The gardens of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown have come to characterise the landscape of the English country estate. Credited with designing over 250 landscapes, Brown demonstrated a flair for creating idyllic, pastoral scenes that complemented some of England’s grandest country houses –
many of which can still be seen today.
The son of a yeoman, Lancelot Brown was born in 1716 in the small Northumbrian village of Kirkharle. He soon began working for the local landowner Sir William Lorraine and by the age of 25 he was employed by Lord Cobham at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, then one of the most famous gardens in England. He worked under William Kent, who had started to move away from formal garden design to a more natural approach. Brown’s own taste led him to develop his trademark style of sweeping, open landscapes of sloping lawns and ornamental stretches of water, with trees and livestock as decoration.
On Lord Cobham’s death in 1751, Brown moved from Stowe to Hammersmith in London, where he established himself as an independent landscape designer in the business of ‘place-making’. He worked tirelessly on a vast number of commissions, which included Petworth House, West Sussex; Alnwick Castle, Northumberland; Chatsworth House, Derbyshire; Wrest Park, Bedfordshire; and Audley End, Essex.
At the latter, Brown undertook extensive changes, including cutting the river to a serpentine course and replacing the carriage circle with a sweeping carriage drive.
Brown soon became the most fashionable designer in the country and by the 1760s was known as ‘Capability’, because when surveying a property, he spoke often of its ‘capabilities’.
In 1764 Brown was appointed by George III as Chief Gardener at Hampton Court Palace and moved to Wilderness House, which lies within the palace walls. Dating from about 1700, Wilderness House was the official home of the palace’s head gardeners until 1881. Other occupants include his predecessor, Charles Bridgeman, and the Grand Duchess Xenia Alexandrovna of Russia, who lived there in exile following the fall of the Russian monarchy in 1917.
While at Hampton Court Palace, it is said Brown refused to sweep away William III’s formal layout ‘out of respect to himself and his profession’ but he stopped cutting the topiary and was accused of neglecting the gardens. Perhaps his most lasting achievement during his time at Hampton Court Palace was planting a Black Hamburg vine in 1768, which continues to flourish as the Great Vine and is the world’s largest grape vine.
Brown’s work at Hampton Court did not stop him taking on other commissions, which included remodelling the gardens at Richmond Palace for the King, assisting the actor David Garrick with his temple to Shakespeare at his villa nearby, and working on a ten-year project at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, where he created his most celebrated landscape.
While in London, Brown struck up friendships with a series of prime ministers, including William Pitt the Elder, Lord Bute, George Grenville and Lord North. He continued to live at Wilderness House until his death in 1783.
Wilderness House, Moat Lane, Hampton Court Palace, Hampton Court, London KT8 9AR