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Who was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown?

Written by
Oliver CoxHeritage Engagement Fellow and co-lead of the Oxford University Heritage Network, University of Oxford
View over the pond to the west front of the house at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex
View over the pond to the west front of the house at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex | © National Trust Images/John Miller

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown was a grand designer, entrepreneur and salesman who became the UK's most famous landscape designer of the 18th century. His nickname came from his fondness for describing country estates as having great ‘capabilities’ for improvement. By persuading his clients he went on to work on multiple projects at a time.

Brown's vision and style

'Capability’ Brown redesigned hundreds of parks and gardens throughout Britain and developed the natural-looking English landscape style that became renowned throughout the world.

His style came from the three practical principles of comfort, economy and elegance. He designed landscapes on an immense scale, which provided a setting for mansions which were surrounded by woodland, parkland dotted with trees and carefully contoured ground. His landscapes also incorporated serpentine shaped lakes and carefully designed architectural features including follies, temples and bridges.

A natural approach

Brown persuaded the rich, famous and aristocratic to invest the equivalent of millions of pounds in creating landscapes which were beautiful, productive and could take a century to mature. He copied nature so cleverly that his work is often mistaken for a natural landscape. His designs ensured the clients landscapes resulted in views worthy of a prized landscape painting.

‘Capability’ and the National Trust

Today we care for nearly 20 of Brown’s designed landscapes. Many of these are among some of his most significant works, including Stowe in Buckinghamshire, Croome in Worcestershire and Berrington Hall in Herefordshire. These were complex designs encompassing the landscape and architectural features.

A view of the Temple of Venus at Stowe in Buckinghamshire across the lake
The Temple of Venus at Stowe | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

'Capability’ Brown’s story in brief


Early years

Born in August 1716, Lancelot grew up in Kirkharle near Wallington in Northumberland. In 1732 and at the age of 16, he was taken on as an apprentice on the estate, where his father was the agent. 

Trusted source information

This article contains contributions from Oliver Cox. Oliver is a Knowledge Exchange Fellow in the Humanities Division at the University of Oxford.

Octavia Hill (1838 - 1912) (after John Singer Sargent) by Reginald Grenville Eves, RA (London 1876 ¿ Middleton in Teesdale 1941)

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