Was Lancelot Capability Brown a landscape designer of genius?

2016 marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Britain’s most famous landscape architect and garden designer. Lancelot Capability Brown was baptised on 30 August 1716 and when he died at the age of 67, on 6th February 1783, his reputation was sky high. By 1800 his reputation was mud-low. In 2016 Brown’s reputation is, once again, sky high.

In 1987, I had a go at explaining why this happened and, rightly or wrongly, have not changed my mind. You can read the explanation here or listen to an illustrated version on the above video. The short summary is that Brown’s popularity crashed because a change in the predominant understanding of ‘nature’. Even Gertrude Jeykll dissed Brown. His reputation only recovered when Marie-Luise Gothein, Christopher Hussey, Nicholas Pevsner and others appreciated that Brown worked in a classical style. He was not confused about the appearance of ‘wild nature’ or how it should be ‘imitated’.

3 thoughts on “Was Lancelot Capability Brown a landscape designer of genius?

  1. Adrian Hanwell

    ….. We have a family “tradition” that the Patriarch of our family, Rev. John Hanwell’s parents were strays who were evicted from their home in a village located in Oxfordshire, where the estate of Blenheim Palace now stands and that the entire village was destroyed in order to landscape the land, to create gardens and give an unobstructed view to the occupants of the new house.
    ….. I am aware that Blenheim Palace is situated near Woodstock in Oxfordshire and was designed in 1705 and built between 1705 and 1722 for the first Duke of Marlborough. My John Hanwell (Rev. John) was born sixty years later, in 1782 at Hull. I also know that Lancelot Brown (Capability Brown) was commissioned to transform the park in 1762.
    ….. I do not know whether a village was actually destroyed during the landscaping process. If a village was destroyed AND a village church with it, this would have happened before the centralisation of parish records and the church records might also have been destroyed. Does any reader of this blog know whether any villages were destroyed during the erection of Blenheim Palace or the landscaping of its grounds?
    ….. Adrian Hanwell.

  2. christine

    “One of the best descriptions for genius in design is the ability to enable people to ‘see’ the world differently, and Brown certainly did that. All great designers will have a reaction against their work sooner or later, as this is how the design disciplines grow.

    It is not surprising that there is a lament for both lost European style formal gardens and perhaps lost estate villages and parish churches. The same is also true of Haussmann’s Paris. The biggest difficulty is always in knowing what should be kept of the past.

    1. Tom Turner Post author

      It is a useful definition of genius, though it raises the question of whether Brown was the originator of the new world-view or a ‘follower of William Kent’.
      ‘Was Capability Brown a genius?’ would be a very good essay question. He surely experienced the perspiration quota (remembering Thomas Edison ‘Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration’.


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