History & Heritage

Nature's Shakespeare

His landscapes have become iconic, and historic significance in garden design is unrivalled; we look at the ten greatest Capability Brown gardens.

SEPTEMBER 2nd, 2020

Photogrpahy supplied by © Reed Gallery

© Reed Gallery

His was renowned as the ‘Shakespeare’ of English gardening, and was the mastermind behind some the world’s most beloved and revered stately gardens and parks, but which of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s masterpieces are his best? From the garden accompanying Britain’s ‘Most Beautiful Home’, to his first commission which remains effectively unchanged, even today; we look through some of Brown’s most important work.

Temple Newsam House

Temple Newsam House, Leeds - © Reed Gallery

Remodelling the gardens at Temple Newsam, Leeds, Brown was paid £40 (around £67,000 in 2020) to create a serene landscape popularised by Claude Lorrain. Although the designer’s plan wasn’t completely followed, his overall concept can still be seen in parts of the parkland surrounding the house.

Lancelot held deep affection for Temple Newsam and visited in 1758, making numerous trips in the years afterward, and began planning his vision for the garden in 1762.

The installation of his plans was consistently met with setbacks, mainly due to bad weather, leading to the house’s owner Charles Ingram to implore Brown to begin work as soon as possible.

Brown’s work included a small, pedimented temple placed high on an opposing hill to the house and Sphinx gates located near the stable block. The rest of Lancelot’s plans were sadly never realised, including a design for the west front of the house.

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace - © Getty Images

Perhaps one of Capability Brown’s most recognisable and celebrated works was Blenheim Palace. Over 10 years Brown built two dams and created a gigantic 40-acre lake which remains to this day. He also designed new drives and completely remodelled the entrance to the north of the palace.

The work began in 1763, after the designer was called in to help ‘modernise’ the landscaping. Such was the focus surrounding Brown’s work the Duke of Marlborough demanded that he make Blenheim his priority.

Trees were a central factor into the redesign of Blenheim and by using cedar, acacia, poplar, chestnut and beech, he was able to hide and reveal aspects of the gardens for those who visited.

Blenheim Palace is still regarded as one of Brown’s greatest works and is consistently cited as the best example of his skill and vision when creating a natural and serene landscape.

Stowe Gardens

Stowe Gardens - © Getty Images

One of Brown’s earliest creations was Stowe Gardens. Working for Viscount Cobham as head gardener from 1741 to 1751, it is believed that his work there and the many contacts he made launched his illustrious career.

At the young age of 24, Lancelot created the famed Grecian Valley. Removing 18,350 cubic metres of earth, and using spades, barrows and horse-drawn carts, the job was one of the most ambitious of its time.

It was at Stowe where Brown was able to marry and start his own family. Wedding his love Bridget Wayet in 1744 at St Mary’s church on the estate, the couple went on to have four children.

It was his time at Stowe which enabled Brown to learn and perfect his skills as a landscape designer. Garnering a network of important contacts, he was able to add to his artistic vision, technical knowledge and business skill, which in turn would make him so universally successful.

Croome Park

Croome Park - © Getty Images

In what is noted as Capability Brown’s most personal creation, Croome Park was redesigned in 1751 under the commission by the 6th Earl of Coventry. The job would be his first after leaving Stowe and is regarded as the first “Brown creation”.

The designer had such a deep connection with the park that he returned consistently over many years developing a close relationship with the earl.

Draining the previous marsh land, he created a lake and installed shrubberies, groves and woodland. The formal gardens were dug up and the old church was demolished for a new one in a more prominent site.

For the rest of his life Brown maintained a deep affection for Croome Park and the Earl of Coventry visiting frequently, as well as the earl’s London house in Piccadilly. Sadly in 1783, it would be here, after an evening dining with friends, where Brown would fall, hit his head, and subsequently die.

Croome Park is regarded as the original Brown creation and a monument dedicated to the landscape designer stands by the lakeside with the inscription: ‘To the memory of Lancelot Brown, who, by the powers of his inimitable and creative genius, formed this garden scene out of a morass.’

