Who doesn’t love the glorious gardens of English mansions? I do. And they often feature in my books.
One of the most important landscape artists in the Georgian and Regency periods was Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1715 to 1783). He left an indelible print on these magnificent gardens for future generations to enjoy.
Brown is the key character of the English Landscape movement. His gardens dominated the gardening style from the 1750s to the 1780s.
Originally employed as head kitchen gardener at Stowe, Brown learned a lot from William Kent, who was an experienced gardener and knew the habits of trees and shrubs but lacked architectural skills.
In 1751 Brown set himself up as a landscape gardener and became known as ‘Capability’ Brown because of his habit of extolling the capabilities or potential of landscapes he surveyed.
The English tradition of the landscaped garden arose in the 17th century in imitation of paintings by the baroque masters of rural idylls in the neo-classical tradition. We can compare a painting by the 17th-century French landscape painter Claude Lorrain with a garden designed by Capability Brown.
His style of smooth undulating grass, which would run straight to the house, clumps, belts and scattering of trees and his serpentine lakes formed by invisibly damming small rivers, were a new style within the English landscape, a “gardenless” form of landscape gardening, which swept away almost all the remnants of previous formally patterned styles. This involved huge, ambitious earth-moving projects, creating lakes and hills and exaggerating or changing natural contours.
His landscapes were at the forefront of fashion. They were fundamentally different from what they replaced, the well-known formal gardens of England which were criticized by Alexander Pope and others from the 1710s. Starting in 1719, William Kent replaced these with more naturalistic compositions, which reached their greatest refinement in Brown’s landscapes.
At Hampton Court, Brown encountered Hannah More in 1782 and she described his “grammatical” manner in her literary terms: “‘Now there’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’ pointing to another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject'”. Brown’s patrons saw the idealized landscapes he was creating for them in terms of the Italian landscape painters they admired and collected, as Kenneth Woodbridge first observed in the landscape at Stourhead, a “Brownian” landscape (with an un-Brownian circuit walk) in which Brown himself was not involved.
In 1764, Brown was appointed surveyor of Hampton Court where he lived in Wilderness House. He planted the Black Hamburg grape which still exists, making it the oldest-known vine in Britain.
He was the first to subcontract workmen and, being an engaging personality, was a popular choice among landowners. On his advice, many of them destroyed their expensively built formal gardens in favor of a landscape they would never see mature.
More gardens designed by Brown
By Mike Searle, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13743702
By Sb2s3 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=44187660
Do you have a favorite English manor house garden?
I write about a wonderful manor house in the last book in my Baxendale Sister series, THE SCANDALOUS LADY MERCY. Released December.
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