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date: 18 October 2019

Brown, Lancelot [known as Capability Brown]free

(bap. 1716, d. 1783)
  • John Phibbs

Lancelot Brown [Capability Brown] (bap. 1716, d. 1783)

by Nathaniel Dance, c. 1773

Brown, Lancelot [known as Capability Brown] (bap. 1716, d. 1783), landscape gardener and architect, was baptized on 30 August 1716 at St Wilfrid's Church, Kirkharle, Northumberland, the fifth of the six children of William Brown (1676–1720), a yeoman farmer and estate steward, and his wife, Ursula Hall (c.1678–1742), daughter of John Hall of Girsonfield, Northumberland. Two of their other children, John (1708–1766) and George (1713–1789), married into the gentry—the Loraine and Fenwick families respectively; the former became the agent at Kirkharle, the latter the mason and architect at the neighbouring estate of Wallington.

Education and early career

Brown was educated at the village school in nearby Cambo and then began work for Sir William Loraine, who had extensive formal gardens west of his house at Kirkharle. Brown's plan for remodelling this landscape survives, but may have been drawn for a later campaign. He left Kirkharle in early 1739, but his movements over the next two years remain unclear. He may have worked for Bennet Langton in December 1739 on the enclosure of Mareham in Lincolnshire, close to Tumby, the home of Bridget Wayet (c.1717–1786), whom he was to marry at St Mary's Church, Stowe, on 22 November 1744. The couple had nine children between 1745 and 1761, of whom three sons and two daughters reached adulthood. John Penn later asserted of this period that 'the first piece of water that he formed was at Lady Mostyn's [Kiddington] in Oxfordshire' (Penn, 33), and it seems likely that his work there attracted the notice of Richard Temple, Viscount Cobham.

Following the departure in March 1741 of William Love, the head gardener at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, Brown was employed by Lord Cobham, and rapidly assumed responsibility for the execution of both architectural and landscaping works under the supervision of Lord Cobham himself and his designers, principally William Kent and James Gibbs. In addition to presiding over the buildings of the 1740s, particularly the Grecian temple, the queen's temple, and the Cobham monument, Brown's work at Stowe included the south lawn (which replaced the parterre off the south front of the house), alterations to the lakes, the excavation of the Grecian valley, and the transplantation of trees to turn avenues into more irregular vistas, as well as planting on a prodigious scale.

While at Stowe, Brown established himself as an independent designer and contractor with a number of major landscaping commissions, including Croome Court, Worcestershire (from 1750); Packington Hall, Warwickshire (from c.1750); Petworth, Sussex (from 1753); Wakefield Lodge, Northamptonshire (c.1748); Warwick Castle (from 1749); and Wotton, Buckinghamshire (from 1750). In the autumn of 1751, shortly after Lord Cobham's death, Brown left Stowe and moved with his family to the Mall, Hammersmith.

In the decade to 1760 Brown undertook more than forty large commissions. His turnover, as recorded by his account at Drummond's Bank, rose to an average of over £8000 per year, with over £10,000 in 1759. His reputation was already such as to make current his nickname, Capability, first given him for his habit of referring to the capabilities of the places at which he was consulted. However, an attempt by several of his clients to obtain a royal appointment for him at Kensington in 1758 was unsuccessful, and it was not until July 1764 that a second application secured his appointment as master gardener at Hampton Court and Richmond, and gardener at St James's. From 1764 he lived at his official residence, Wilderness House at Hampton Court.

In the 1760s Brown undertook more than sixty-five commissions; these included Blenheim, Oxfordshire (from 1764), which is generally regarded as his masterpiece. Although he had a number of emulators by this time, among them Richard Woods (1715/16–1793) and William Emes (1729–1803), he had no real rivals, and indeed Brown seems to have been content to let his foremen, such as Thomas White the elder (1736–1811) and Nathaniel Richmond (1723/4–1784), set up on their own account. During this decade his turnover at Drummond's fluctuated considerably, but still averaged over £15,000 per annum. Although the number of his large new commissions fell to about fifty in the 1770s, giving him an average turnover of £9000 per annum, there is no evidence that his style had fallen out of fashion.

Brown's landscape business

Brown offered a number of different services to his clients: for a round number of guineas he could provide a survey and plans for buildings and landscaping and leave his client to execute his proposal, as at Howsham, Yorkshire (c.1770); more frequently he provided a foreman to oversee the work, which was carried out by labour recruited from the estate. Even in 1753, when he opened his account with Drummond's Bank, Brown was employing four foremen, and by the end of the decade he had more than twenty on his books. Finally he could oversee the work himself, usually by means of visits for a certain number of days each year, as seems to have happened at King's Weston, Bristol (c.1771).

