Why was Lancelot 'Capability' Brown so important?
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (b. 1716, d. 1783) is Britain’s most famous landscape designer, who codified the English landscape style and worked at over 250 sites, for a client list that included the majority of the House of Lords.
Early life and big break
Born in Northumberland in 1716, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown rose through the ranks of Georgian society through a combination of professional talent and excellent connections to become King George III’s royal gardener in 1764; complete with the grace-and-favour Wilderness House at Hampton Court.
His big break came through Lord Cobham at Stowe, which throughout the eighteenth-century was a laboratory for experimenting with different types of landscape and gardening styles. As head gardener from 1741, Brown was responsible for developing the Grecian Valley.
Just as important was Lord Cobham’s address book, and Brown soon started work for a range of aristocrats and politicians connected to Cobham and his friend William Pitt, including George Grenville at Wotton, Lord Egremont at Petworth.
What's Brown's style?
Brown’s landscapes were simple, uncluttered and restrained. They comprised sweeping pasture bordered with tree clumps, perimeter shelter belts and screens of trees. The landscape was designed to encourage eighteenth century leisure pursuits including hunting, shooting and carriage-riding.
Lancelot Brown, nicknamed ‘Capability’, due to his habit of describing the great ‘capabilities’ of his clients landscapes, was the most successful landscape gardener of the eighteenth century.
He developed lifelong friendships with some clients, like Lord Coventry at Croome, and between 1761 and 1783 held contracts to the value of £320,000 – approximately £718 million in today’s money.
Creating an image of England
What Shakespeare has done for English letters, so Capability Brown has done for English landscape. His landscapes look so natural that it is hard to see the hand of the artist at work.
As the man behind England’s green and pleasant land, Brown almost damned himself to historical obscurity through creating a product so good, subsequent generations of visitors have given nature herself the credit.
Eighteen of Brown’s landscapes are in the care of the National Trust.