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Maker of heaven on earth

08 April 2016

2016 marks the tercentary of the birth of Capability Brown. Pat Ashworth traces his remarkable legacy

Nordic Photos/SuperStock

At Home: Chatsworth House, in its parkland

At Home: Chatsworth House, in its parkland

THERE is a sigh of rapture in the voices of people who talk about Lancelot “Capability” Brown. The man notable for creating limitless landscapes in “an image of heaven” did it so seamlessly that it could all appear entirely natural — something that consequently affected his reputation, and was marked with accuracy in his obituary: “Where he is the happiest man he will be least remembered, so closely did he copy nature his works will be mistaken.”

And his works are prodigious. He literally galloped around the country, designing parks for about 250 country houses. The list of landscapes is full of famous names: Alnwick and Audley; Belvoir, Blenheim, and Burghley; Charlecote and Chatsworth; Harewood and Highclere; Longleat, Petworth, Milton Abbey. . . the list runs for pages, and the tag “Designed by Capability Brown” will be celebrated and exploited throughout the country in this, the year that marks the tercentenary of his birth.

The man who rose to become Master Gardener to King George III at Hampton Court Palace had modest beginnings. Brown was baptised on 30 August 1716 at Kirkharle, in Northumberland. His father was a yeoman farmer and his mother worked in the big house on the Kirkharle estate, where the young Lancelot began as an apprentice to Sir William Loraine’s head gardener.

He left in 1739, landing a prestigious job on the Stowe estate two years later. He married Bridget Wayet, a girl from Boston, Lincolnshire, whose family memorial is in St Botolph’s; Brown’s is in St Peter and St Paul, Fenstanton, where his epitaph — by the Revd William Mason, poet and friend of Thomas Grey — includes the words “and weep the Christian husband, father, friend”.


THERE is much activity this year at Kirkharle, where a new serpentine lake has been created using drawings by Brown, rediscovered in 2010. The beautiful 14th-century St Wilfrid’s, a church that welcomes about 40,000 visitors a year, has four days of events over the August Bank Holiday weekend — a 300th festival, culminating in a service to celebrate Brown’s life and works, conducted by the Bishop of Newcastle, the Rt Revd Christine Hardman.

The Northumbrian landscape of Brown’s youth greatly influenced his style, says the historian and broadcaster John Grundy, well known to viewers and listeners in the north-east. “The appearance of the country as a whole has been influenced by the region — not something you often get to say these days, when the north-east seems a long way from the seat of power,” he observes, reflecting on the “extraordinary effect” that this boy from fairly humble surroundings had on the county of his birth.

Two of his main works in Northumberland — Wallington and Alnwick — conform to what has come to be regarded as Brown’s style, but also demonstrate his originality, Mr Grundy says. “His particular genius did not merely impose his ideas on a landscape: he responded to the shape and the history and the mood of the places where he worked.

“In Northumberland, that sensitivity has meant that his gardens are utterly Northumbrian in mood: gentle and beautiful in places around the great houses, but growing darker and wilder the further out into the wilderness they go, until eventually you reach places that feel so real, so wild, that you wonder whether he shaped them at all.”


BROWN famously created lakes on what had been soggy and poorly drained land. Of all his sculptural materials, one of his biographers, Jane Brown, says, “he had the most fun with water”. She suggests that he would have had access to the library at Kirkharle Hall in an age when the exultant The Compleat Angler (1653), by Charles Cotton and Izaak Walton, would — along with the Bible, and the Book of Common Prayer — have been standard bookshelf fare: “A book about water, water in ponds, rivers, and lakes.” For Cotton and Walton, water was “The eldest daughter of Creation, the element upon which the Spirit of God did first move.”

A picture of transformation emerges in her book: great estates with “played out, formal gardens, crumbling basins and canals, outgrown parterres, and barren orchards”, inherited by younger heirs who had done the Grand Tour and were looking to make their mark on the future.

Brown would not have thought himself the inventor of the ornamental lake, Jane Brown observes: his lake-making began as a technical challenge of draining boggy land; but, “when these were accomplished, the aesthetic delights of a stretch of water took over”.

That wonder is encapsulated in William Cowper’s epic poem The Task, published two years after Brown’s death in 1783:


He speaks! The lake in front becomes a lawn;

Woods vanish, hills subside, and valleys rise;

And streams, as if created for his use,

Pursue the track of his directing wand;

Sinuous or straight, now rapid and now slow,

Now murmuring soft, now roaring in cascades —

Even as he bids.


STEFFIE SHIELDS, a garden photographer, writer, and historic landscape consultant — whose beautifully illustrated book Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s gift of landscape is due to be published in May — reflects on Brown’s motto, inscribed in Latin on his bookplate on display by his memorial, and translated as “Never less alone than when alone. It’s an aspect of the man that fascinates her. “A great deal has been written about him, and there are many myths about him — you know, ‘all grass, trees, water, doing away with formal gardens. . .’ But, actually, he really did get the idea of turning our thoughts to ‘reading’ landscape and everything in terms of the creator,” she says.

Brown moved hills and even churches to achieve his vision. Shields cites Croome Court, where the sixth Earl of Coventry decided to demolish the Jacobean house and the church of St James the Apostle, and commission Brown to design new ones, besides landscaping the garden and grounds. He put the new church on higher ground, and it was consecrated in 1763.

