Tracing Capability

The Boycott Pavilions at Stowe. Lancelot Brown lived in the westernmost of these in the 1740s with his wife and burgeoning family. ©The National Trust

Garden writer Jane Brown has just published a new biography of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, entitled The Omnipotent Magician. Brown, of course, was responsible more than anyone else for the creation of the ‘English landscape’ style of garden. The biography is thorough and attempts to trace and disentangle Brown’s life and astonishing career, from his youth in rural Northumberland, his training as a gardener and surveyor, his move south and the gradual building up of a network of patrons.

View down the Grecian Valley at Stowe, created by Brown between 1747 and 1749, from the Temple of Concord and Victory. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

The secret to Brown’s success seems to have been a combination of sound technical and management skills with a talent to see how a given landscape could be made into a three-dimensional landscape painting à la Claude or Poussin.  This is where his nickname ‘Capability’ originates – he was supposedly in the habit of telling propspective patrons that their grounds had ‘great capabilities’. However, as Jane Brown has found, there is no evidence that this slightly derogatory monniker was used during his lifetime.

Lord Cobham's Pillar, constructed under Brown's supervision between 1747 and 1749. ©The National Trust

The gardens at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, played an important role in Brown’s early career. He was Head Gardener there from 1741 to 1750, which allowed him to develop his skills in a setting that already contained a number of astonishing garden features. Brown married Bridget Wayet at the church of St Mary’s at Stowe in 1744 and they lived in one of the two Boycott Pavilions.

View from the Temple of Concord and Victory towards Lord Cobham's Pillar. ©NTPL/Andrew Butler

Brown was in charge of creating the Grecian Valley, which required huge earthworks and the replanting of mature trees. It is the first example of the kind of landscape garden for which he would become famous. He also supervised the building of Lord Cobham’s pillar, possibly after a design by James Gibbs, which he had to modify because ‘the Wind has a very great effect on Buildings that stand on so small a Base.’

4 Responses to “Tracing Capability”

  1. style court Says:

    Appreciate the introduction to this new title.

  2. Gary Webb Says:

    Excellent text & some lovely images. As a grounds manager at a much much smaller Brownian landscape garden, I can too confirm an interest in Lancelot & his life. The Omnipotent Magician is worth a read for all who wish to learn more of our best known landscape architect, one of a growing number of books about Brown; & it adds further layers of information about the man & his amazing career.
    As another point, I work at Compton Verney, landscaped by Brown from 1768, where the mansion now houses a permanent collection & changing exhibitions. June 25th is the launch date for one of two exhibitions, to be known as; ‘Capability’ Brown & the landscapes of middle England. The exhibition is a must see for Brown supporters, as it will focus on a number of his major midlands commissions, Charlecote & Croome in particular. I thought it worth a mention! Hope to see you there, & I also hope you like our own little Brown landscape garden; it has great capabilities!

  3. Hels Says:

    Young men were coming back from their Grand Tour and wanted to build new homes for their families or renovate old family homes. So knowing how to create an English landscape style of garden, based on Claudian or Poussinesque concepts of the Italian landscape, would have been important for Brown.

    I know his boss William Kent went on his own Grand Tour, but as far as you know, did Capability Brown? If not, did he use paintings brought back by young men who did go on their own travels to Italy?

  4. Emile de Bruijn Says:

    Courtney, thanks, we both seem to have gardens on our mind at the moment (http://bit.ly/kBPFR7).

    Gary, thanks for mentioning that forthcoming exhibition (here is a link to it: http://bit.ly/mPDNQB) – I will try to do a post on it just before it opens. It will interesting to see what the exhibition curators, Stephen Parissien and Tim Mowl, have to say about Croome, Charlecote, Combe Abbey and Compton Verney.

    Helen, Brown never made a Grand Tour himself, as he was from a relatively humble background, and he seems to have developed his style from reading books, seeing existing gardens and studying paintings owned by his patrons.

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