How to spot a Capability Brown landscape

Aeriel view of Petworth


This year we’re celebrating the 300th birthday of the most famous gardener in British history, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Brown helped revolutionise British gardening in the eighteenth century, sweeping away formality in favour of natural looking landscapes. He copied nature so cleverly that his work is often mistaken for a natural landscape.

So how can you tell the difference between what appears to be quintessential British countryside and an original Brown work of art?

Here are some clues to help you out:

Cedars of Lebanon at Charlecote

Cedars of Lebanon


With their distinctive horizontal shape, these majestic evergreen conifers are often the first telltale sign that you’re approaching a landscaped parkland. One of Brown’s trademark features, cedars of Lebanon were a popular imported tree in the eighteenth century. Other signature trees to look out for are large-leaved London plane, often used by Brown to punctuate the landscape and evergreen oaks.

Spot cedars of Lebanon at Croome, Petworth Park and Charlecote Park.

The house and upper pond at Petworth in West Sussex

The serpentine lake


Brown loved water in the landscape, great expanses which usually formed a curving, serpentine lake. He typically placed these in the middle distance, often with a clump or island of trees at one end, to give the impression that the lake went on forever. Smooth grass ran down to the edges of the water.

Admire the serpentine lake at Berrington Hall, Croome, Hatfield Forest, Petworth Park, Prior Park, Stowe and Wimpole Estate.

The Gothic Folly on the Wimpole Estate

Monuments, temples, rotundas and follies


Decorative garden buildings are a hallmark of grand eighteenth century gardens. Brown’s were often in the Gothic or Neo-classical style and typically set against a background of evergreen trees. Many were inspired by classical buildings visited by landowners on Grand Tours across Europe.

Explore garden buildings at Clandon Park, Croome, Ickworth, Petworth Park, Stowe, Wallington and Wimpole Estate.

Video

How do you spot a 'Capability' Brown landscape?

He was such a great gardener it's hard to tell the difference between his works and nature itself. And he was so popular, lots of people copied his style - so after 300 years, how on earth do you spot a genuine 'Capability' Brown landscape garden? Head Gardener Alan Power has some top tips to help.

Geese on water with the Palladian Bridge in the background at Stowe

A picturesque stone bridge


Bridges and Brown go together, many of his entrance drives crossed his lakes via an ornamental bridge, often designed in a classical or Gothic style.

Walk over stone bridges at Prior Park, Wallington, Stowe, and Croome.

Berrington Hall from over the ha-ha

The ha-ha


These sunken walls, named after the exclamation of surprise uttered by unsuspecting visitors on finding them, were designed to keep livestock away from formal areas of the garden. One of Brown’s favourite devices, the ha-ha was invisible from the house, giving the impression that the lawn stretched seamlessly into the grazed parkland beyond, garden and nature merging harmoniously together.

Discover the ha-ha at Petworth Park, Berrington Hall, Charlecote Park, Croome, and Stowe.

Fallow deer graze in the deer park as the sun shines through the overlooking trees

Clumps of trees


Look out for these planted on a hillock or a group in open parkland. In the eighteenth century, young trees were encircled by a fence, removed once the trees had matured to allow livestock to graze underneath. Deer or cows eating the lower branches, created a level, distinctive ‘grazing line’ which you can still see today.

Find clumps of trees at Dinefwr, Petworth Park, Stowe, Ashridge Estate, and Croome.

The drive at Dinefwr, Carmarthenshire

The grand sweeping drive


Originally designed for horse-drawn carriages, the drive offered glimpses of different views at every twist and turn. A monument on the skyline, a distant view of the house, then the lake, perhaps a grand bridge and the house revealed again, getting closer. The drive was carefully designed to impress, showing off the extent and beauty of the owner’s private world.

Follow the sweeping drive at Ickworth, Dinefwr, Ashridge Estate, Basildon Park, Berrington Hall, Wimpole Estate and Croome.

Ariel view of the Golden Valley at Ashridge Herts

The woodland belt


It may look like a sweep of woodland bordering the main road but this linear, narrow expanse of woodland was principally designed to enclose the private world within the garden and provide shelter and cover for game shooting.

You can see woodland belts on the Ashridge Estate, Basildon Park, Berrington Hall, Dinefwr, Ickworth and Wimpole Estate.