Brown was famous for the speed at which he worked. As François de la Rochefoucauld recorded, 'after an hour on horse-back he conceived the design for an entire park, and … after that, half-a-day was enough for him to mark it out on the ground' (Scarfe, 36). These methods were in marked contrast to those of William Kent, who hated travelling and preferred to design in London.

Many of Brown's foremen were highly skilled and traded in their own right. They were recruited, some from Northumberland and presumably known to Brown in his youth (William Ireland and perhaps Nathaniel Richmond), some from other gardens and from related trades (James Clarke may have been a nurseryman). Some were specialists: John Spyers was a surveyor, Lapidge had both surveyed and carried out waterworks at Cassiobury, Hertfordshire, before joining Brown, Benjamin Read was another lake-maker, John Hobcroft and Henry Holland the elder were builders. Others, such as George Bowstreed and John Midgely, had general skills. Despite this degree of delegation, stylistic distinctions between the work of the different foremen cannot be made save where, as with Nathaniel Richmond and Thomas White the elder, they became designers in their own right. Furthermore, the cartographic style that Brown adopted was used by all his draughtsmen, including Richmond and White, and it is difficult to tell their hands apart: Brown's style was imposed on everything that he did, and this is a testimony both to the strength of his design and to his managerial skills.

Brown also worked as an architect. His earliest surviving architectural drawings are for a Kentian grotto and cascade at Packington Hall, although Henry Holland the younger attributed several buildings at Stowe to him. During the 1750s he designed large country houses, for example, Croome Court, and carried out extensive remodelling at Newnham Paddox, Warwickshire (from 1745), and Burghley House, Northamptonshire (from 1754). William Mason later attributed Brown's adventures in architecture to the 'great difficulty … in forming a picturesque whole where the previous building had been ill-placed or of improper dimensions' (Repton, 14). Like his master William Kent, and his contemporary Thomas Wright, Brown seems to have been prepared to try every kind of design, though his architecture may have lacked their originality, being usually a rather austere classical, perhaps derived from Sanderson Miller (Croome Court), or a Strawberry Hill Gothic, of the kind advocated by Batty Langley and Richard Bentley (the lodge at Rothley, c.1765). Notwithstanding Humphry Repton's comment 'the many good houses built under his direction, prove him to have been no mean proficient in an art, the practice of which he had found, from experience, to be inseparable from landscape gardening' (Loudon, 266), Brown's architecture played a secondary part in his 'place-making'.

Brown worked with other designers, in particular with Robert Adam at Harewood House, Yorkshire (from 1758), William Mason at Nuneham Courtenay, Oxfordshire (from 1778), Sanderson Miller at Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire (from 1754), Thomas Wright at Wrest, Bedfordshire (from 1758), and Henry Holland the elder and his son Henry [see Holland (1745–1806)], the last of whom he took into an informal partnership in 1770, and who married his elder daughter, Bridget, in February 1773. In several cases, of which Sanderson Miller's ruined castle at Wimpole, Cambridgeshire, is the best-known example (designed 1752, erected 1770), he was happy to construct what others had designed. In addition he frequently stepped in to help clients whose zeal for improvement threatened to overwhelm their executive ability, as is implied in the correspondence on Belhus, Essex (from 1754).

Style

Brown's style was derived from the two practical principles of comfort and elegance. First, there was a determination that everything should work, and that a landscape should provide for every need of a great house, an aspect of Brown's work that was influenced by the tradition of the ferme ornée, of ornamental walks around working fields. It was a tradition that Brown himself did much to popularize, and which he had learned from working at Stowe and from Philip Southcote's Woburn Farm. Indeed, had he never designed a building or planted a tree, Brown might still be known for his agricultural improvements. As Lord Coventry recalled after Brown's death, 'Croome … was entirely his creation, and, I believe, originally as hopeless a spot as any in the island'. Second, his landscapes had to cohere, and hence read as naturally and unaffectedly elegant. While his designs have great variety, they also appear seamless. In pursuit of the former, and in spite of his devotion to agricultural improvement, he would often leave commons unenclosed and wasteland of little agricultural value in sight of the house, as at Chatsworth (Derbyshire) and Croome Court and Longleat (Wiltshire), allowing the landscape to drift imperceptibly up to this rough ground, over lakes and trees, becoming less polished as it did so. In fact Laleham, Middlesex (from 1778), and Mareham, Lincolnshire, are the only places where he was explicitly employed on an enclosure.

Brown is also associated with deer parks, but only about 30 per cent of the landscapes on which he worked had parks, and these were often some way away from the house, on poor ground. Indeed there is little in his work to suggest that he recommended the conspicuous wasting of good ground, as has sometimes been suggested.

