Who was Capability Brown?

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–1783) was one of the UK’s most talented landscape designers who changed the face of Britain for ever. Born in the small Northumberland village of Kirkharle, Brown’s name is today linked with more than 250 estates, covering 200 square miles throughout England and Wales. He worked on large country estates and popularised the English landscape style in Britain. The style became fashionable throughout Europe and beyond during the eighteenth century.

A landscape garden may often look completely natural but is, in fact, manmade. Brown believed that if people thought his landscapes were beautiful and natural, then he had been successful in his aim. He created pleasure gardens that were also very practical. Brown’s genius was in his ability to see how a work of art could be created out of land or an existing formal garden. His nickname ‘Capability’ is thought to come from his ability to size up a site, saying to a client, ‘the place has its capabilities’.

His talent blossomed while he was Head Gardener in the 1740s at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, then the most famous garden of the day. At Stowe he replaced the parterres and fussy formal gardens, with a smooth open lawn. His first masterpiece there was the romantic Grecian Valley.

‘Such, however, was the effect of his genius that when he was the happiest man, he will be least remembered; so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken.’ Anon.

Portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, c.1770-75, Cosway, Richard (1742-1821) / Private Collection / Bridgeman Images