Celebrating Capability: Studies of Placemaker’s Work Prepare for Tricentenary

29 Apr 2016

In preparation for this year’s 300th anniversary of English landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birth, RPS has been involved in a study assessing the effects of his work on local landscape character and biodiversity.

Appointed by Natural England and with access to some of Capability Brown’s most celebrated gardens and estates, RPS provided expertise on Ecology (Cambridge office), Landscape Architecture (Southampton office), Arboriculture (Milton Keynes office) and Archaeology (Oxford office) with the aim of exploring the hypothesis:

“Understanding the contribution of historic designed landscapes to landscape character, ecology, ecological connectivity and ecosystems services with examples of good practice management, based on a selection of Capability Brown landscapes”

Unarguably, one of the most significant English landscape architects or Placemakersi, Brown remains a popular household name – not least for the proliferation of his work, but also because so much of his influence still survives. Brown’s legacy is assured by his ability to approach a wide range of terrain and successfully create natural looking dramatic landscapes on an enormous scale with a significant and aesthetically pleasing result. This adaptability earned him great popularity, many commissions and a royal appointment. His description of sites as having ‘capability’ for improvement earned him his moniker.

The project involved collating and analysing existing available data to provide a comparative overview of the environmental contexts, attributes and management issues associated with 130 estates designed at varying levels by Capability Brown. RPS created an extensive GIS resource using bespoke tools to model and interrogate more than 50 different datasets including designations, habitat types and current condition of the sites. This was followed up with a more in-depth analysis of five selected sites that represented a variety of scales and environmental contexts. These were Highclere Castle, Berkshire; Syon Park, Middlesex; Croome Court, Worcestershire; Moccas Court, Herefordshire and Wrest Park, Bedfordshire.

Following the burgeoning fashion, Britain’s wealthiest estate-owners were employing the most popular designers to deliver the artifice of a painstakingly constructed naturalistic landscape within their groundsii incorporating classical built structures such as they would have viewed during their Grand Tours. The style was in sharp contrast to the rigid symmetry of the earlier landscape styles.

In practice, Placemaking brought a measure of both disruption and conservation to the landscape and environment. Entire villages were sometimes demolished in order to achieve the perfect composition from the focal point of a client’s grand house, although Brown’s demolition of Croome Court’s (National Trust) neighbouring village was mitigated by his plan incorporating a facsimile rebuild of it at a more aesthetic location a few miles distant. At Croome again, several acres of marshland was drained but an intrinsic device of culverts and a hand-dug 1¾ mile serpentine riveriii – worked with the wet terrain whilst reclaiming important grazing land to be filled with hares and other small game animals besides herds of Holderness and Alderney cattle. The functionality of the eco-systems is benefitted by extensive pastures of buckwheat, Dutch clover and ryegrass, whose hardiness has survived the introduction of thousands of middle eastern and Asian shrubs and plants in the later 18th and earlier 19th centuries including banksia, andromeda and garden favourite: the rhododendroniv. More recent programmed replanting of native species at the site has also helped to maintain the balance well.

The serpentine river – a trade feature of much of Brown’s work – was also employed at the 200-acre Syon Park (Historic Houses Association) where many acres of arable farmland were ‘returned to nature’ and the river was complemented by a large artificial lakev. The 40-acre Tide Meadow – already a century old – was and still is retained, now as a valuable SSSI. The employment of grazing pasture has been a key contributor to the long-standing balance of ecosystems at Syon Park, extensive grassland provides a habitat for small invertebrates and food source for the bird and bat communities that thrive on the site.

Brown was employing around 20 foremen to oversee his projects (including Syon Park) by 1758 and was also working on the delivery of a Chinese temple, a Mithraic altar and a ruined bath house at Wrest Park – all of which have survived. English Nature has just completed a 20-year restoration plan for the Garden Grade I listed park helped by a £1.14m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. At 90-acres, Wrest is noted as one of Britain’s largest ‘secret gardens, retaining over 300 years of garden design evolution and lush with species-rich neutral grassland and veteran beech, yew, oak and lime trees – home to skylarks, linnets, hawfinches, cuckoos, bullfinches and lapwings.

