The son of a Northumberland land agent and a chambermaid, Lancelot Brown worked as the head gardener’s apprentice at the estate where his parents worked, Kirkharle Hall, owned by Sir William Loraine. His eldest brother John became the estate surveyor and eventually married Sir William’s daughter. His brother George became a mason-architect.
His first landscape commission was for a lake at Kiddington Hall in Oxfordshire. In 1741, he became an under-gardener at Lord Cobham’s estate of Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, where he worked under William Kent (see a previous post), a founder of the new English landscape garden. In 1742 at the age of 26, he was promoted to Head Gardener (at £25 a year), where he remained until 1750, at the same time taking freelance commissions from Lord Cobham’s aristocratic friends. His landscape designs were in great demand from the landed gentry, and by 1761 he was making £500 a commission and around £6000 a year. Being an expert rider, he could scope out a property and rough out a design in about an hour. As his fame increased, he would charge more than £3,000 per commission.
It is estimated that Brown was responsible for over 170 gardens surrounding the finest country houses and estates in Britain. His work still endures at Croome Court (where he also designed the house), Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Harewood House, Appuldurcombe House, Milton Abbey (and nearby Milton Abbas village), in traces at Kew Gardens and many other locations. “This man who refused work in Ireland because he had not finished England” was called “Capability” Brown, because he would characteristically tell his landed clients that their estates had great “capability” for landscape improvement. (Wikipedia)
Brown’s gardening abilities, honed at Kirkharle, were tremendously proficient. His subsequent success depended largely on his position as contractor, both designing improvements and then seeing the work through to its conclusion. He was skilled in all aspects of planting, drainage, dam-building and earth-moving, and possessed a ruthless business sense. This enabled him to manipulate both gentry and under-gardeners alike in order to further his own reputation… Throughout his career, Brown designed purely for the aristocracy. Many of his commissions overlapped with one another, landed as the result of family connections amidst patrons.
In 1751, Brown set himself up as landscaper and architect in Hammersmith. This move to the outskirts of London marked the beginning of a relentlessly demanding thirty years and a spectacularly successful consultancy. It also cemented a fruitful relationship with the Henry Hollands and their family. Holland the Younger (1745-1806) was, like his father, a successful architect and builder. Brown took him on as informal business partner in 1771 and son-in-law in 1773.
The “Park way”
The approach taken by Brown and his followers was to strip an estate back to its basic forms: serpentine lakes, bare lawns and informal planting.
This was a revolutionary break from the artfully contrived landscapes of the gentleman amateurs, and the most ‘natural’ landscaping style the eighteenth century had yet seen… His model for a landscape park superseded anything that had come before it and dominated garden design completely. Arable fields, unsightly outbuildings and walled kitchen gardens were hidden by screens of trees, and any surviving formal features were replaced by great swathes of open pasture. Brown’s landscape minimalism effortlessly accommodated the practical needs of a landowner within an aesthetically pleasing estate.
In creating a landscape park most owners wanted to ‘improve’ on both their estate’s fashionable status and their economic revenue… the initial creation of a landscape park could be expensive, depending on the existing topography and amount of earth-works required. It was, however, remarkably cheaper to maintain. The upkeep of formal parterres or flimsy Rococo buildings required the employment of legions of gardeners, whereas the pastoral appearance of a landscape park could be easily upheld through ranging livestock. This grazing land could even be let out to local farmers to generate further income.
Just as he had capitalised on his patrons’ desire to consolidate land in order to secure financial and social power, so Brown manipulated their love of hunting, shooting, fishing, and beauty. Brown’s belts and copses provided the perfect cover for game birds. His expansive lakes, such as that at Compton Verney, could be used not just for fishing (as had the formal canal), but rather for boating, other hunting and providing a landscaped site with a measure of visual relief.
Eighteenth-century landscapes were also required to entertain in a less violent manner. To this end, most large estates such as Croome and Blenheim had two circuit drives to choose from. One was suitable for walking and the other for riding around. Ladies would often take a carriage and then the various parties could reconvene at a chosen spot for refreshments… Dainty Rococo layouts were walked around, in order to appreciate fully the changing moods conjured up by exotic temples. But with these garden incidents cleared away, Brown’s carriage-drive was an invitation to explore a landscape park at high speed.
Brown also contrived glimpses of lakes and buildings through planned openings between trees and shrubs. Each view was carefully orchestrated and revealed at a specific point on the route around the landscape… At Croomie, Brown consciously screened Adam’s Island Temple with yews so that it was not visible until the bridge was crossed.
Brown ‘compared his art to literary composition.’
Now there I make a comma, and there, where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject. (1782)
Perhaps his best known house was the Palladian Croome Court, where he was employed by George William Coventry, 6th Earl, from 1751. Croome’s unpromising marshland was drained so successfully that the earl commended Brown. ‘Who by the powers of His Indomitable and creative Genius formed this garden Out of a morass.’ However, his first phase of landscaping was virtually Rococo in style. Chinese bridges, a recumbent statue of Sabrina and a crystal-encrusted grotto were arranged around an inward-looking circuit. The original village and church were demolished and Brown’s Gothick Church of St Mary Magdalene with interiors by Robert Adam (1728-92) was reinstated on the eastern marl ridge to act as an eye-catcher. In the 1760’s a second, outer riding circuit was added. This was in accordance with the growing Picturesque fashion for wilder prospects and took in Adam’s Romanesque ruin, Dunstall Castle, as well as views of the Malverns.
He spent the last sixteen years of his life at his own small estate, Fenstanton Manor in Huntingdonshire, which he purchased in 1767. By the time he died in 1783 of exhaustion and old age he had amassed significant wealth. More importantly, he had joined the very landowning classes he had dedicated his life to serving.
Mayer, Laura, Capability Brown and the English Landscape Garden, 2011, Shire Publications Ltd.