Brown, Lancelot "Capability"

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Brown, Lancelot "Capability" (1715-83): English Landscape Designer.

Nicknamed "Capability" for his frequent assertion that an estate had "capabilities" (possibilities), Lancelot Brown is the English landscape-gardener of most lasting influence. He was born in Kirkharle, Northumberland, the son of a small tradesman. He became one of the Eighteenth Century's great entrepreneurs.

Of all the English landscape designers of the second half of the Eighteenth Century, Brown is the most radical in terms of what was done both before him and after him. Responsible for the felling of many straight avenues of trees, his “formal” style aimed at discovering nature’s inherent structures. Thousands of trees were planted in naturalistic "clumps." His favorite species were elms, oaks, and ash. His style featured natural curves—shapes and contours of land, water, and trees. He removed terraces and the geometric gardens near houses, their statues, mottoes, inscriptions, and most other man-made structures. In their place he created a sweep of lawn right up to the walls. Rather than flowers, the Brownian style favors gradations of green. Brown’s theoretical father is Shaftesbury, Anthony Ashley Cooper, Third Earl of in his emphasis upon bringing out the potential of natural forms. Brown's professional heir is Repton, Humphry.

Brown laid out some of England's great gardens, among them Blenheim and Kew. He designed the lake at Wallington, the ancestral home of historian G. M. Trevelyan in Northumberland. At age twenty-four he began to re-design part of Viscount Cobham's estate Stowe, where he was head gardener from 1741-51, following Vanbrugh, Sir John, Gibbs, Bridgeman, and Kent, William. Starting in 1765, he designed the grounds at Temple Newsam, Yorkshire, seat of his patron Charles, 9th Viscount Irwin; part of his design is preserved in a painting by M.A. Rooker (c. 1767). An anonymous history in poem form of English landscaping The Rise and Progress of the Present Taste in Planting Parks, Pleasure Grounds, Gardens, Etc. (1767) concludes by praising Brown's subsuming art to nature. Horace Walpole's The History of the Modern Taste in Landscape Gardening laid out the theoretical basis of the English style, and Walpole considered Brown's style as its quintessence. The Grandison estate in novelist Richardson, Samuel's History of Sir Charles Grandison (1742) seems designed according to Brownian principles.

Brown was criticized by Reynolds, Sir Joshua in his Discourse Number 13 (1786) for eliminating all traces of human artifice. Chambers, Sir William called his landscapes not different “from common fields, so closely is common nature copied in most of them.” Picturesque designers Richard Payne Knight and Uvedale Price disliked his disregard for the Gothic elements of surprise and terror. William Gilpin's Remarks on Forest Scenery (1791) finds greatest fault with Brown's characteristic serpentine rivers.

Further Reading:

Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, 1975.

Mary Jane Curry