LANCELOT 'CAPABILITY' BROWN

Portrait of Launcelot Brown.

Lancelot was an English landscape gardener who was a leader in the development of the "natural," or "English," style of gardening. He was the most outstanding of all landscape gardeners of the 18th century and was known for his keen vision that misses nothing. Brown was born in a small Northumberland village of Kirkharle, in 1715. He established himself both as a gardener and architect at Hammersmith. His architectural works, including a number of country mansions, were more notable for their comfortable interiors than for their exterior design.He followed the example of the famous architect and landscape gardener William Kent, and worked under Kent , for seven years, to carry out his revolutionary work.

In 1751, Brown set himself up as a independent landscape gardener, and just a few years after that, having a garden designed by Capability Brown was to be at the forefront of fashion. This was surprising to some due to his lack of formal training in architectural projects. Around this point in time, he became known as 'Capability' Brown because of his habit of extolling the capabilities or potential of any property he surveyed. He would look at the grounds surrounding a mansion and look at their 'capabilities of improvement' and bring out something which his clients could never have imagined.

Brown who rejected the formal, geometric French style of gardening, epitomized at Versailles, and emphasized the natural undulating lines of the English landscape. A Brown landscape is known as a pure landscape; the layer of Arcadain associations has been stripped away. Lancelot, a man of determination, used his power of persuasion to convince his clients to destroy their expensive and extensive formal gardens and replace them with a landscape that they would never see mature. After all of Lancelot's expensive, land-moving changes were done the finished product was a landscape that was productive and cheap to run. Many of the natural landscapes were even suitable for livestock to graze on. Brown was criticized for his wholesale destruction of so many formal gardens, and was also often accused of having worked to a formula. In some cases, he did use a formula, but he also had an extraordinary skill in converting unpromising sites into noble landscapes.

Vanbrugh's bridge over 'Capability' Brown's lake at Blenheim.

Some of the major themes that he used were belts and clumps of trees to break up the landscape or soften or emphasize the vast open spaces leading right up to the houses. Capabilitity's greatest power was probably his management of water. He created many 'natural' lakes, which were often then connected by bridges or cascades.

Lancelot designed the grounds of over 140 estates, some of his best were , Harewood House, Glamis Castle, and Bowood and Longleat in Wiltshire. Blenheim was considered to be his masterpiece work. It used his formula of damning rivers to make lakes and give an impression of space. The palace is situated on high ground, above the River Glyne, so the lie of the land was well suited to the formula.

Blenheim palace viewed from the far side of 'Capability' Brown's lake.

Capabilitity's successor was Humphry Repton, a young landscaper who was the stepping stone between the 'natural' landscape and a return to the formality of the Victorian era. Although, he did not follow a formula, as Brown did, when creating his landscapes.

Brown died on February 6, 1783, presumably from a heart attack, but his extraordinarily extensive and particularly long lasting qualities of the landscapes he designed have long lived on.

In the play Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard, there were a few references to 'Capability' Brown. One was when Lady Croom was making fun of Noakes, her landscaper, by calling him "'Culpability' Noakes". By this she meant that Noakes lacked the talent of Capability Brown and his attempts of trying to copy Brown weren't working at all. Another example is when Hannah is explaining to Bernard how landscape artists imitate painters who imitate authors and while she's explaining this she mentions Capability Brown imitating Claude who at the time was imitating Virgil. One last reference is when Hannah is talking about the landscape of Sidley Park. She states that the landscape changed drastically from 1730 to 1760 and this was due to the new landscape introduced by Capability Brown.

Arcadia references several stately homes that may form the basis for the fictional Sidley Park, the home of the Coverly family, Lords of Croom. The


Page by Brandi Johnson and Erikka Schimmelpfenig



Hollis, Sarah and Derry Moore. The Shell Guide to The Gardens of England and Wales. London: Andre Deutsch Limited, 1989.
Turner, Roger. Capability Brown and the Eighteenth-Century English Landscape. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1985.
Hyams, Edward Solomon. Capability Brown and Humphry Repton. New York: Scribner's, 1971.

Picture of the gardens at Stour
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