The Capability Brown gardens at Audley End, Saffron Walden, Essex. Photos reproduced with the kind permission of Historic England.

A Perfect Knowledge of the Country

19th August 2016

In the 300th anniversary year of the birth of the eminent landscape gardener Capability Brown, Jack Watkins reflects on the achievements and enduring legacy of a true national treasure…

When the French refer to the jardin à l’anglaise or the Germans to the Englischer Garten they generally have in mind the designs of one man: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Celebrated around the world, he’s no forgotten hero in his own land either. This year marks the 300th anniversary of his birth – he was baptised in Kirkhale, Northumberland, on 30 August 1716, the son of a yeoman farmer, though his actual birthdate is unknown – and the Capability Brown Festival 2016 has been running celebrations all year.

There are 250 attributed and definite sites with a Capability Brown connection across the UK, and a dedicated website (www.capabilitybrown.org) has been set up so you can find one near you. Meanwhile, a clutch of new books has been published, with probably the most significant of them still to come: Place-Making: The Art of Capability Brown, written by John Phipps, and published
by Historic England, due this autumn.

Phipps, in addition to running his own landscape management practice, is a Brown expert. Not only will his generously illustrated book examine its subject’s standing as the lead figure of the English landscape style, it contends that his influence on the culture of this country has arguably been as great as that of JMW Turner, Thomas Telford and William Wordsworth. Yet it also points out that his work has really had surprisingly little close analysis.

In fact, we know very little about the man himself. He left no detailed written account of his ideas, or how they were put into practice, so historians have been forced to piece together what they can from estate archives and correspondence. For such an important figure, his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, contributed by Mr Phibbs himself, is comparatively short, running to just three and a half pages. What do know of his endeavours, however, does make for an interesting story.

Brown called landscape design ‘place-making’, and the nearest we get to an explanation of what this meant to him seems to have come from a letter he wrote in 1775, describing its requirements as demanding ‘a perfect knowledge of the country and the objects in it, whether natural or artificial, and infinite delicacy in the planning etc, so much Beauty depending on the size of the tree and the colour of the leaves to produce the effect of light and shade’.

He also said that thought should be given to the planting of trees for shade, and to shrubs for their scent – advice that is still sound three centuries on. For years he had no rival and not until Humphry Repton decided to embark on a career as a landscape designer in 1788, five years after Brown’s death, did anyone come close to matching his accomplishments.

The nickname ‘Capability’ arose from his regular use of the word when referring to the ‘capabilities’ or potential of his client’s grounds. And that client list quickly became highly prestigious. Known to have been involved in design from the late 1730s, by 1741 he was working at Lord Cobham’s magnificent gardens at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, and over the following years he would secure commissions at such estates as Blenheim, Petworth, Hampton Court, Kew, Burghley, Warwick Castle, Croome Court and Wotton.

If Brown is seen as the creator of the jardin anglais, however, it would be wrong to attribute all the spadework to him. In the 17th century, English gardens followed the fashions of their continental counterparts, the work of André Le Nôtre, creator of the magnificent gardens at Versailles, being especially admired. The emphasis was on parterres, topiary, flower beds, gravel pathways and water features, arranged in a symmetrical way: beautiful, but artificial and highly controlled.

It was William Kent who, in the words of Horace Walpole, ‘leaped the fence and saw that all nature was a garden’ in the early 18th century. He was encouraged by the poet and influential tastemaker Alexander Pope, who had gardens at Twickenham and who once said ‘all gardening is landscape painting’. Out went the formal beds and straight avenues, and in came the romance of the garden temples and grottoes, with the ha-ha, or sunken ditch – invisible when viewed form house or terrace – dug to blur the boundary between the garden and the surrounding park, farmland or broader countryside.

Kent had worked at Stowe, beginning the process of deformalising the existing gardens, a process Brown would continue after he became Lord Cobham’s head gardener there in 1741. Whereas Kent was something of a dabbler though, Brown put his heart and soul into his profession, even devising a new method of uprooting and moving large trees about an estate, without the need for the laborious use of a crane and pulley of earlier machines. One of the marvels of all these early landscape designers was that they were creating prospects and gardens they would not live to see reach maturity, but Brown’s machine meant that he wasn’t always working blind in a landscape of mere saplings.

He was also fast, possessing a remarkable ‘quickness of eye’. Briskly riding round an estate on horseback, he’d compile lists of notes and instructions on tasks to be undertaken. He was a little lax in invoicing for work, however, creating his own financial difficulties.

By 1757 he was sufficiently famous to have entered the cultural landscape. The great actor David Garrick had employed Brown to build him a temple for his garden on the Thames at Hampton. He had Brown in mind when he featured a landscape improver in his play Lethe or Aesop in the Shades who, talking about the river Styx, remarks: ‘Your river, there, what d’ye call it? Aye, Styx – why ‘tis as straight as Fleet Ditch. You should have given it a serpentine sweep… the place indeed has fine capabilities; but you should clear the wood to the left and the clump of trees to the right. In short, the whole wants variety, extent, contrast, inequality…’

Brown provided natural settings for his patrons’ great houses, with magnificent undulating lawns looking across to tree-studded vistas, although he also created more ornamental gardens than is commonly appreciated. He designed buildings and follies, arboretums, wildernesses and shrubberies to add diversity, and linked these highly visual features by carriage drives or ridings, which ran for miles from the main house. All this renders redundant the criticisms of later advocates of the picturesque, who accused him of blandness and uniformity, and of just leaving his houses adrift in monotonous fields.

It’s also worth remembering that he was a man of his times, when the instinct to ‘control’ nature was strong. Thinking was still shaped by classical philosophy which maintained that mother nature tended towards the Arcadian ideal but always fell short, thus requiring the landscape improver to correct her accidents. Even so, Horace Walpole wrote that it would be a mark of his success that Brown would be forgotten, ‘so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken’. Happily, given the amount of fuss that has surrounded the 300th anniversary of the great man’s birth, there seems scant chance of that.

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