Although often associated with setting a house in a grass field, Brown regularly designed large complex pleasure grounds that led off from the house and which consisted of numerous different types of planting, such as the arboretum, the wilderness, the flower garden, the evergreen shrubbery, and the greenhouse shrubbery at Croome. Sudden transitions were allowed, by means of screens of planting, but contrasting scenes were never visible together. Further evidence of his range and use of rough scenery is found in his quarry gardens, for example at Clandon, Surrey (from 1781), and the many ruins that he landscaped, of which Roche Abbey, Yorkshire (from 1766), is the best-known.

The fierce attacks made posthumously on Brown's reputation in the ‘picturesque controversy’, led by Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price in the 1790s, established an interpretation of his work that has not been questioned since. Price and Knight claimed that Brown's style was formulaic, that his plans were sent down from London, and that he had no regard for the genius loci. Further, they maintained that he had no understanding of pictorial composition, that his houses were isolated on extensive lawns, that his landscapes were too uniform, too smooth, and too bland, and consisted only of lakes, grass, and scattered trees. Despite its general acceptance, this interpretation is, however, wrong in every respect.

Brown's style is formulaic only in the sense that his clients had broadly similar needs for forestry, agriculture, and sport. His landscapes ranged from town houses to palaces, and about 25 per cent of them were villas. He was employed on the whole range of English topography, from the sublime uplands of Chatsworth, Derbyshire (from 1760), to the extensive levels of Burton Constable and Rise, Yorkshire (from 1759 and 1775 respectively). While he is regarded as a leader of the informal English landscape tradition, he usually retained elements of earlier formal designs, whether parkland avenues, as at Charlton, Wiltshire (from 1767), and Charlecote, Warwickshire (from 1757); water, as with the moats at Ditton, Berkshire (from 1768); or parterres, such as those at Wotton, Buckinghamshire, and Hampton Court, Middlesex. Furthermore he designed numerous formal gardens, usually strung along a serpentine walk, as at Brocklesby, Lincolnshire (from 1771), Tottenham, Wiltshire (from 1763), and Syon House, Middlesex (from 1760). Far from isolating the house, he frequently took care to bring a public road through its parkland so as to animate the view, and his lawns, so often described as 'bare and bald', were in fact hay meadows and brought the central, socially levelling episode of the agricultural year right into the heart of the estate. Few of his landscapes were surrounded by belts of trees, and his parklands were never isolated from the surrounding countryside. No one who has visited his late masterpiece at Berrington, Herefordshire, and seen the view from the dining-room at the end of a late September's afternoon will deny his ability to compose a Claudian image out of the least Claudian of settings; his instincts were sound, even if he had no formal training in the composition of pictures.

The principal device through which Brown achieved the effortless coherence of his designs was the sunk fence or ha-ha, and he used this with a sophistication that has never been matched. His ha-has used a range of construction techniques to confuse the eye into believing that different pieces of parkland, though managed and stocked quite differently, were one (as at Corsham, Wiltshire, from 1760); that lakes, at different levels and unconnected, formed a single body of water (for example at Swynnerton, Staffordshire); and that the parkland itself could run on indefinitely across, for example, the counties of Sussex, in the case of Cowdray (from 1768), and Hertfordshire, in the case of Youngsbury.

This coherence is taken for granted today with a complacency that was predicted in Brown's obituary: 'Such, however, 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' (Stroud, 202). Brown's success can be measured only against the few surviving incoherent landscapes that survive from his time. For example, in 1758 at Buckland, Oxfordshire, Richard Woods laid out an improbable set of lakes on the side of a hill, planted scraps of avenue, dug insignificant valleys, bedded roses, and popped incongruous buildings about the place in order to achieve some superb views, particularly from the windows of the pavilions of John Wood the younger's house, at the expense of any sense of unity.

Brown never published, and wrote only one paragraph about his intentions as a designer. This was sent in 1775 with a plan to France and was intended as an introduction to his style: 'Gardening and Place-Making', he wrote:

when rightly understood will supply all the elegance and all the comforts which Mankind wants in the Country and (I will add) if right, be exactly fit for the owner, the Poet and the Painter. To produce these effects there wants a good plan, good execution, a perfect knowledge of the country and the objects in it, whether natural or artificial, and infinite delicacy in the planting etc., so much Beauty depending on the size of the trees and the colour of their leaves to produce the effect of light and shade so very essential to the perfecting a good plan: as also the hideing what is disagreeable and shewing what is beautifull, getting shade from the large trees and sweets from the smaller sorts of shrubbs etc.

