Glorious Gardens: The Capability Brown Festival 2016
Lancelot Brown pioneered a naturalistic style of gardening that, in a time of geometric formal gardens, was extremely radical. Yet it quickly caught on, becoming world-famous as the quintessentially English look. Highly sought after in his day, Brown transformed both public and private spaces across London and the UK. Notable examples include Althorp in Northamptonshire – the childhood home of Diana, Princess of Wales – and, of course, Hampshire’s Highclere Castle, a major location for TV period drama Downton Abbey.
‘Brown’s work was groundbreaking,’ says Ceryl Evans, director of the year-long Capability Brown Festival 2016. ‘He blended art and engineering, and moved mountains of earth and villages to create beautiful naturalistic landscapes which are still much admired today. A prolific landscape architect, Brown is associated with more than 250 sites across England and Wales,’ says Evans, not counting the ‘many more parks and gardens around the world inspired by his work.’
Among many favourites Evans admits to having a soft spot for is Worcestershire’s Croome Court, where Brown also designed the house; Dorset’s Milton Abbey, where an entire village was moved ‘to improve the views’; and Shropshire’s Weston Park, ‘where you can even stay in the 18th-century Temple of Diana folly in the grounds’.
Brown’s prolificacy is impressive even before you consider it was achieved before mechanisation, using just workmen and horses. ‘Experts estimate that Brown worked on half a million acres of land in England and Wales,’ says Evans, ‘an area about the size of the island of Mauritius.’ Sub header: Brown’s back story Baptised in the sleepy little village of Kirkharle in Northumberland on 30 August 1716, Lancelot Brown was the sixth child of a yeoman farmer. Yet, despite his relatively inauspicious beginnings, he quickly became England’s greatest freelance gardener and in 1764 was hired as the master gardener of Hampton Court Palace under King George III. His nickname ‘Capability’ arose from Brown’s habit of insisting that each landscape he surveyed held much ‘capability’ for improvement.
Although considered to be the grandfather of British landscape design, Brown’s designs did however cause controversy in his day. Criticism came from the English poets Richard Owen Cambridge and Alexander Pope, the former announcing that he hoped to die before Brown, in order to ‘see heaven before it was “improved”’.
‘Brown is considered a visionary by many, but a vandal by others,’ Evans explains, ‘as he swept away the very formal gardens of previous generations and replaced them with verdant rolling hillsides and serpentine lakes. These look very naturalistic but were often created by moving huge amounts of earth to create hills, and by draining marshes and diverting rivers to create water features.
‘The purpose of his work was twofold – to make attractive views and pleasure gardens, but to also improve the quality of the soil and increase the income which could be generated by well-managed estates and farmland.’
A visionary or vandal? You can make up your own mind during the £1.7 million Capability Brown Festival 2016 with its tours, talks, exhibitions and openings that are taking place all over the country. capabilitybrown.org