It is not known when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was born but we do know that he was baptised on the 30 August 1716 at St Wilfred’s church in the village of Kirkharle, Northumberland. After attending the local school at Cambo, he began his gardening career c.1730, working locally at Kirkharle Hall. From this time until he died in 1783, Brown was to advise on over 250 sites in England and Wales, often designing both gardens and buildings. But his legacy isn’t just these gardens and buildings: he had a far wider influence both within the UK and overseas.
Surprisingly, given the vast number of parks and gardens he worked on and that he is probably the best known of the English landscape gardeners, very little in-depth research had been carried out on Brown. This all changed when Dorothy Stroud (1910–1997), assistant curator of Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, had access to Brown’s only surviving account book, allowing her to research and write her pioneering book published in 1950, Capability Brown. Further editions appeared in 1957, 1975 and 1984, and her book remains an invaluable tool for researchers today.
Other sources used by researchers include Brown’s only known account book, mentioned above, and which now is held at the Royal Horticultural Society Lindley Library. This book has ‘V’ written on the spine; so we know that Brown must have filled at least four other volumes but unfortunately they have not yet come to light. Analysis of bank accounts has also proved fruitful. Brown banked at Drummonds’, now owned by the Royal Bank of Scotland, from 1753 until his death in 1783, and Peter Willis (Architectural History, vol. 27, (1984), pp 382–391) and David Brown (personal communication) have been instrumental in helping to establish Brown’s financial dealings not only with his clients but also with his foremen, gardeners and nurserymen. Brown’s bank account is now available on line at the Royal Bank of Scotland’s Heritage Hub.
A more recent resource has been developed by John Phibbs and colleagues, who have built on Stroud’s work and listed further additional sites in England and Wales where Brown may have worked; they have also assigned an attribution value to each site (Garden History, 41/2 (2013) pp. 244–277; Garden History, 42/2 (2014) pp. 281–286). (See list of sites.) The attribution value gives an indication of the strength of the archival evidence that Brown worked at the site and values vary greatly. For sites with a value of 100% there are direct references to Brown’s involvement; this might be from an entry in his account book or because of a signed plan or picture. However, where the evidence is indirect, for example a contemporary reference to Brown working at a particular site, an attribution value of less than 100% is given.
So what did Brown do in London? Perhaps a surprising amount, given Brown is usually associated with larger country estates. But of course many of his clients also had London properties with associated gardens that they wanted Brown to ‘improve’. The Brown Research Group, with a little help from the Kent and Bedfordshire Gardens Trusts, has been much occupied with researching some of the many sites where he is thought to have worked. A map of the Greater London area shows the 42 sites, some of which such as Fitzroy Farm, a ferme ornée sadly no longer in existence, have been recently discovered by the Group. Attribution values vary widely over the London area. For example, a site on Dulwich Common has a value of 30%, as the only piece of evidence we have so far is an advertisement in the Morning Post 8 May 1823 to let an ‘excellent family house’ with ‘grounds and various retreats… laid out by “Capability” Brown’. Whereas Little Grove in Barnet has been assigned an attribution value of 100%, as Brown’s account book shows he received £700 for work carried out in 1768 for ‘The Honble. Judge Willis’ for ‘Work going on at East Barnet’.
Researchers have chosen sites to investigate near to where they live and picked those with an attribution value of greater than 70%. We have found that the gardens Brown created vary widely in size. Egremont House in Piccadilly covers some 0.6 hectares, whereas Syon, which in Brown’s time would have been outside London, has an area of some 80 hectares. And of course the size of the ‘plot’ would have dictated to a great extent the style of the garden Brown was to create. Although most of the Greater London sites that Brown created have been built over and can no longer been seen, it has been fascinating to better understand his work in and around the capital. We should not forget that London was also his home for many years and where he would often meet his clients, both professionally and socially. And, just as importantly, London was a vital resource for Brown in terms of foremen, gardeners and nurseries.
|1716||Baptism 30 August at Kirkharle, Northumberland.|
|c.1730||Starts work in the gardens of Kirkharle Hall.|
|1741||Head Gardener at Stowe for Viscount Cobham.|
|1744||Marries Bridget Wayet from Lincolnshire at St Mary’s Church, Stowe.|
|1751||Brown moves his family to Hammersmith, now in West London, setting himself up as an independent ‘improver’.|
|1750s||Work begins at Croome Court, Petworth, Syon and other sites.|
|1764||Appointment as royal Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace; family move to Wilderness House, Hampton Court Park.|
|1760s||New commissions include Wimpole, Alnwick, Chatsworth and Luton Hoo.|
|1767||Purchases Fenstanton Manor in Huntingdonshire.|
|1771||Takes Henry Holland Jnr as business partner.|
|1770s||Further projects start at Ampthill, Highclere, Ditchley Park and a number of other locations.|
|1783||Collapses in Mayfair and dies 6 February.|