Three hundred years of a very capable gardener

Visitors enjoying the walled garden at Wallington. Photo: PA Photo/John Millar.
Visitors enjoying the walled garden at Wallington. Photo: PA Photo/John Millar.

He is said to be to landscaping what Turner is to painting, and Wordsworth to poetry. And the legacy of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown remains for us all to see in immense parkland and gardens, both at home and abroad.

Now, the public has a chance to see his work in all its glory during the Capability Brown Festival, being launched on February 25, which brings together a huge range of events, openings and exhibitions featuring historic landscapes, from horse and carriage rides to art exhibitions to cycling trails.

His designs changed the face of the 18th century British landscape, creating rolling parkland, flowing rivers and serpentine lakes.

He was considered by some to be a genius, and by others as a destructive force, as he swept away formal knot gardens and parterres to make way for his more natural landscapes.

His nickname of ‘Capability’ is thought to have come from his describing landscapes as having “great capabilities”.

During his 32-year career as a landscape gardener and ‘place-maker’, he shaped more than 170 estates including Chatsworth House, Derbyshire; Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire; Stowe, Bucks; Wrest Park, Bedfordshire and Ashburnham in Sussex.

Born in 1716, one of six children to a yeoman farmer in Northumberland, Brown’s daily walk to school from Kirkharle to Cambo across the Wallington estate may have inspired his naturalistic designs.

He began work as a gardener at the country house of Kirkharle before going to Stowe in Buckinghamshire, now a National Trust property, where he took responsibility for the architectural and landscaping works in the garden. In 1764, he was appointed King George III’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace.

His revolutionary ideas were taken up by other 18th century designers, and it wasn’t too long before great Scottish houses and castles became surrounded by the parkland and naturalistic planting schemes that typify the period.

Brown’s style was derived from the two practical principles of comfort and elegance: that everything should work and that a landscape should provide for every need of the great house, as well as cohere and look elegant.

While his designs have great variety, they also appear seamless, owing to his use of the sunk fence or ‘ha-ha’ to confuse the eye into believing that different pieces of parkland, though managed and stocked quite differently, were one.

His expansive lakes formed a single body of water as if a river through the landscape, like the parkland itself, ran on indefinitely.

Toby Buckland, horticulturist, writer and TV presenter, says: “At Bowood, Wiltshire, where I have my summer garden festival, ‘Capability’ planted belts of trees as his picture frame and streams expanded into a serpentine lake as a focal point.

“It’s masterful, magical and a wonderful place to be. No wonder his work has stood the test of time.”

Designed in 1762, the Bowood grounds boast an extensive arboretum and pinetum, including 11 champion trees with a further 700 trees identified and labelled within the grounds. C entral to the design of the park is Brown’s great lake, almost a mile long, winding sinuously like an enormous river.

Ceryl Evans, Capability Brown Festival 2016 director, explains: “In the 18th century, Brown did not have access to motorised machinery and other technology, work had to be done by hand.

“Yet he transformed the country’s landscape by using trees, meadows and water features on an extraordinary scale, bringing them together to create designs that became quintessentially English historic landscapes.”

Dr Sarah Rutherford, author of Capability Brown And His Landscape Gardens, adds: “Brown was the genius who could see instantly the ‘capabilities’ of a site to become a landscape work of art: how to turn drab agricultural land or an old-fashioned geometric garden into a natural-looking park or pleasure ground.

“He could quickly size up how best to use his essential palette of water, trees and grass to look like the hand of Dame Nature to most eyes.

“Brown could lay out a sweeping valley framed by fringes of woodland and pleasure ground like the Golden Valley at Ashridge (Herts), that looked entirely natural, but was wholly the work of his eye and the spades of his men.

“He could place a lake either in full view of the house, like Petworth (West Sussex), or subtly placed so it was an exciting surprise from a path or drive like Wimpole (Cambs) and Berrington (Herefordshire).

“He was the Shakespeare of gardening. His talent was reflected in his client list, which included the King, six prime ministers and half the House of Lords.”

As we enjoy spring and summer days out at some of the National Trust and other properties which have been influenced by his work, we may take his landscaping for granted in a way that was predicted in his obituary: “Where he is the happiest man he will be least remembered, so closely did he copy nature his works will be mistaken”.

For details of events in the Capability Brown Festival 2016, go to www.capabilitybrown.org