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace - © Reed Gallery

Throughout his career, there were many locations which Capability Brown has become synonymous with, Hampton Court is one of those places. Appointed Royal Gardner by King George III for Hampton Court and St James’s Palace in 1764, Brown became the most sought-after landscape designer in Europe.

With a salary of £2,000 a year, this allowed his family to live in Wilderness House in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace.

Building upon the Tudor inspired gardens, Brown actively worked to mirror the grounds with the Georgian architecture, which was slowly replacing the Tudor palace once belonging to Henry VIII.

Hampton Court is regarded as one of Brown’s most recognisable creations and came at a time when his celebrity was at its highest.

Chatsworth House

Chatsworth House - © Reed Gallery

It is dubbed the ‘most beautiful house in Britain’ and thus Capability Brown was hired to transform the grounds to match the name. Chatsworth’s complete landscape was redesigned from the late 1750s until 1765. Covering 1000 acres, Brown’s work at Chatsworth came relatively early in his career and the design includes many of his signature features.

Rolling grassland, a natural-looking lake, singularly planted trees, and carriage drives with purposely planned views, Chatsworth is regarded as one of Brown’s greatest works.

Brown commented that he wished to make the River Derwent the central part of the landscape, and therefore sloped the ground away from the house on the west side. Building a dam to raise the level of the river, the result created a wider, natural-looking lake in the middle ground.

Chatsworth continues to honour Brown’s work today and much of his landscaping has remained unchanged throughout the years.

Harewood House

Harewood House - © Getty Images

Many famous landscape designers have worked their magic on the grounds of Harewood House (then named Gawthorpe) and Capability Brown was just one. He is celebrated for contribution of the garden’s lake, cascades and carriage drives.

He first visited Harewood in 1758 and was paid £21 (equivalent to £37,000 in 2020) for his ‘Two General Plans for the House’ – both of which were rejected – and the redesign of the 350-hectare estate.

The installations by Brown can still be seen today, including his iconic Y-shaped lake, designed for Edwin Laschelles.

Wrest Park

Wrest Park - © Getty Images

There is little information over what Capability Brown actually did at Wrest Park as his briefing was rather limited. Some critics accused him of being a vandal and felt that his love of winding, serpentine lakes would destroy the more structured and rigid canals of the park.

This led to Brown acknowledging that to do more than his vague brief “might unravel the Mystery of the Gardens”.

Despite his limited scope on the gardens, a monument was erected in Brown’s honour by the park’s owner Jemima, Marchioness de Grey.

Today, work is currently taking place to return the gardens back to their pre-1917 state and recapture the magic of Capability Brown’s influence.


Burghley House - © Getty Images

Believed to be his longest commission, Burghley House is noted to provide a greater look at Capability Brown’s less well-known aspect of his celebrated life – his architecture. Designing the house as well as the parkland and gardens, it is fair to say that Burghley is Capability Brown.

His love for this commission was long-lasting with the designer later recalling his work at the house as “25 years of pleasure.”

Brown’s commission began with Burghley in 1754 with the 9th Earl of Exeter hiring him to mastermind the modernisation of the grounds, as well as aspects of the house itself. Brown constructed extensive stables, a fashionable Orangery and a Gothic garden summerhouse.

Today, the Parkland Management Plan will see the original views and vistas created by Brown be restored to future generations can experience his landscaping magic.

Trentham Gardens

Trentham Gardens - © Getty Images

Arguably one of Capability Brown’s most celebrated successes, Trentham Park is the designer’s lost landscape. With restoration continuing today to return the park to Brown’s stunning vision, the initial work began in 1759 and ended 1780.

Brown extended the lake, remodelled Trentham Hall and the surrounding parkland, and created two lodges. He added an island into the centre of the lake which was sadly later removed.

3.2 million visitors descend upon Trentham Park every year to marvel at Brown’s work and has won many awards for its spectacular views.

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