Our great 'Capability' Brown landscapes
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was a great landscape architect who shaped many of the places we care for – learn more about his life and the landscapes he transformed.
Lancelot 'Capability' Brown was the Norman Foster of the 1700s garden world, a great designer, entrepreneur and salesman. His nickname came from his fondness for describing country estates as having great ‘capabilities’ for improvement.
Gardens for the future
Brown persuaded the rich, famous and aristocratic to invest the equivalent of millions of pounds in creating landscapes which were beautiful, productive and would take a century to mature.
He sold the idea of the legacy that they would leave behind, and in doing so changed the face of 18th-century England.
His style came from the three practical principles of comfort, economy and elegance. He designed landscapes on an immense scale which provided the must-have setting for mansions, surrounded by wooded belts, parkland dotted with trees, carefully contoured ground, and serpentine lakes that resembled artificial rivers.
Leaving a legacy
Over the course of a career spanning 40 years, ‘Capability’ was commissioned to work on over 250 sites, covering a total of 200 square miles meaning, that on average, he had six projects on the go at the same time. More than 150 survive today.
He was very committed to his work and would travel between all his sites, initially on horseback and later by carriage, literally crisscrossing the country to check on his work. Unable to be everywhere at once, ‘Capability’ employed and relied on a team of foremen, assistant surveyors and landscapers to map the ground, manage the labourers and contractors and implement his designs.
Capability and the National Trust
Today we care for 18 of Brown’s landscapes. Many of these are among some of his most significant works, including Stowe in Buckinghamshire, Croome in Worcestershire and rare set-piece examples, such as Berrington Hall in Herefordshire.
Due to the scale and proliferation of his designs, and the way they have become our image of the quintessential English landscape, there is no doubt that every landscape gardener and architect has been influenced in some way by Brown.
Today his work endures and continues to amaze and inspire.
His story in brief
Born in August 1716, Lancelot grew up in Kirkharle near Wallington in Northumberland, his family from yeoman stock. At the age of 16 he was taken on as an apprentice on the estate, where his brother was the agent. Here he learnt the skills of horticulture and husbandry. He moved south and in 1739 finally got a job as Lord Cobham’s head gardener at Stowe.
At Stowe he not only worked on the gardens under Lord Cobham’s direction, but also oversaw the removal or construction of various garden buildings to the parkland.
Arguably his greatest creation at Stowe was the Grecian valley, a ground breaking realisation of an Arcadian vision of Ancient Greece. Here, 240,000 cubic yards of soil – equivalent to the volume of 1,631 London double-decker buses – had to be dug out by hand from former farmland using spade and barrow and horse-drawn cart.
While working at Stowe he met and married Bridget Wayet and had the first of nine children. He finally left Stowe in 1751, aged 35, to become a freelance designer and landscaper and was commissioned by Lord Coventry at Croome.
Petworth and Wimpole were also significant commissions and he died in 1783 while on a night out with Lord Coventry, not long after working on Berrington Hall in Herefordshire for politician and former Mayor of London, Thomas Harley.
Explore the landscapes of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown
We look after 18 landscapes designed by the great garden architect, Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Explore some of the estates which helped define our image of the quintessential British landscape.