Why should we care about Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown?

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is the man behind England’s green and pleasant land. Working on the cusp of the industrial and agricultural revolutions, Brown transformed the landscape at over 240 different locations throughout England. His minimalist style comprised of grass, water and statement trees is recognisable the world over thanks not only to the opening credits of Downton Abbey (filmed at Highclere Castle, a Brown landscape) but also due to his admirers in Europe — from Der Englischen Garten in Munich, to Catherine the Great of Russia who wrote, ‘I am presently madly in love with English gardens, with curved lines, gentle slopes, lakes formed from swamps, and archipelagos of solid earth’, as she created Tsarskoye Selo and the Pavlosk Palace.

Tsarkoye Selo (@sergejf via Flickr.com)

Brown’s influence even stretches to New York City, where Frederick Law Olmstead with Central Park developed his own ‘natural style’ in the nineteenth century. As Ethan Carr observes in Nature, Olmstead was deeply influenced by his experiences in Britain, responding above all to the landscape parks he visited. Writing about the designer of the grounds at Eaton Hall, Cheshire (home to the now Dukes of Westminster), Olmstead observed:

What artist, so noble…as he who, with far-reaching conception of beauty and designing power, sketches the outline, writes the colours, and directs the shadows of a picture so great the Nature shall be employed upon it for generations, before the work he has arranged for her shall realise his intentions.[1]
Central Park, New York (@MarianoMantel via Flickr.com)

Not only was Brown a great aesthetic influence on the development of landscape design across Europe and North America, he was also a true business pioneer and entrepreneur creating a brand identity which endures to this day. You could even argue that Brown’s success — as the man behind England’s green and pleasant land — was such that he almost dammed himself to historical obscurity through creating a product so good, subsequent generations have given nature herself the credit.

What Shakespeare has done for English letters, so Brown has done for English landscape. Yet we know what Shakespeare created was fiction; even if his fiction was so convincing that when we think of Richard III or Henry V, we think firstly of Shakespeare’s characters, rather than the historical record. The three hundredth anniversary of Brown’s birth in 2016 offers the opportunity to bring Brown into the popular pantheon of English artistic heroes. Shakespeare’s place at the top table is assured — as is David Bowie’s — William Wordsworth has a seat, and so does Jane Austen. John Constable and J.M.W. Turner are there too, and now it’s time for Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown to join them.

Capability Brown at Compton Verney (Author’s own)

Yet, why should we care about Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown in his tercentenary year?

Working during the eighteenth-century Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was one of the pioneers of what is now known as the ‘landscape style’. This style was a reaction against the formal parterres and clipped topiary of the French formal garden, which reached its apogee in the vast programme of works undertaken by Andre Le Notre for King Louis XIV at Versailles. Brown, as a new display at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park in Warwickshire suggests, created landscapes that were simple, uncluttered and restrained, generally comprising sweeping pasture bordered with tree clumps, perimeter shelter-belts and screen of trees. He planted trees in their thousands and the resultant landscape was perfectly designed to encourage those eighteenth-century pursuits of hunting, shooting and carriage-riding.

At a most fundamental level, his landscapes have helped to create a vision of a rural idyll, shaping our relationship with the countryside. The idea of the countryside is a fiction, created by artists and artworks, from Claude to Poussin, to Frank Newbold and The Archers. Yet none has been as successful in creating an image of England as Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. In the post-Brexit world as we seek to explore and analyse what it means to be English (or British) in 2016 it is a salutary reminder to remember that those most natural, most reassuring, most comfortable of landscapes are in fact created and designed. We should also care about Brown because his landscapes can provide a case study in how England’s heritage, and popular nostalgia, can be harnessed to create something that is socially progressive and inclusive, rather than reactionary and xenophobic.

Capability Brown at Stowe (Author’s own)

Indeed, a remarkable transformation occurred in the scholarly and popular understanding of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown between the mid-twentieth century and the present day. Brown — no longer the preserve of scholarly articles interested in attribution or stylistic development — has become a representative of a certain type of Englishness. This popularization has, however, robbed Brown of his potency.

