The Life and Work of Lancelot "Capability" Brown

There are probably few people who have not heard of Lancelot "Capability" Brown and his renown on a grand scale as a landscape gardener; but what about the man himself? Where was he born? What sort of life did he live? Well, those questions were comprehensively answered by our November speaker, Alan Hill, in front of a capacity audience.

Lancelot was born in 1716 in relatively humble surroundings in the tiny Northumberland village of Kirkharle. His father was a local land agent and he was the fifth child. After a simple education, he was apprenticed to the head gardener of his father's employer and worked in the vegetable garden. This did not excite him and, a determined individual, at the age of 23 he secured an appointment as an assistant to the Head Gardener at Wotton House in Oxfordshire. Wotton House enjoyed the style of landscaped garden that was popular in the early part of the eighteenth century. Rigid formality was the accepted guiding principle. Straight lines, geometric patterns and order was seen as the most satisfying arrangement. However, change was on the way. Wealthy landowners of large estates had enjoyed Grand Tours of Europe where they had been exposed to the beauty of informality and naturalism; a theme which was taking hold both in landscape gardens and the arts. They came home with a yearning to "improve" their vast estates through radical changes to the settings of their great houses. Pioneers in this genre were William Kent and Charles Bridgeman at Stowe. Lancelot Brown was aware of this shift in taste with which he was entirely sympathetic.

Within two years of his appointment at Wooton, he was appointed Under Gardener at Stowe, assisting William Kent. By 1742 he was Head Gardener. In 1750 he left to set up his own business advising on and designing grand landscape gardens; establishing himself in Hammersmith. By this time he had married Bridget Wayet from Boston and the happy marriage bestowed upon them seven children. At Hammersmith he met Henry Holland, a builder, and struck up a lifelong friendship with him. A friendship which eventually included his son, Henry Holland Junior, who married one of Lancelot's daughters. We all think of Lancelot Brown as pre-eminently a landscape gardener, but he was also a competent architect and his partnership with the Hollands meant that, in partnership, he could offer a full "design and build" package.

An early project was that at Croome Court, in Worcestershire, a property now owned by the National Trust. Here, he redesigned the house, moved the church and village and designed a totally new landscape of water features, trees and undulating grassland. These projects took time. Perhaps Croome holds the record, for it is known that his involvement there continued for thirty years; although the average was about ten years. Another early project involved re-shaping the grounds at Warwick Castle; a challenging location constrained by the river. There followed many projects for rich clients, including those at Longleat, Blenheim and Bowood (Wiltshire). Indeed, in all he worked on over 250 projects. He would of course have had assistants, probably clerks of works, who oversaw the day to day work on site. It was said that he could work at a prodigious pace, conceiving a design and pegging it out within a few days, before moving to his next project. Like the Stephensons, Thomas Telford, James Brindley (the canal builder) and Isambard Kingdom Brunel he was a giant of his age, matching their prodigious work rates.

One of his later schemes was that at Berrington Hall in Shropshire, another National Trust-owned property, where the house was built by Henry Holland Junior. Royal recognition came in 1764 with his appointment by George III as "Surveyor to His Majesty's Gardens". For Lancelot Brown , this appointment was a final crowning triumph. A low-born humble man, he found himself occupying Wilderness House, a royal property, whilst managing Hampton Court Gardens, as well as Richmond and St James's Parks. At the same time he was executing private commissions for other wealthy clients. He appears to have had a true skill in relating to these eminent aristocrats, many of whom regarded him as a good and close friend. In 1767, now a wealthy man, he acquired a property north of Cambridge, becoming the Lord of the Manor at Fenstanton. Work continued to fully occupy him during the following years but, never a fully healthy person, he died at the age of 67 of a heart attack. Some say he was worn out by his heavy workload. He is buried in the churchyard at Fenstanton and the epitaph on his simple gravestone reads: "More than a genius is buried here".

Roger Hockney
November 2019