest manor home and the only address to be allowed to call itself a “palace” that is not part of the crown estates.
Brown's delightfully eccentric nickname, Capability, was not one he used; it was attached to him by others because of his knack for suggesting to the imperious earls and elites who were his clients that their properties harbored great potential or “capability” for improvement. In 1764, King George III appointed Brown as the master gardener at Hampton Court Palace near London. Brown and Biddy were given a home on its grounds (the palace was not the king's primary residence at the time), and within a few years they were wealthy enough to purchase their own manor home, Fenstanton Hall in Huntingdonshire, East Anglia. The 2,700-acre parcel included two manor houses and two villages.
Over the course of his three-decade-long career, Brown carried out extensive renovations on lands surrounding the Derbyshire stately home of the dukes of Devonshire at Chatsworth House, at Harewood House in Yorkshire, and at Burghley House in Cambridgeshire. Twenty-first-century television audiences also have knowledge of one of Brown's landscape parks, Highclere Castle, which appeared in the opening credits of the popular BBC television drama Downton Abbey between 2010 and 2015.
Brown's daughter, Bridget, became the wife of noted architect Henry Holland. He was in London in the early weeks of 1783, dining with the sixth earl of Coventry, and set off to visit her at her home in the city. While on the way, he collapsed and died on February 6, 1783, at age 66. Brown was eventually buried at his estate at Fenstanton.
In Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens, garden historian Sarah Rutherford stated that Brown's impact was in “altering the fabric of the country in what became an iconic English style.” “Few of us realise this as we survey the pastoral delights of great estates such as Croome, Wimpole or Blenheim, because the style is now so deeply embedded in our national character,“she added. “Artists and poets were representing only second-hand the scenes they admired. Brown actually provided the inspiration for some of these other artists' work.” Such artists included revered landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner, who set up his easel at Petworth, and the Italian master Canaletto, who immortalized the views at Blenheim for his patron, the duke of Marlborough.
Brown, Jane, The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot “Capability” Brown, 1716–1783, Chatto & Windus, 2011.
Rutherford, Sarah, Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens, Pavilion Books, 2016.
New Criterion, October 2016, Nicola Shulman, “The Genius of the Place,” p. 16.
National Trust, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/our-great-capability-brown-landscapes (December 15, 2017), “Our ‘Capability Brown’ Landscapes.”□