His tripartite concoction of trees, grass and water now represent a reassuring vision of Englishness: stable, secure, remote from the challenges of the twenty-first century and easily marketable to domestic and international tourists. However, in order to secure that Brown has significance into the twenty-first century we need to take inspiration from an influential group of mid-twentieth-century architects and writers and instrumentalise Brown’s life and work to provide solutions of contemporary issues of town planning, land-management, infrastructure development, brand identity and entrepreneurship.

The key to unlocking Brown’s importance in 2016 can be found in a lecture series delivered by the architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner, in the autumn of 1955. In ‘The Englishness of English Art’ Pevsner digested two decades of theoretical and intellectual responses to the eighteenth-century landscape movement and presented them to a wider public.

Nikolaus Pevsner

Called ‘The Genius of the Place’, Pevsner’s final lecture was a response to the post-war world of ongoing reconstruction, infrastructure development and the continued freezing of relationships with the Eastern Bloc. To take the aesthetic lead, the English needed to look back, and within to find a style of planning that could be converted from rural to urban landscapes. Pevsner identified how, ‘there is an English national planning theory in existence which needs only be recognised and developed’ He told his radio audience that:

The genius loci, if we put it in modern planning terms is the character of the site, and the character of the site is, in a town, not only the geographical but also the historical, social and especially the aesthetic character.

Pevsner asked his audience to consider the capabilities of the site, and by extension that functionalism — or ‘each case on its own merit’ — be the guiding principle behind the building of new towns, and the reconstruction of old. The future then, for Pevsner, lay in the past. ‘There is plenty of precedent to make use of in our situation today’, he wrote, ‘not by copying but by applying the same principles, the same great English principles’.

Pevsner’s lecture broadcast to a wider audience a whole range of developments in the understanding and contemporary relevance of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscapes. By the mid-1930s, Brown’s landscapes were struggling to escape the long shadow of the rhododendron and the blousy beds of the Edwardians. If tastes had changed, so had the economic equation that held up the workings of the country houses that Brown had done so much to landscape. The sales of many great estates — either due to a combination of death duties, or the inability to find a much needed asset injection in the form of an American dollar princess — resulted in the butchering of many of those landscapes created by Brown.

One response, characteristic of the group of architects, artists and thinkers brilliantly analysed by Alexandra Harris in Romantic Moderns, was a concerted effort of national self-discovery, which provided the fertile ground from which a modern English renaissance could grow. This was partly a response to the demands of avant-garde high Modernism, which had declared in the 1910s and 1920s that the artist’s task was to free himself from precedents. Local stone gave way to concrete and architects like Le Corbusier at the Villa Savoye on the outskirts of Paris, struggled to even tether their buildings to the ground on which they were built.

Clumps and Concrete, the influence of Capability Brown in Suburban Planning — Housing in Harlow (@JRJamesArchive via Flickr.com)

As Harris suggests, ‘by the 1930s artists were wondering how to reconnect with the headily abandoned past. The appeal of an international language of form began to feel limited: was it really right to resist the lure of eccentricity, locality [and] difference?’

One part of the movement that produced famous artists and writers like John Piper, Paul Nash, Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Sutherland, Eric Ravilious and Cecil Beaton, was an attempt to reconstitute eighteenth-century landscape ideas in response to the huge challenge posed by interwar suburban development that menaced landscapes and coherent urban and rural planning. For contributors to influential publications like The Architectural Review, the eighteenth-century landscape tradition — exemplified in the work of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown — had agency and power; providing a guide for solving ‘the problem of how to reconstitute a balance between the claims of town and country’.