Stroud, 157

Character

Brown had detractors among his contemporaries, of whom the most notable was the architect Sir William Chambers, his rival and colleague on a number of projects from Ingress Abbey (from 1756) to Milton Abbey, Dorset (from 1763). He was attacked both for his lack of education and for his background, though his family had a greater standing than his detractors claimed. Brown himself rose higher than many of the gentry for whom he worked. In 1772 he served as high sheriff of Huntingdonshire, and he had the friendship of a series of prime ministers (William Pitt, his rival Lord Bute, George Grenville, and Lord North) and the ear of George III. Among his clients only Lord Shelburne at Bowood and Sir John Griffin Griffin at Audley End are known to have objected to him, either as a man or as a designer; both were themselves impossible clients, and it is telling that the architect James Paine entirely revised his negative opinions after he had met and started working with Brown.

To judge from the surviving correspondence, Brown's marriage was a happy one. Of the couple's five surviving children, Lancelot Brown (1748–1802) served as MP for Totnes (1780–84), Huntingdon (1784), and Huntingdonshire (1792–4), while John (1751–1808) joined the navy and rose to the rank of an admiral of the blue. Brown's dry wit made him 'an agreeable, pleasant companion', as Elizabeth Montague wrote, and William Mason's epitaph 'Christian, Husband, Father, Friend' expressed a widely felt sentiment (Stroud, 195, 203).

Death and posthumous reputation

From the time of his move to Hammersmith in 1751 Brown suffered from asthma, and his habit of constant travel, together with his practice of not always charging for work (he would sometimes allow his client to determine the value of what he had done, and seems frequently to have submitted plans and surveys without a bill), affected both his health and his finances towards the end of his life. He continued to work and travel, however, until his sudden collapse and injury on the evening of 5 February 1783 after a visit to Lord Coventry. He died on the following day at the home of his son-in-law, Henry Holland, on Hertford Street, Mayfair. He was buried at Fenstanton on 16 February, the estate that he had acquired in Huntingdonshire in 1767. He wrote his will in 1779 (dated 26 March), making bequests amounting to over £10,000. The residue of the estate was put into trust, and Samuel Lapidge was given the uncompleted contracts. He was survived by his wife, who died on 26 August 1786 and was buried at Fenstanton.

Capability Brown is rightly regarded as the classic English gardener—classic in the sense that so much early eighteenth-century design is epitomized by him, classic too in that, although his work is continually reassessed, every landscape gardener since, both in Britain and across the developed world, has been influenced in one way or another by him. While more than 30 per cent of the landscapes attributed to him were relatively small (120 hectares or less), he was capable of working on an immense scale, not only constructing gardens and parkland, but planting woods and building farms linked by carriage drives, or ‘ridings’, that ran many miles from the main house (as at Heveningham, Suffolk, from 1781), and it is for these very large landscapes that he is best remembered. The images that he created are as deeply embedded in the English character as the paintings of Turner and the poetry of Wordsworth.

Sources

  • P. Willis, ‘Capability Brown's account with Drummond's Bank, 1753–1783’, Architectural History, 27 (1984), 382–91
  • J. C. Loudon, ed., Landscape gardening and landscape architecture of the late Humphry Repton (1841)
  • D. Jacques, Georgian gardens: the reign of nature (1983)
  • P. Willis, ‘Capability Brown in Northumberland’, Garden History, 9/2 (1981), 157–83
  • J. Penn, An historical and descriptive account of Stowe Park in Buckinghamshire (1813)
  • T. R. Leach, Lincolnshire country houses and their families (1990), pt 1
  • H. Repton, Sketches and hints on landscape gardening (1794)
  • J. Paine, Plans, elevations, and sections of noblemen and gentlemen's houses, 2 (1783)
  • N. Scarfe, ‘A Frenchman's year in Suffolk’, Suffolk Records Society, 30 (1988)
  • Capability Brown and the northern landscape (1983) [exhibition catalogue, Tyne and Wear County Council Museums]
  • will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1101/48
  • J. Brown, The omnipotent magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, 1716–1783 (2011)

Archives

  • BL, corresp., Add. MS 69795
  • priv. coll., corresp. and papers, incl. plan relating to Petworth
  • Royal Horticultural Society, London, account book
  • priv. coll., letters to eighth earl of Northampton relating to Fenstanton
  • Staffs. RO, agreements relating to work at Weston Park, Staffordshire
  • TNA: PRO, letters to first earl of Chatham, PRO 30/8
  • Wilts. & Swindon HC, letters to Methuen family relating to Corsham Court

Likenesses

  • N. Dance, oils, 1773, NPG [see illus.]
  • attrib. R. Cosway, oils, priv. coll.
  • R. Cosway, pencil drawing, priv. coll.
  • N. Dance, oils, Burghley House, Peterborough

Wealth at Death

over £10,000: will, 1779, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1101/48

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National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
H. M. Colvin, , 3rd edn (1995)