“We don’t know whether that was Lord Coventry, or himself, or both of them together, but they renamed it St Mary Magdalene’s. There’s more to him than meets the eye,” she says.

St Bartholomew’s, Binley, by Combe Abbey, is attributed to Brown; and he also moved the Compton Verney Chapel to its present location and rebuilt it to his design — “The idea of moving heaven”, she says with pleasure. “He moved churches to improve views, but also to get people thinking.”

Just how the polymath Brown did what he did is the mystery that she has been trying to unravel for the past 25 years. “I’ve drawn from it that he was much more of a pragmatic designer than people realise: responding to climate change, would you believe; to flood and drought and drama, to solve problems that people had. So the impact he had on the estates was much more than design: it was the management of the estates, and the drainage of the agricultural areas — a holistic approach to improving estates.”

And so Brown can be seen stepping away from the aesthetics of garden history and getting back to everyday living, “because it was more important to have the walled kitchen garden, to have enough water for your animals and your stables, and to be able to drain land properly,” she says. She expresses delight that on one of Brown’s architectural designs were separate privies (one for the laundry maids and two for the gardeners), closets for powdering wigs, coal sheds, and areas for feeding the pheasants.

“And, like a visiting general, he would come by and say, ‘You need a brewhouse to keep the workers healthy and happy; and how about a dairy?’ He was an improver and an innovator. It’s that kind of detail that I find absolutely fascinating. I had no idea that I’d get into sluices and engineering.”

She describes Brown as “driven”, and reflects, “He lost his father at the age of four; and whether that is the key to understanding him, I don’t know, but he just didn’t stop. I’ve worked with people in the improvement and development business, and when you uplift an area or a house, you get a real kick from improving things. There’s always more to do, and that creativity, together with results, drives you on.”


JOHN PHIBBS, a leading Brown authority, has two books due for publication in this tercentenary year: Place-making: The art of Capability Brown, and the collection of essays that is Capability Brown: Designing the English landscape. What he finds remarkable about Brown — “so remarkable that I can’t get my head round it” — is that, despite the prodigious scale of his work, and being on personal terms with the great men of his day, he sought, in a sense, to be anonymous.

“He was celebrated for the fact that, even in his own time, he thought his very best work would be mistaken for nature, and so the joke was that he would be forgotten,” Mr Phibbs says. “He managed to sell to his clients — these hugely wealthy nabobs, politicians, and others that made up the rising 18th-century aristocracy — this idea of making a landscape which wouldn’t have the thumbprint of their grandeur thrust upon it.”

Brown’s style is always called “the English style”, and Phibbs suggests that he was selling “a kind of quasi-medieval Englishness, entirely distinct from France”. It Is all the very opposite, he reflects, of the ways in which the 18th century is often thought of, “in terms of names and great egos like Mozart and Haydn. It seems, right from the start, to have been so anonymous.” The work is everywhere, but largely unnoticed: the phrase “invisible in plain sight” comes to mind, he argues in his book.

Ask him which of the sites represents, for him, the pinnacle of perfection, and he is clearly spoiled for choice: Wotton or Stowe, he thinks, or the gradation landscapes of Petworth and Burghley, or perhaps some of the radical late work, such as Milton Abbey. He is constantly making new discoveries; he has inherited the mantle of Dorothy Stroud, the great authority on Brown, “and people keep sending me stuff, shaking more apples off the trees”.


THE artistic director of the Hexham-based Théâtre Sans Frontières, John Cobb, will be getting inside Brown’s skin for a season with his one-man show, The Eyecatcher, at many of the places connected with Brown’s work. He will be putting Brown in his historical context:3as a man arriving at Stowe when he was quite young, “with a reputation of being good with waterworks and water features”, and who met influential people such as William Pitt — rich young men who became powerful in Parliament. “We’d call it networking now,” he says. “Everyone wanted to ask what he could give them, a new vision for the landscape.”

He is finding Brown a fascinating and likeable character to play: “His portrait is very charming: a twinkle in his eye, and a warm smile. . . That’s how he wants to be presented, how he appeared to his clients. I contrast the soft, engaging character who manages to wile people into his vision of the landscape, and then the harder, more political relationship, and how he charmed them.”

Cobb will be playing a host of other people in Brown’s life as well, including George III, “who’s interested in cows”, and the Duchess of Northumberland, “who enticed him to Alnwick Castle”. Some clients were difficult, he suggests, citing Sir John Griffin, of Audley End, “who didn’t pay his bills on time”.

And, he marvels, it always comes back to the question what Brown did with the landscapes, “moving fields, and planting large numbers of trees, and flooding lakes, and being in control of the waters. . . He was an installationist on a large scale, arriving somewhere, riding round for an hour and having ideas, and then coming back with a vision of what he wanted to do. Doing what you’d call a makeover, really.”


Details of tercentenary events can be found at: www.capabilitybrown.org; www.kirkharlecourtyard.co.uk

For Eyecatcher tour details, email john@tsf.org.uk.

Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s gift of landscape by Steffie Shields will be published by Unicorn Publishing Group in May 2016.

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