One columnist, W.A. Eden suggested that the aims of the architect should be ‘to do for the whole community what the eighteenth century landowner did for his own enjoyment, and only incidentally for the benefit of his tenants.’ To illustrate his argument, Eden turned to Capability Brown’s landscape at Blenheim Palace and demonstrated the contrast between development where ‘great estates are being broken up and broken into by the speculative builder’, and a new approach imbued with eighteenth-century principles where ‘the park and the garden are retained and in place of the house a block of flats is built’. This method of adaptive reuse was further advocated by influential architects such as Walter Gropius and Maxwell Fry who argued that, ‘preservation by sterilisation is not possible on a wide scale’ and that instead ‘preservation must become part of an active policy of development’.[2]

W. A. Eden, ‘The English tradition in the countryside’, Architectural Review, 27/461 (April 1935)

Suburban growth for Romantic Moderns like John Betjeman meant that ‘landscape for most of us has shrunk into a back garden’[3] and that in order to create innovative responses to interwar challenges, architects, planners and politicians needed to recapture the eighteenth-century’s scale and magnificence of vision. Suburban home-owners, like Georgian aristocrats before them, had the opportunity to lay claim to the wider landscape: ‘The garden of tomorrow will not be the hedged, personal, half-acre of today, but a unit of the broad green landscape itself, controlled for the benefit of all’.[4]

Written by the twenty-eight year old landscape architect, Christopher Tunnard, this idea of ‘the garden without limitation’ — of ha-has jumped and vistas borrowed — was a spiky reaction against, ‘those barren and stereotyped notions of street planting, classic open-air civic centres…which make the present-day schemes of the so-called “garden city” school of panning such empty and cumbersome achievements’.[5] Through articles in The Architectural Review and his 1938 book Gardens in the Modern Landscape, Tunnard used Capability Brown as an attempt to provide ‘a manifesto for modernism in landscape’.[6] Tunnard’s approach was emblematic of what Alan Powers has recently labelled ‘romantic regeneration’, as Tunnard sought to challenge ‘the sterilisation of large areas of precious and often productive land’ through preservation.

Like Gropius and Fry, Tunnard used a Brownian landscape, Claremont, to illustrate the alternative:

Estates such as Claremont…are becoming permanently sterilized as built-over areas…while with rational planning of the whole area, and the concentration of dwellings in certain parts of it, more people might be housed yet and virtually the whole estate might be left open for the benefit of the residents and the public.[7]

I believe that it is with this mid-century inheritance in mind that Capability Brown should not only be celebrated as a great English landscape designer, but also as someone with contemporary relevance.. As the challenges of urban growth continue, Brown can once more be invoked as inspiration for a compelling vision of an ideal nature that can also service the practical and economic needs of its population. The winning entry for the Wolfson Economics Prize from URBED, ‘Uxcester Garden City’, made a start in looking to put the historians back in touch with the architects, town planners and landscape designers with the aim of creating urban, suburban and rural developments that are visionary, beautiful and economically viable.


Dr Oliver Cox is the University of Oxford’s first Heritage Engagement Fellow, with responsibility for developing strategic partnerships with the heritage sector in the UK and abroad. He is a historian by training and has been a member of the advisory group for the Heritage Lottery Funded Capability Brown 300 celebrations. He is a governor at Compton Verney and a member of Arts Council England’s Designation Panel.

[1] http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v535/n7610/full/535034a.html

[2] W. Gropius and M. Fry, ‘Cry Stop to Havoc, or Preservation by Development’, The Architectural Review, vol. LXXVII, no. 462 (May 1935), p. 188.

[3] John Betjeman, quoted in Alexandra Harris, Romantic Moderns: English Writers, Artists and the Imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper (London: Thames & Hudson, 2010), p. 222.

[4] Christopher Tunnard, ‘The Case for the Common Garden’, The Architectural Review, vol. LXXXIV, no. 502 (Sept. 1938), p. 109.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Alan Powers, ‘Modernism and Romantic Regeneration in the English Landscape, 1920–1940’, in Therese O’Malley and Joachim Wolschke-Bulmahn (eds.), Modernism and Landscape Architecture, 1890–1940 (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 73.

[7] Tunnard, ‘The Case for the Common Garden’, p. 116.