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In the footsteps of… Capability Brown

Get your garden on, with this year’s huge horticultural tri-centenary

In the footsteps of… Capability Brown
Burghley House in Lincolnshire. Image: Getty

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Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, born 300 years ago this year, was the Shakespeare of English garden design. His nickname derived from one of his favourite expressions: that a client’s property always had ‘capabilities’. In his case that didn’t mean just pimping a few flower beds: he manipulated whole landscapes, excavating lakes, moving hills and planting woodland, with the aim of creating a more naturalistic effect, as well as to better display his client’s manorial residences.

Brown’s first big break came on the Stowe estate in Buckinghamshire, where he swiftly rose through the ranks to become head gardener. Stowe’s owner Lord Cobham allowed him to experiment, though not always successfully, as when an attempt to create a lake ended up as a valley. Nevertheless, Brown’s 10 years at Stowe established his reputation.

His most eye-catching project was the estate at Chatsworth, in the glorious Peak District countryside, where rivers were straightened and farmland transformed over 25,000 man-and-horse days to create the sweeping, unencumbered views that continue to tantalise visitors today.

Of his 250-odd commissions, Brown pronounced himself most pleased with his work at Burghley House in Lincolnshire (pictured), a 25-year job, during which he even designed some of the buildings as well as redeveloping the grounds.

His work even transformed the 1,000-acre parkland of Highclere House, which is known now as the setting for the famed television series Downton Abbey.

The Capability Brown Festival: 300 years of landscaping genius
The commemorative year of Brown’s birth brings together the organisations which care for his properties, such as the National Trust, English Heritage and the Historic Houses Association. Each is organising on-site events, peaking in August, Brown’s birth month. For example, there’ll be an exhibition at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire; a cycling tour at Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire; a landscape artist residency at Berrington Hall, Herefordshire. For more details go to: capabilitybrown.org

Published in the March 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)