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.
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.
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.
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.’