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Capability Brown’s landscapes were designed to be a snob’s paradise

6 October 2016

Few designers have left behind a body of work as monumental or as enduring as that of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83). Under his direction, hundreds of square miles of countryside across England and Wales were transformed to conform to a naturalistic aesthetic that still shapes the way we look at landscape design today. Out went the formal, well-ordered gardens that had gone before. Hills were raised, valleys dugs, rivers channelled, woods planted, and, in some cases, entire communities displaced. But for all this effort, the desired result was to create parkland that looked as artless as nature itself, as though it had always been there. This quickly became the dominant style for large country estates in England and abroad. The writer and connoisseur Horace Walpole wrote, ‘We have given the true model of gardening to the world: let other countries mimic or corrupt our taste, but let it reign here on its verdant throne.’

Although fashions in garden design soon moved on, many of Capability Brown’s best landscapes have survived. The fundamental elements of his compositions are largely unaltered to this day: the sweeping expanse of grassland that extends right up to the big house, the gently contoured hillsides fringed with mature woodland, and the serpentine lake crossed by an Italianate bridge. Indeed, these scenes are such a familiar part of the stately-home setting, and so uniform in their appearance, it is easy to take them for granted. But this was Capability Brown’s intention, and why his brand was so popular: for all their artifice, his landscapes sought to convey the idea of a natural order based on timeless and universal values. It was an aesthetic that had a special appeal to a landed aristocracy keen to reassert its own inalienable place in the social and economic milieu.

View over the parkland at Chatsworth House, and the River Derwent and stone bridge.

View over the parkland at Chatsworth House, and the River Derwent and stone bridge. © Visit England and Rich J. Jones

Just as it is easy to overlook the landscapes, it is easy to overlook their designer, Lancelot Brown. He has a memorable name (the ‘Capability’ helps), but details of his life and working practices are less well known. This year, however, the tercentenary of his birth provides an opportunity to discover more about him. The Capability Brown Festival has been running throughout 2016, co-ordinating a diverse programme of events, activities and exhibitions taking place in Capability Brown sites up and down the country, with the aim of encouraging more people to enjoy, appreciate and learn about his landscapes. New research has been carried out and a dozen books published addressing various aspects of his life and work.

There is a tendency through all of these celebrations to wish to elevate Capability Brown as a singular ‘genius’. But he was not an innovator: the new style of landscape gardening had been developed by others before him, notably by William Kent (c. 1685–1748), whom he worked under at Stowe. Brown’s success was principally down to three things: hard work, sound business sense, and an easy charm when dealing with his aristocratic clients. He had a prodigious work-rate, and could survey a large estate in a day. Over 250 properties across England and Wales are associated with him, of which around 150 still contain significant elements of his designs. Among these are some of the grandest houses in the land, such as Blenheim Palace and Chatsworth House.

He acquired the nickname ‘Capability’ because he would often describe the estates he surveyed as having ‘great capabilities’ for improvement. But it is tempting to think that this was as much an evaluation of his clients’ financial resources, as it was an assessment of the potential of their land. Capability Brown worked only for the super-rich, the great landowners with estates large enough and pockets deep enough to afford to realise his bold visions.

The Oxford Bridge at Stowe, Buckinghamshire.

The Oxford Bridge at Stowe, Buckinghamshire. © NT Images and Andrew Butler

A major part of the appeal of his landscapes was that they were out of reach of the nouveaux riches. Whereas a city financier or prosperous industrialist might be able to install an impressive formal garden around his mansion, only the landed aristocracy could reshape the countryside on the scale needed for Brown’s conceptions. The vogue for this style of landscape garden can be placed within a broader set of cultural developments in the mid 18th century, whereby the propertied elites sought to project a clear separation between themselves and their social inferiors. Retiring to their country estates they could now enjoy views that achieved the elusive combination of being tastefully inconspicuous yet impressively expensive.

The fact that all Brown’s landscapes looked similar did not bother his clients. They were not investing in unique creative expressions, but buying into a classical ideal. The remodelled views from their homes suggested the mythical terrains imagined in, say, the paintings of Claude Lorrain or Nicolas Poussin, which hung on the walls of their mansions, rather than anything particularly English. Brown’s pastoral Arcadias might be grazed by deer or sheep, but all signs of crops or human labour, on which landed wealth depended, had now been discreetly removed from view. It was an alluring fantasy, designed for a privileged way of looking.

, (1648–50), Claude Lorrain.

View of La Crescenza, (1648–50), Claude Lorrain. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Not everybody liked Capability Brown’s work. The architect William Chambers, for example, thought that Brown’s landscape gardens ‘differ very little from common fields, so closely is nature copied in most of them’. Towards the end of the 18th century criticism took on a patriotic edge, with some commentators complaining that Brown had obliterated from the landscape all of the native idiosyncrasies that had accumulated over centuries, replacing them with an abstract, and essentially foreign, aesthetic.

Objections like this don’t trouble us much nowadays. We associate Capability Brown’s parks with the English stately home and embrace it as part of our national culture. Many of the grand houses and their parks are open to the public, often managed by the National Trust or English Heritage, for example. But as we wander around the grounds and enjoy the views today it is easy to forget just how artificial these landscapes were, and how much they were shaped by the exclusive outlook and tastes of a remote elite.

Details of the Capability Brown Festival 2016 can be found at www.capabilitybrown.org