“Capability” Brown

I very much enjoyed the recent Channel 4 series with Alan Titchmarsh about Lancelot “Capability” Brown and the inspirational Duchess of Rutland’s wish to instigate a long moth-balled scheme by Brown for the parkland at Belvoir Castle.

Capability Brown’s vision was extraordinary and for its day totally radical. Commercially clever too. Land and stately home owners were obviously burdened by the onerous task of maintaining complex Tudor knot gardens and acres of pleached this and that.

Longleats original planting
Longleats original planting

With one fell swoop, Capability Brown did away with all the fiddly parterres and neatly trimmed avenues for sweeping vistas of majestic parkland dotted with noble oaks and lakes trimmed with sweeping beech, scattered with intriguing follies. So he was in high demand. Quite right too. I have always been more than appreciative and have felt so very lucky that our generation is one that is blessed to be able to appreciate Browns landscapes at their very finest.

Longleat House 1

They are now at their zenith, at their most mature and majestic and just beginning to go over. This year I visited Stowe, one of the first and finest of his creations and I’ve always appreciated the stunning parkland at Bowood and Longleat House here in Wiltshire.

Longleat after Capability Brown
Longleat after Capability Brown

I do have a problem with his design however. I really don’t like the way Capability Brown’s landscapes abandon the main building, often leaving it with just a scant gravel pathway and turning circle.

Stowe
Stowe

There is an argument that this leaves the architecture to speak for itself, but to my eye the buildings are not integrated into the landscape – certainly not in the way that Capability Brown designed for his follies.

Having designed furniture and interiors for Lord Bath and therefore been a frequent visitor to Longleat House, I think it is a classic case in point. The architecture is detailed with stone cartouches echoing Dutch frontispieces of its day, with windows framed with ornate carving and stone busts peering out from its exterior. The original parterre gardens would have echoed and balanced this and then it was all swept away by Brown.

I think the current Lord Bath has had the right idea in creating delicate step-over mazes between the house and leat.

longleat 2

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They help harmonise the stone with the flora. They give balance to the delicately ornamented stone work, so that it flows down the building onto the mazes and onto the soft expanse of water and onto the parkland. Just lovely.

Hatfield House
Hatfield House

I was heartened too to see at Hatfield House the Marquess and Marchioness of Salisbury have reinstated the enclosure with parterres and buildings at the “back” of the house. Looks just perfect. As with all these buildings and their environments, it is fabulous when the present custodians are allowed by those that be to improve, tweak and add to what has gone before.

I’m never one for accepting and praising previous design work just because it’s there. There’s a lot of Victorian architecture for example that makes me feel a tad queasy. With Capability Browns parklands I admire the sweeping vistas, the delicious follies and lovely lakes abundant with wildlife. In the same vein I love Georgian Bath with its sweeping crescents and elegant formality. It doesn’t stop me wondering however how lovely the medieval city was before they rode into town and how magical the knot gardens, elegant avenues and formal tree lined vistas were before Brown swept them all away.

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