23 March 2017

2016 is the 300th anniversary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birth, a landscape architect who created over 170 gardens, his name is synonymous with the English Landscape Park. Although his work never extended in to Scotland he did work on many gardens for the Bute Family in England and Wales, namely at Luton Hoo, Highcliffe Castle and Cardiff Castle.

A log wagon, woodsmen and deer in the park at Luton, Paul Sandby, 1765

Capability Brown was baptised on 30 August 1716 in Northumberland, the fifth of six children. His father was a farmer and his mother worked at Kirkharle Hall where, after finishing school, Brown went to work as a gardener, leaving in 1739 aged 23.

In 1741 Brown moved on to Stowe in Buckinghamshire where he worked under William Kent, the landscape architect who is credited for the initial development of the ‘natural’ style of the English landscape garden for which Brown arguably became more famous. While at Stowe Brown established himself as an independent designer and was successful enough to move with his family to Hammersmith in London.

Brown’s style, developed from the work of the previous generation of landscape architects like William Kent and Charles Bridgeman, was a ‘gardenless’ approach to landscaping. He believed that a landscape should provide for all the needs of the house while remaining coherent, elegant and ‘naturalistic’. The main features of many of his gardens were smooth, undulating lawns, studded with clumps and belts of trees rolling down to serpentine lakes.

A landscape park would stretch for many acres from pleasure grounds into working landscape and back again. Brown’s designs cleverly made the different areas of parkland appear to be one through the use of measures such as ha-has that tricked the eye.

Luton Hoo

Brown’s longest working relationship with a member of the Bute Family was with the 3rd Earl at Luton. Brown may have even told Bute about the upcoming sale of the original house and parkland as it is suggested that he was responsible for some planting and garden structures there. In turn Bute introduced Brown to King George III who ultimately appointed him Surveyor to His Majesty’s Gardens and Waters at Hampton Court in 1764.

Improvements on the park began in 1764 but it was not until 1767 that Robert Adam began work on the house. The landscaping work at Luton was extensive, with the total cost coming to around £12,000, Brown was only ever paid more for his work at Blenheim. The project required huge amounts of water not only to feed the botanical garden and to provide for the flushing toilets in the house but also to create a pair of lakes from the River Lea that flowed through the landscape. Bute was already well acquainted with the realities of grappling with water; he had sea water pumped to Mount Stuart 20 years previously and required Adam to include piped water in his plans for Dumfries House 10 years earlier. Down to the river Brown created sloping lawns with clumps of trees dotted around and a 5 acre, octagonal walled garden three quarters of a mile from the house.

From the Mount Stuart Archive: Plan for the Intended Kitchen garden & at Luton

After some time on the continent Bute returned to Luton, studying botany and expanding his library. As the Earl and the Countess reached old age living at Luton became less practical and they relocated to the solitude of Highcliffe in Dorset where Brown had also laid out the gardens. Bute passed away in 1792 having never finished the building work at Luton, although he did always ensure the park and gardens were maintained. Luton was left to his son Lord Mountstuart, the 1st Marquess, as he became, had worked with Brown at Cardiff Castle in the 1770s.

The 3rd Earl was a patron who would have had very clear opinions on what he wanted from Brown due to his own interest in gardens and botany but this would have been a help rather than a hindrance. Together they created a landscape that was praised by visitors for many years.

“This place is in greater beauty that I ever saw it the water is now finish’d & is magnificent & the quantity of flowers is amazing. You know, I believe there are thirty acres of ground laid out in walks with a boarder for flowers of twelve feet on each side which is now in its high beauty as the flowers now bloming are almost all of them sweet & they perfume the air. There is a flower garden besides which is for those of a superior kind. In short there is nothing like it…which you will easily believe when you consider that Ld Bute understands these things beyond any other person & that he spares no expense.”Lady Mary Coke, 1779

Why not head over to the Capability Brown website to found out more about gardens you can visit and events that are running as part of the Capability Brown Festival 2016!