Author Steffie Shields delivered a talk on ‘England’s Greatest Gardener’ Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. Brown designed over 170 parks across England, many of which still endure. He was nicknamed “Capability” because he would tell his clients that their property had “capability” for improvement.
Born in Northumberland, Brown moved to London in 1751, after learning his craft in Stowe. These were some of his most productive years and it was this period of his life that Steffie focused on. Brown and his family lived next to the Thames at Hammersmith Mall. It was an obvious location, not just for its closeness to the Thames but being as close as it was to all the market gardens and plant nurseries located in Hammersmith and Chiswick.
In the 18th century the Thames was the M1 of its day, and some of the grandest families in the land lived along its banks, and became clients of Brown. Thanks to his huge output and recognisable style, there is still much evidence of Brown and his landscaping across the Capital today. At Stanmore, for example, we see remains of the parkland of the once-great Stanmore Park, designed by Brown and regarded by fellow landscaper, Humphry Repton, as one of Brown’s finest works. We know that in 1774, Brown was paid £206 for some unspecified work at Mount Clare, a new house at Roehampton in Surrey. The house now sits in the campus of Roehampton University, and the land surrounding it features sweeping lawns, mature trees and undulations typical of Brown’s landscaping style. And today, Wimbledon Park covers just under 67 acres of the original parkland designed by Brown for John, 1st Earl Spencer. The lakes that Brown incorporated into the design were once used to water the tennis courts at Wimbledon!
However, as Steffie explained to us, it is just outside of the Capital, at Blenheim Palace, that we can see Brown’s greatest achievement. Part of Blenheim’s great majesty is the 150-acre lake, the biggest man-made lake in England. Even today, it has the ‘capability’ to make tourist stop in wonder and say “wow!” With his natural ability as an architect, Brown understood what it was that turned a landscape into a ‘view’. We are a nation that cherishes its countryside, estates and gardens. Artists from Turner to Hockney have painted Capability Brown landscapes over the years… and his timeless gardens will continue to delight for generations to come.