Lancelot “Capability” Brown

During the 18th century there was a reaction against the excessively formal gardens to be found in the grounds of most European palaces and great houses. A more romantic approach became fashionable, and landowners sought to surround their homes with parkland that appeared natural. Rectangular beds and straight paths gave way to curved lines. A person wandering through the park encountered different views that focused on features such as classical ruins, imitation temples, or small lakes. Small groups of trees were scattered informally, often on top of artificial hills, and lawns extended almost to the door of the house. The overall effect was meant to imitate the countryside, but it was a strictly controlled and visually appealing countryside. Creating and maintaining parkland of this kind was known as landscape gardening.

There were many landscape gardeners earning a good living by designing parks for wealthy individuals. Lancelot Brown was one of the most successful and famous. He designed more than 170 gardens, many of which still exist, and some are open to the public. The designs of other famous gardens, including Kensington Gardens, Kew Gardens, and Hyde Park in London, were influenced by Brown's design style, although he did not design them personally. His style was characterized by gently rolling grassland, clumps of trees, and curving lakes that he made by damming small rivers.

When a landowner invited him to devise a scheme for landscaping a garden, Brown would walk around the estate, looking and thinking, and finally he would announce that he could “see the great capabilities” of the area. This habit earned him the nickname of Capability Brown.

Lancelot Brown was born in 1716 (the date is unknown) in the village of Kirkharle, Northumberland, in the northeast of England, and educated at a school in the village of Combo, two miles (3 km) away. He left school when he was 16 and became an apprentice gardener at Kirkharle Tower, the home of Sir William Loraine. In 1739, his apprenticeship completed, Brown moved to Wotton Underwood, the Buckinghamshire estate of Sir Richard Grenville, and the following year to Stowe, the estate belonging to Grenville's son-inlaw, the politician Lord Cobham. At Stowe, Brown worked under the distinguished landscape gardener William Kent (ca. 1685–1748). Brown rose through the gardening hierarchy to become head gardener. As head gardener, one of his duties was to accompany visitors as they walked through the gardens. He would explain the principles of landscape gardening and the possibilities it afforded, at the same time revealing his own extensive knowledge. He was soon in demand. With Lord Cobham's approval, Brown designed the redevelopment of the grounds on the adjacent Wakefield Estate of the duke of Grafton. While still working for Lord Cobham, Brown designed several other gardens, including that at Warwick Castle.

Lord Cobham died in 1749, and Brown moved to Hammersmith, now a district in west London, but then a village, where he established a private practice. In 1764 he was appointed master gardener at Hampton Court Palace and moved into an official residence beside the palace, but he was not happy at having to maintain the formal gardens. He bought an estate of his own in 1767, at Fenstanton, a village in Cambridgeshire. Brown died in London on February 6, 1783. Although many of his gardens survive, the landscape gardeners who followed him found his style somewhat bland, and his designs went out of fashion.

By the end of the 18th century, however, even the “natural” landscaped gardens were seen as contrived and bland. Gradually the gardens of large houses came to consist partly of formal flower gardens, though these were less rigidly geometric than those of earlier times, and partly of parkland and managed woodland.