Happy Birthday Capability

Robin Powell would like to wish a happy birthday to the grand architect of so many of our favourite English landscapes.

This month marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. He’s the man responsible for the beautiful ‘natural’ landscapes that surround many great English estates, colouring the image of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’. A generation of young aristocrats in the mid-18th century returned from their Grand Tours keen to express their newly acquired ‘taste’ by, among other pursuits, pulling out their fathers’ dowdy old baroque gardens and replacing them with the bold plans of Capability Brown.

Brown’s plans were certainly bold. The distinguishing features of a Brown landscape: a serpentine lake resembling a river, with waterfalls; copses of trees on a ridge of hills; and parkland sweeping right up to the house, required massive changes to the topography, and also to the people who lived on the estates. One village, complete with church and graveyard, was moved when Brown decided it interrupted the views.

His ambitious designs challenged contemporary engineering technologies and horticultural techniques, including the transplanting of mature trees to create those signature silhouetted clumps. Brown’s clients weren’t keen on waiting half a century for the expected effect to grow in, so he experimented with a number of transplant methods. His ‘transplanting machine’ was a long pole attached to cartwheels. The pole was tied to the tree while it was vertical, then lowered by ropes, wrenching the tree from the ground. Success rates varied.

 

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An aerial view of Petworth Park shows how Brown made the link between garden and natural landscape imperceptible. Photo: National Trust

 

Like any new fashion, Brown’s designs operated as a refutation of past practices. Flowers were banned, and so too was ‘foreignness’, represented in older gardens by classical statues, temples and references to antiquity. Instead the new landscapes were expressions of honest English virtues. Livestock replaced statuary as part of the decorative programme. A charming group of cows or sheep could be admired from the house, separated from it by a ha-ha. These ingenious in-ground barriers are formed by a ditch or steep slope bounded by a retaining wall, so that animals are restrained without a visual barrier.

Brown’s new landscapes were also pragmatic. Mowed by the estate livestock they were much less expensive to keep up so landowners could spend their disposable income on other pursuits – like fishing in the lakes and hunting in the woodlands. Brown’s heyday coincided with the development of better guns, so that hunting and shooting became a more important part of aristocratic leisure. Pheasants were introduced to England from India at this time too, and they liked to live on the edges of copses trees that were fortuitously features of Brownian plans.

 

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The stream at Croome, with a Brown signature planting of Lebanon cedars. Photo: National Trust

 

Brown’s plans were immensely popular and he worked on more than 170 estates through his career, transforming the landscape of England. In effecting that transformation he also changed perceptions of landscapes in a way that resonated across the English-influenced world for centuries. So when Lachlan Macquarie marked out the boundaries of the Botanic Gardens and Governor’s demesne (domain) 200 years ago, the landscapes of Capability Brown shaped his visions.

 

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