Lancelot ‘Capability’ BrownOxford



Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is probably one of the most well known 18th century landscape gardeners. The reason for this is that his work or his influence is seen at stately homes and castles all over Britain.

His origins were very humble. He was born in Kirkharle, Northumberland, the third son of a farm labourer. His father died when he was four leaving his mother with a family of six children to bring up. Not an easy task in the 18th century, nevertheless Lancelot received a good education and did not leave school until he was 16 years old.

This was very unusual because in those days a child would have been expected to have joined the workforce aged 12-13. He was obviously very bright and intelligent and upon leaving school he was apprenticed locally to Sir William and Lady Anne Lorraine of Kirkharle Towers.

Sir William set him to work in the vegetable garden and here Lancelot gained all his knowledge of horticulture. At this time Sir William was doing extensive renovations and rebuilding his rather derelict estate. From time to time Lancelot would be lent to neighbouring landowners to help them so it would seem his talents and ability were already beginning to show.

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Stowe Park
In 1739, aged 23 and an experienced estate manager, he joined Sir Richard Grenville at Walton estate. Here he came to the notice of Lord Cobham whose family home was the great estate of Stowe Park in Buckinghamshire. A year later he is Lord Cobham’s under-gardener at Stowe Park. Here he acquires knowledge on growing exotic fruits and vegetables, and pleasure gardens.
Lord Cobham liked to keep up with the latest ideas and trends and was very active politically and socially. Naturally Lancelot’s work was seen by the social elite who visited Lord Cobham. Several famous architects had worked on the Stowe estate, especially William Kent. In 1730 William Kent had brought his vision of natural landscaping in the classical tradition to Stowe. He used hills, trees, water, mossy caverns and sham buildings (garden follies) to achieve a picture landscape of classical beauty using nature.
Gardening prior to this period had been rigid and formalised, not at all “natural”. The tight geometrical patterns of the Tudor knot-garden had been replaced with the formal topiary beloved by William and Mary. The new sweeping, freer landscapes appealed to Lancelot Brown. He decided to do the same thing as Kent just on a grander scale.
He wanted the whole beauty of an estate to be visible to the landowner as he sat in his house. Lancelot would establish woodlands, huge lakes, rivers, vast expanses of grass sweeping up to the house and strategically placed buildings to create this effect. He ‘improved’ on nature using the estate’s own capabilities.
This is how he got his nickname ‘Capability” Brown.
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Capability Brown & Wakefield Estate
Lancelot 'Capability' Brown put into practice some of his ideas at Stowe and progressed to become Head Gardener. In this capacity he had plenty of opportunity to show off his ideas to influential visitors. His big break came when he was invited by the Duke of Grafton to submit ideas for the redevelopment of the neighbouring Wakefield Estate. He won the contract and put the ideas for which he became so famous into practice.
He transformed the Wakefield Estate so its views resembled the composition of a beautiful landscape painting. His fame spread far and wide and commissions flooded in. He perfected his drawings and plans and even tackled the steeply sloping site of Warwick Castle. He married a local Stowe girl in 1744 and when Lord Cobham died in 1749 he started his own private landscaping business.
He moved his family to London and took up residence at Hammersmith. The surrounding area was the hub of gardening enterprises. He went into partnership with Henry Holland, a Master Mason. ‘Capability’ Brown expanded his ideas to include large mansions as part of the overall theme. Henry Holland looked after the building side of things and Brown concentrated on the creation of the estate.
His first major commission was for Lord Coventry in 1751. He designed and built the residence and grounds at Croome Court, Worcestershire. For this project he was not only designer, but landscaper, engineer and architect as well.
This busy man designed 170 gardens and influenced many more.
Some of his most famous work can be seen at Blenheim Palace, Kew Gardens, Longleat, Stowe and Wilton House.
He bought the Lordship of the Manor of Fenstanton from the Earl of Northampton in 1767 and even found time to be appointed High Sheriff of Huntingdon in 1770.
His last project was Cardiff Castle in 1777.
After his death in 1783 he was buried in the churchyard of SS Peter and Paul, Fenstanton, Huntingdonshire (now part of Cambridgeshire).
A new gravestone marks his and his wife’s grave and inside the church in the north wall of the chancel is a memorial to this great English Landscape Gardener.  

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