300 years of Capability Brown

PUBLISHED: 10:41 13 April 2016 | UPDATED: 10:41 13 April 2016

Looking over the lake at Brocket Hall

Looking over the lake at Brocket Hall


This year sees the 300th anniversary of the birth of one of England’s most influential landscapers, Capability Brown. Philippa Pearson looks at his legacy in the county and events to mark the occasion

Lancelot 'Capabilty' Brown portrait by Richard Cosway (The Gardens Trust)Lancelot 'Capabilty' Brown portrait by Richard Cosway (The Gardens Trust)

It’s no overstatement to say that Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown changed the face of 18th century England. His vision for country estates involved moving hills, digging vast lakes and serpentine rivers and remodelling parklands on an immense scale. His remarkable and extensive work is highlighted in this, the 300th year since his birth, with a major festival, Capability Brown 300 Years, celebrating his life, work and legacy.

Brown’s passion was to reshape parks and gardens from formal geometric plots into more natural pastoral scenes of comfort and elegance. In so doing he created the quintessential vision of the English countryside we (and the rest of the world) know today.

He is remembered for landscapes on a huge scale, constructing on estates not only gardens and parkland but planting woods and building farms linked by horse-drawn carriage ways or ‘ridings’, many miles from the main house. He influenced many designers of the day and he continues to be inspirational.

Autumn near the lake at Brocket HallAutumn near the lake at Brocket Hall

Brown was born in Northumberland in 1716 and was buried in 1783 in Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire. He was an entrepreneur, a salesman, an extremely effective businessman, an architect and a skilled water engineer. He included complex drainage schemes in many of his designs and created lakes that covered up to 80 acres. Another of his design icons was the ha-ha. These are dry ditches or sunken fences that divide formal gardens from landscaped parks without interrupting the view, and most importantly preventing livestock from wandering into ornamental areas.

Brown was determined everything should work effectively in his designs, paying great attention to detail. He also thought the landscape should provide for all the needs of the big house while remaining coherent and elegant. Always envisioning great things (and with the salesman at work), his memorable nickname ‘Capability’ is thought to come from his often-said remark to potential clients that their estates had great capabilities.

While Brown was prolific in recreating great estates and parkland throughout the country, very few records remain of where he worked. In Hertfordshire it is thought he provided designs for 12 estates, although today many of these are now agricultural land or golf courses. Some of the best preserved 18th century landscapes in the county were designed by others, but much influenced by Brown’s style. Richard Woods transformed the setting of Brocket Hall near Welwyn from 1770-1774 by modifying the planting and widening the existing water course into a large lake (right) as well as adding a new approach to the hall to take in a fine bridge over the lake. Woodhall Park near Hertford was redesigned in 1782-1783 by William Malcolm and Son, who created a landscaped park and a new lake. There are no records to say if Brown was involved in either of these projects but the landscapes clearly show his design hand.

Woodhall mansion and Broadwater - 18th century design after Brown (Woodhall Estate)Woodhall mansion and Broadwater - 18th century design after Brown (Woodhall Estate)

The 12 sites in the county attributed to Brown’s input or style are Ashridge (we do know he visited Ashridge in 1759 on the invitation of the third Duke of Bridgewater), Beechwood, Brocket Hall, Digswell, The Grove, The Hoo, Moor Park, Panshanger Park, Pishiobury Country Park, Porter’s Park, Wrotham and Youngsbury.

Hertfordshire Gardens Trust has planned a series of events for members and friends throughout 2016 to celebrate Brown’s tercentenary. It has also produced historical guides to Brownian landscapes in the county that include a series of walks along public rights of way. Events include a study day, The Capability Men: Lancelot Brown and his Associates, and a lecture and visit to the Royal Academy. An exhibition by the Embroiders’ Guild and a series of lectures on his life and work will also take place.

Across the country there are many events and activities happening, ranging from music and dance, exhibitions, Georgian afternoon teas, renovation of Brown landscapes and art events.

Brown’s legacy and his desire to recreate the informality of nature in his landscapes is perhaps best summed up in obituary: ‘Where he is the happiest man he will be least remembered, so closely did he copy nature his works will be mistaken.’

Hertfordshire Gardens Trust capability brown events

April 16

The Capability Men: Lancelot Brown and his Associates, a study day at Woodhall Park, Watton-at-Stone.

See hertsgardenstrust.org.uk to book places and to download a choice of 10 Brownian landscape walk leaflets. Trust-led guided walks will also take place throughout the year.

Capability Brown 300 Years Festival

April 1–
August 31

Exhibition by the Embroiders’ Guild: Landscapes of Capability Brown at Ashridge Estate. Members will display their unique textile and stitch artwork inspired by the landscapes of Brown.

August 5-7

The Life and Work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown - a series of lectures on his life, work, planting and impact on landscape gardens and parks. Garden visits include Croome Park, Wootton House, Stowe Landscape Gardens and Ashridge Gardens and Park. The event is organised by the Ashridge Garden History Summer School in association with The National Trust. Booking necessary.

See capabilitybrown.org/events for more.

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