Celebrating 300 Years of Capability Brown

Rupert Parker takes a road trip following the life of ‘Capability’ Brown, from his birth to his final resting place, and previews the events celebrating his tercentenary.

Capability Brown Portrait

Capability Brown Portrait

St Wilfrid's Church

St Wilfrid's Church

Baptism Memorial

Baptism Memorial

Kirkharle New Landscape

Kirkharle New Landscape

Rothley lake

Rothley lake

Harewood House

Harewood House

Harewood Landscape

Harewood Landscape

Burghley

Burghley

Manor House Fenstanton

Manor House Fenstanton

Capability Brown Memorial

Capability Brown Memorial

It’s only 25 miles to the Scottish border but St Wilfred’s church in Kirkharle is where Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was baptised on 30th August 1716. We don’t have an exact birth date but he grew up here, in a yeoman’s cottage by the hall, walking five miles every day to the local school in Cambo. He was undoubtedly influenced by the landscape around him, so much so that some say he spent all his working life trying to turn the rest of England into Northumberland.

He was a landscape designer on a massive scale, providing the homes of the aristocracy with settings which he thought they deserved. Indeed his nickname came from describing country estates as having great ‘capabilities’ for improvement. This involved massive earthworks, planting and positioning trees and digging out lakes to resemble rivers. He summed up his work as “hideing what is disagreeable and shewing what is beautiful” and has been hailed as the “Shakespeare of the English Landscape.”In his 40 year career he worked on over 250 sites, covering a total of 200 square miles, and over 150 still survive today.

He started his working life as a gardener in Kirkharle but soon moved south to pursue his dream of creating an “Image of Heaven”. Until recently it was thought that he left nothing on home turf but the present owners of the estate, Kitty and John Anderson, recently discovered a plan, hidden in an old chest owned by his grandfather. It was never put into practice so they’ve decided to create their own Capability Brown landscape, moving trees and excavating a lake. Since the land is bisected by a main road, it was impossible to complete his entire design, but at least they give you a taste of what he would have wanted. Families are invited to plant new trees here and there will be a special birthday concert in the church with Alexander Armstrong.

Rothley Lake

Just down the road from Kirkharle is Wallington House and its adjacent pleasure grounds at Rothley. Long neglected, it’s quite a wilderness, but contains two lakes very much in the Brown style. Whether he had any involvement in the ‘High Lake’ is unknown, but five of his original drawings, dated 1769, are his designs for the ‘Low Lake’, a causeway and an associated house. The grounds are not usually open to the public and it’s fairly overgrown, but there will be special guided trips in 2016. Swans cruise on the lake, and it’s a haven for wildlife.

Harewood

Further south, in Yorkshire, is Harewood House which was completed in 1772. Brown had already visited the terrain before building work started and he came back to begin planning the parkland. In 1775, the owner, Edwin Lascelles, finally gave the go ahead and work was finished in 1781. Harewood’s landscape is typical Brown with sweeping circular driveways, artfully placed clumps of trees, a serpentine lake and several ha-ha’s. These are his trademark, simply walled ditches, which remove the need for fences and deceive the viewer into seeing a limitless landscape.

It’s on a grand scale and covers over 1000 acres, and is still very much how Brown designed it. The Art of Landscape, an exhibition inside the house, depicts how artists have engaged with the landscape over the centuries and includes paintings by JMW Turner, early photographs by Roger Fenton, and modern interpretations. There will also be a series of walks, talks and tours from a group of experts.

Burghley

On the edge of the Lincolnshire town of Stamford is the 16th century Elizabethan mansion of Burghley Hall, home to Brown’s longest commission. He didn’t just landscape the gardens, but built new stables and modified the house, and described his time here as “25 years of pleasure”. It wasn’t a bad job as he was paid £1000 a year at a time when a labourer’s wage was just £25.

In 2016, much work is going on to restore the landscape back to his designs, and a guided 4×4 trip with the head forester really does tease out the particular features of his grand plan. As you approach along the circuitous driveway, artificial mounds and trees of various sizes control the views, alternatively hiding and revealing the house. It’s mirrored by the lake, a single great silvery sheet, looking like one end of a serpentine river, appearing completely natural. Inside the special exhibition “Capability Brown at Burghley” includes one of the only existing portraits of the great gardener. Throughout the year there will be a series of lectures and group tours about his 25 years at Burghley.

Fenstanton

The end of the road for Brown came in the village of Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire. Even though he worked on over 250 properties, he never owned his own until a bankrupt Earl of Northampton gave him the Parish of Fenstanton as payment for work at Castle Ashby. He had plans to transform the landscape in his normal style but died before he could put them into action. On 16 February, 1783 he was laid to rest in the Parish Church of St Peter and St Paul.

Nobody’s certain where he was buried, whether it was in the graveyard or under the church floor, but there’s a family monument on the north chancel wall. In the village you can still see the surprisingly small Manor House where he lived and the garden contains two apple trees that he planted. He was hoping to make Fenstanton Manor, a far grander building, his retirement home, but alas it never came to pass. You can see all these buildings on a specially designed Capability Brown walking tour of the village.

In her new book, Capability Brown: And His Landscape Gardens, Dr Sarah Rutherford describes his work in detail and what makes it so special.

The Capability Brown Festival has information about events.

Visit England has information about the year of the English Garden 2016.

If you want to take the road trip, then these are comfortable places to stay:

Rockliffe Hall, Hurworth on Tees, County Durham.

The William Cecil, Stamford, Lincolnshire.

The Old Bridge Hotel, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire.

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