How to create a Capability Brown landscape

The house and upper pond at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex

The world-famous 18th-century landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was renowned for his ability to transform unpromising countryside into beautiful parks that seemed to be only the work of Dame Nature.

His naturalistic designs hid the huge amount of manpower that went into shaping these picturesque estates. Whole villages were moved, trickling streams transformed into lakes and entire valleys moulded from scratch.

So to celebrate his 300th birthday, Dr Sarah Rutherford, Garden Historian and author of 'Capability Brown and his Landscape Gardens' takes a look at the huge efforts that went into creating a Brownian landscape.

'Capability' Brown changed the face of the English landscape. Instead of previously-fashionable formal designs, he set out instead natural-looking open sweeps of parkland and swooping lines of lakes and rivers.

Setting up a project

Brown worked on more than 250 commissions during his life and could sometimes travel up to 75 miles a day on horseback visiting them. Each new landscape might take many months to plan and decades to execute; his detailed plans could be huge, sometimes filling a whole wall.

Perfect planting

Brown’s parks were meant to look like pictures. To achieve this he used clumps of trees of various shapes and sizes to control views, blocking some and framing others. At times this meant transporting established trees from one part of the estate to another. When working at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, Brown used, possibly invented, a tree carriage to lift trees out of their ground and take them to their new home.

The deer park at Petworth, landscaped by 'Capability' Brown
Undulating mounds, seen from the west of the north end of the main lake at Petworth House and Park, West Sussex

Moving mounds

Brown and his teams of dozens of men moved the earth to create his ‘natural’ designs. Slopes were smoothed, particularly around lakes. His men were employed in winter wielding shovels, pickaxes and wheelbarrows under the expert eye of Brown and his foremen. To create Stowe's Grecian Valley, 13,350 square metres of earth was laboriously carved out using spade and barrow and horse-drawn cart.

The Grecian Valley at Stowe
The Temple of Concord and Victory in the Grecian Valley at Stowe, Buckinghamshire

Sweeping away roads, villages and churches

It was not just natural features that were moved. For the sake of the design – and the owners’ privacy – public roads and footpaths were sometimes closed or diverted. Sometimes entire villages or churches were relocated. At Croome in Worcestershire, houses were demolished because they interrupted the sightlines of the park (the occupants were rehoused in a new settlement, Croome Village). The medieval church was knocked down because it was considered too close to the house and replaced with a new, Gothic-style one on higher ground to make it an ‘eye-catcher’.  

The church of St Mary Magdalene at Croome Park
The church of St Mary Magdalene at Croome Park

The master of water

The highlight of a Brownian landscape is a glistening, seemingly endless, sheet of water intended to mimic a river. At Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, the merest trickle of water was expanded into three lakes to resemble the River Cam heading for Cambridge.

Water features were the most difficult and labour-intensive to create: to succeed, they needed the expertise of an engineer who understood the slippery nature of water, its shifty refusal to stay put without great effort, and how to thwart its frustrating inclination to emerge just where it was not wanted.

A lake on the Wimpole estate in Cambridgeshire
A lake on the Wimpole estate in Cambridgeshire

New rivers and lakes were created by burrowing into the earth and lining the soil with a watertight layer of clay, tamped down by men with rammers. In some places it’s thought that sheep were herded across the soil, their cloven hoofs used to drive the clay into the ground.

Design tricks deceived the viewer into believing these glinting bodies of water were natural rather than the product of sweat and toil. Curves concealed the ends from each other so the whole sheet was not visible in one sweeping view. Artificially created islands played a similar role, helping to both block and frame views. Even the unavoidable changes of level between several stretches of water were expertly concealed using sham bridges and plantings.

The height of the water was carefully controlled through sluices and concealed pipes, the later used to evacuate excess water. 

The overall effect

So talented was Brown at creating English Landscape Gardens that his artistry often goes unnoticed, blending seamlessly into the landscape. Perhaps his obituary best sums it up: ‘Such … 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.'
 

View of Petworth, West Sussex, seen over the lake, part of the Capability Brown landscaped parkland.

Landscapes of Capability Brown

We look after 18 landscapes designed by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Explore some of the estates which helped define our image of the British landscape.

Capability Brown portrait

Learn more with our new book

Discover even more about Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, his clients and the landscapes and buildings he designed in our book, 'Capability' Brown and his Landscape Gardens.