Celebrating Capability Brown

With some pride I can claim I’m ahead of the curve here. Next year, 2016, is the 300th anniversary of the birth of the famous landscaper and designer Lancelot “Capability” Brown, who transformed the grounds of English stately home. Today, however, is the anniversary of his death in 1783. You can visit capabilitybrown.org for lots of information and plans for next year.

An anonymous obituary of Capability Brown reads: Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken.

And that’s pretty much true. We have come to associate his hallmark “Serpentine” style–gentle undulations of land, curving rivers and drives, circular clumps of mature trees–as what we expect to see when visiting an English historic house. Brown never saw his completed work, trusting to nature and time to finish the job.

He is thought to have worked on over 170 gardens in his 35-year career. He began his career as undergardener and then head gardener at Stowe, one of his most famous creations:

stowe_grecian_vale_originalHere’s his plan for Bowood House, with the Grecian temple on the right (east) point and how it looks today:

bowood_plan_originalBowood-House-Foto-WikipediaBlenheim Palace:

blenheim_palace_originalPetworth House:

petworth_house_garden_originalAnd talking of Capability Brown (his nickname came about from assuring his clients that their estates held great capabilities), let us not forget Terry Pratchett’s fictional Bergholt Stuttley “Bloody Stupid” Johnson from Discworld:

His efforts in landscape design are especially noteworthy, and the Ankh-Morpork palace gardens are considered to be his greatest accomplishment. It is here that we find such creations as the hoho, which is a fifty foot deep ha-ha, the gargantuan beehive currently used as a pigeon coop in the absence of ten foot long bees, a structure referred to only as the “Johnson Exploding Pagoda”, iron patio furniture that melted and crazy paving that committed suicide, and the chiming sundial that also tends to explode around noon. In the palace grounds is also a maze so small that people get lost looking for it. Another notable feature is the ornamental trout lake, built long, but, sadly, only one inch wide. It currently houses one trout that is quite content provided it doesn’t want to turn around. “Perfect for the dieting fish”. At one point there was also an ornate fountain which, upon being turned on, did nothing but groan ominously for several minutes before firing a small stone cherub a thousand feet into the air. Read more

I’m wondering if there are any books with landscape designer heroes or heroines. Enlighten me! Or tell me which historic homes you’ve visited, or would like to visit, in England.

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15 Responses to Celebrating Capability Brown

  1. Kate Dolan says:

    I’m sure he doesn’t get nearly the credit he deserves and most of us wouldn’t remember him at all if he hadn’t acquired a memorable nickname. Landscapes, like women, take a lot of work to become “naturally” beautiful. His work was so popular and so much imitated that we tend to think England just grew that way. And I’ve never had a landscape designer in any more stories, but I did write a novella where the hero was the son of a nurseryman. He thought his father paid too much attention to the landscape. So maybe he was more of Brown’s opposite.

    • I have an idea that he walked away from his work leaving a gaggle of saplings, piles of dirt, and lots of instructions for the gardeners! Meanwhile the landowner could bask in his extravagance and the prestige of having hired Capability Brown. At least, with running a nursery, you’d see plants maturing.

  2. Wonderful post, Janet. Thanks for the link.

    I visited Longleat and Chatsworth when I was a girl. I only have vague memories of it as it was some 40 plus years ago.

    I visited Ightham Mote when I was in undergrad school and I love it. Such a fascinating place.

    Visiting these places as a Regency writer will be a completely different experience, I think.

    I want to visit Chatsworth again. And I want to visit Hatfield House, Stratfield Saye, and probably every house in the Blue Guide to stately homes!

    • I’ve been to many of them, a long time ago, but not Chatsworth. I’ve been to Stratfield Saye but I can’t remember anything about it! And I know I went to Longleat because there is a zoo there and I remember wallabies hopping about in the open. I think it was Longleat. Maybe it wasn’t. It was all wasted on me then.

  3. HJ says:

    If it weren’t for Capability Brown and his school of landscape gardening we wouldn’t have Tom Stoppard’s wonderful play “Arcadia”, so I shall always be grateful to him! I agree that his nickname makes him memorable, but I think I’d be aware of him anyway. But then I love visiting English steely homes and gardens!

  4. Stephen Barker says:

    In ‘Headlong Hall’ by Thomas Love Peacock published in 1816 is the character Marmaduke Milestone Esq. who is a picturesque landscape gardener of the first celebrity who hopes to persuade Squire Headlong to put his romantic pleasure grounds under a process of improvement. The site of Headlong Hall is in the Vale of Llanberris, Caernarvonshire in Wales. Chapter 4 is entitled The Grounds and the discussion between the characters touches on the discussion on the difference between the picturesque and the beautiful.
    the character of Mr Milestone is based on that of Humphrey Repton who was working after Brown. I recommend the novel as with other novels by Peacock it makes fun of contemporary ideas and fashions. The characters are cyphers for the ideas that they are championing. See also ‘Nightmare Abbey’ which has fun with Gothic and romantic ideas and ‘Crotchet Castle’ which includes the banker Sir Timothy Touchandgo who flees to America when his bank crashes along with his servant Roderick Robthetill. Plus ca Change.

    • Wonderful references, thanks! And don’t forget Mr. Rushton, one of the sillier, uber-fashionable characters in Austen’s Mansfield Park, who is obsessed with improving landscapes.

  5. Rose Lerner says:

    “his nickname came about from assuring his clients that their estates held great capabilities”

    Something about this is SO ADORABLE to me. I guess you don’t get to be so successful without being a great salesman as well as incredibly talented. I’m currently thinking about a landscape gardener for a novella hero, but I haven’t settled on anything yet. I’d be curious to know if it’s been done!

    I did see that a movie is coming out soon about Kate Winslet working on the gardens of Versailles with Le Notre–and Alan Rickman plays the Sun King! http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2639254/

    • Ooh, and Stanley Tucci. There was a movie from the 1980s, The Draughtsman’s Contract, about a draftsman (sorry, just can’t use that other spelling) to produce views of a landscaped garden. There’s also a murder mystery in the plot but I think the setting was 17c.

  6. I knew Margaret Evans Porter did a book about a landscape designer –it’s The Proposal, and the designer is the heroine. Here’s part of the blurb from Margaret’s website:
    A novel of dark intrigue, blazing passion–and a glorious garden! When a lonely young widow and a mysterious earl clash over a neglected castle garden, suspicion and secrets threaten a blossoming love. Sophie Pinnock, a talented and determined landscape gardener, arrives at Bevington Castle seeking redemption for past deceits–it was she, not her late husband, who created many of his famed garden designs. Sophie cannot admit to Lord Bevington her yearning to preserve rather than replace his decayed formal landscape, for her enigmatic employer demands that she replace it with a fashionable modern plan.

  7. diane says:

    Chatsworth is beautiful and well worth the visit.

    The grounds of Highclere Castle (Downton Abbey) are very lovely, too. I’m so happy that show saved the house and grounds for many years to come.

  8. margaret says:

    Gail, thanks so much for remembering The Proposal! I’m so happy to say that it is being re-launched next month, in print and ebook, with a gorgeous new cover!
    Sophie, the landscape designer, is slightly post-Capability Brown (the book is set in 1797) but she does have a rather interesting encounter with his successor, Humphrey Repton!

  9. Gail, thanks for remembering The Proposal! I’m happy to share that it is being re-issued next month in print and as an ebook, with a gorgeous new cover.
    Sophie the landscape designer is working slightly post-Capability Brown period (the book is set in 1797) but she does have an interesting encounter with his successor, Humphrey Repton!

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