By the time Brown was starting to establish himself as an independent contractor many estates had already added follies, a number of which either remained untouched or were incorporated into Brown’s overall design. Around 1,000 acres at Highclere Castle were remodelled during the second half of the 18th Century when Brown’s commission there started in 1771 following on from Robert Herbert’s 1740s commissions including the Jackdaws Castle folly. Highclere is now a designated AONB site.

Many of the winding tracks that once led the visitor through a sequence of entrancing viewpoints at Moccas Court (English Nature) have not survived and Brown’s area of immediate influencevi is perhaps dwarfed by his client’s considerable expansion of the estate in the years after. Historians have, however, been able to trace a reasonable idea of Brown’s layout by following the lines of beech trees, planted around the estate in a pattern of heights to accentuate the undulations of the land. Careful maintenance of deadwood has helped ensure its status as a National Nature Reserve partly due to the insect biodiversity that depends upon the site’s ancient tree-planting, and its mature permanent pasture land is home to many traditional English species including sedge and bugle. Similarly, the central waterbody has a well-developed marsh flora of sedge, hairy willow-herb, golden saxifrage and water forget-me-not.

Whilst Brown’s influence has been attributed to over 150 sites throughout the course of his career, his level of involvement and resultant impact varies from site to site. Although his particular trademarks are the serpentine river and the ha-havii, the ‘Brownian’ movement as a whole further embraced a prevalence of strategically placed follies and considerable beech, lime and oak planting that were not unique to his style. From 1752 Humphry Repton (1752-1818) also continued the movement and was frequently employed by Brown’s former clients after Brown’s death in 1783.

Changing fashions have obliterated, retained or incorporated features of past designs as has suited the client, or the whim of later designers. This has presented its own challenges to varying degrees across the study sites. Such has been the continuing passion for Brown’s landscapes that his influence remains undimmed. A renewed interest in his work is helping to not only celebrate his influence but to further identify and preserve it where it survives. RPS’ study revealed the lasting influence of a valuable landscape resource and an undervalued but clearly positive biodiversity resource within the wider surroundings – contributing effectively to the sustained balance of various diverse and complex ecosystems. Furthermore the study has helped to identify and plan for best long-term environmental management of the sites.

The Capability Brown Festival:

The Capability Brown Festival is managed by the Landscape Institute and with funding from partners and supporters and the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Festival is a year-long celebration of Brown’s extensive influence on this significant period of British design and aims to educate and inspire new generations of visitors to the many parks whose design heritage is closely associated with him.

For more details of events visit the Capability Brown Festival website (external link not affiliated with RPS): http://www.capabilitybrown.org/

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown:

The fifth child of a Northumbrian yeoman farmer, Lancelot Brown was baptised in August 1716 and began working as a gardener at Kirkharle in 1732 (aged 16) for his father’s employer Sir William Loraine before moving to garden at Wotton in 1739. He came to Stowe in 1741 as an under-gardener where he studied the new landscape design or ‘Placemaking’ trend for neoclassicism under William Kent then head gardener at Stowe and a founder of the new English Landscape style. Brown then moved to commissions at Petworth and Croome which results enabled him to work independently from 1753 until his death in 1783.


i Landscape architecture was not a known term until well into the 19th C. Brown styled himself as a ‘Placemaker’ by trade.

ii Such scenes as Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) – the French painter most famous for the creation of the dramatic landscape – epitomised in his paintings – artfully combining the most dramatic features of (mostly European) landscapes to present an imagined ideal. This composition technique for constructing the dramatic landscape on canvas was later echoed in J.M.W. Turner’s work (1775-1851).

iii Commissioned to resemble a miniature of the River Severn.

iv Croome was renowned for its wide-variety of plant species by the late 1760s – boasting some 5000 listed plants from the East Indian Shrub Abroma to the Zygophyllan or Syrian Bean Caper – a greenhouse shrub.

v Brown’s work at Syon Park began in 1754 and his commissioned work there continued for 20 years. His client, the Duke of Northumberland was greatly impressed with the quality of Brown’s work and was a key supporter of Brown’s petition for royal gardener in 1758. He was appointed Royal Gardener to King George III in 1764.

vi Furthermore Brown is only definitively known to have produced the design plans for Moccas Court’s gardens – his client Sir George Cornewell appears to have been the main overseer of works.

vii A low sunken ditch ending in a barrier – usually a sub-ground level stone wall.

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