He is said to be to landscaping what Turner is to painting, and Wordsworth is to poetry — and the legacy of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown remains for all to see in immense parklands and gardens throughout his native England.
Now, there’s a chance to see his work during the Capability Brown Festival, launching next week on February 25, which brings together a huge range of events, openings and exhibitions but primarily featuring his historic landscapes.
His designs changed the face of the 18th century British landscape, creating rolling parkland, flowing rivers and serpentine lakes.
He was considered a genius by some and a destructive force by others, as he swept away formal knot gardens and parterres of the 16th and 17th century to make way for his more natural landscapes.
His nickname of ‘Capability’ is thought to have come from his description of certain landscapes as having “great capabilities”.
During his 32-year career as a landscape gardener and ‘place-maker’, he shaped more than 170 estates including Chatsworth House, Derbyshire; Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire; Stowe, Buckinghamshire; Wrest Park, Bedfordshire and Ashburnham in Sussex.
Born in 1716, one of six children to a yeoman farmer in Northumberland, Brown’s daily walk to school inspired his naturalistic designs.
He began work as a gardener at the local country house before going to Stowe , now a National Trust property, where he took responsibility for the architectural and landscaping works in the garden.
In 1764, he was appointed King George III’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace.
His revolutionary ideas were taken up by other 18th century designers, and it wasn’t long before great Scottish houses and castles were surrounded by the parkland and naturalistic planting schemes that typify the period.
Brown’s style was derived from two practical principles of ‘comfort’ and ‘elegance’: that everything should work and that a landscape should provide for every need of the great house, as well as being coherent and looking good.
While his designs have great variety, they also appear seamless, owing to his use of the sunk fence or ‘ha-ha’ to confuse the eye into believing that different pieces of parkland were one.
It was also a clever way of stock-proofing the fields around a great mansion, without spoiling the elegance of a sweep of valuable pasture.
His expansive lakes formed a single body of water, like a river through a landscape that ran on indefinitely.
“At Bowood, Wiltshire, ‘Capability’ planted belts of trees as his picture frame and streams expanded into a serpentine lake as a focal point,” says horticulturist, writer and TV presenter, Toby Buckland. “It’s masterful, magical and a wonderful place to be. No wonder his work has stood the test of time.”
Designed in 1762, the Bowood grounds boast an extensive arboretum and pinetum, including 11 champion trees with a further 700 trees identified and labelled within the grounds. Central to the design of the park is Brown’s great lake, almost a mile long, winding sinuously like an enormous river.
“In the 18th century, Brown did not have access to motorised machinery and other technology, work had to be done by hand.
"Yet he transformed the country’s landscape by using trees, meadows and water features on an extraordinary scale, bringing them together to create designs that became quintessentially English historic landscapes, ” says Ceryl Evans, Capability Brown Festival 2016 director.
And according to Dr Sarah Rutherford, author of Capability Brown And His Landscape Gardens: “Brown was the genius who could see instantly the ‘capabilities’ of a site to become a landscape work of art: how to turn drab agricultural land or an old-fashioned geometric garden into a natural-looking park or pleasure ground.
“Brown could lay out a sweeping valley framed by fringes of woodland and pleasure ground like the Golden Valley at Ashridge (Herts), that looked entirely natural, but was wholly the work of his eye and the spades of his men.
“He could place a lake either in full view of the house, like Petworth (West Sussex), or subtly placed so it was an exciting surprise from a path or drive like Wimpole (Cambs) and Berrington (Herefordshire). He was the Shakespeare of gardening.”