Lancelot ‘Capability‘ Brown, is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at Wilderness House, Hampton Court Palace, his home from 1764 – when he was appointed Chief Gardener at the palace – until his death in 1783.
Capability Brown was the leading landscape gardener of his age and his legacy can be seen today in many parks and gardens across the country.
He is credited with designing over 120 landscapes and demonstrated a flair for creating idyllic, pastoral scenes that complemented some of England’s grandest country houses.
Although Brown’s work was criticised after his death, both for laying waste to the formal gardens of his predecessors and for suppressing nature’s wildness, his designs have come to epitomise the well-ordered English landscape. As one obituarist wrote of him, ‘so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken’.
Born in 1716 in the small Northumbrian village of Kirkharle, Brown began working for the local landowner Sir William Lorraine.
In 1741 he was employed by Lord Cobham at Stowe, Buckinghamshire, then one of the most famous gardens in England, where he worked under William Kent, who had started the trend away from formal garden design to a more natural approach.
Brown’s own taste led him to develop his trademark style of sweeping, open landscapes of sloping lawns and ornamental stretches of water, with trees and livestock as decoration.
On Lord Cobham’s death in 1751, Brown moved from Stowe to Hammersmith in London, where he established himself as an independent landscape architect and worked tirelessly on a vast number of commissions, which included Petworth House, West Sussex; Alnwick Castle, Northumberland; and Chatsworth House, Derbyshire.
He became the most fashionable designer in the country and by the 1760s was known as ’Capability‘, because when surveying a property he spoke often of its “capabilities”.
World’s largest vine
In 1764 Brown was appointed by George III as Chief Gardener at Hampton Court Palace and moved to Wilderness House.
The house – which dates from about 1700 and is listed Grade II – lies within the walls of Hampton Court Palace and was the official home of the Palace’s head gardeners until 1881; other occupants include Charles Bridgeman. It is said Brown refused to sweep away William III’s formal layout “out of respect to himself and his profession” but he stopped cutting the topiary and was accused of neglecting the gardens.
Perhaps his most lasting achievement during his time at Hampton Court Palace was planting a Black Hamburg vine in 1768, which continues to flourish as the Great Vine and is the world’s largest and most famous grape vine.
Brown’s work at Hampton Court did not stop him taking on other commissions, which included remodelling the gardens at Richmond Palace for the King, assisting Garrick with his temple to Shakespeare at his villa nearby and working on a ten-year project at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, where he created his most celebrated landscape.
In 1772 he took into partnership the architect Henry Holland, who became his son-in-law the following year. In 1783 at the age of 67, Brown collapsed outside Holland’s home in Mayfair after returning from dinner with a former client Lord Coventry, and died.