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Learning from Capability Brown

Learning from Capability Brown

Blenheim in Oxfordshire. Photo: Blenheim Palace

Far from being boring, Capability Brown’s skill and subtlety mark him out as a master of our craft, writes Dr Sarah Rutherford

In researching my recent book on Capability Brown, I discovered that since his death he had developed a reputation as a garden-destroying vandal who made hundreds of bland, boring parks. But it also became startlingly clear that his influence remains powerful, particularly for a nation renowned for its love of gardens and gardening, as well as the wider world. No boorish wrecker, he actually respected and worked with what was there before, and I believe today’s designers could learn a thing or two from his bravura performances.

Visionary, not vandal

So how does a Georgian landscape designer born 300 years ago have relevance to designers in the 21st century? He was an artistic visionary, and despite the ‘vandal’ accusations, he often kept useful existing features. The newly defined ‘serpentine line of beauty’ was certainly his guiding principle, and he did keep and use existing straight lines, mainly in avenues. He blended the remains of the formal easily with the informal, making a virtue of their combination, so that we hardly notice the juxtaposition. Potentially harsh and jarring avenues were softened by the parkland trees, pasture and remodelled topography woven around them.

Brown embraced Blenheim’s massive spinal avenue, focused on Vanbrugh’s axial Grand Bridge and the Palace. This ensemble had real wow factor. Around this he broadcast his vast naturalistic park; in place of a piffling straight canal, under the enormous bridge he swirled a 40-acre lake of commensurate scale and eminently natural and satisfying lines. You can’t beat the straight and serpentine combination in this case. The curved banks and islands at the end of his lake fool you into thinking that it goes on forever. How well do you use the wider surroundings in a design? Brown was a master at this, flinging out long views, taking in towers, castles, mountains and rivers as eye-catchers, way beyond his hand. The panache of his land art seemed so natural and at one with the British countryside that it was said “so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken”. The key to it is how he used the ‘genius of the place’.

Scale and subtlety

Get into his zone to see how Brown’s creativity inspires. So subtle are his lines, often his influence is subliminal, but the more you see, the more you have to marvel at his subtlety and genius, at how his work within the park wall respected the setting beyond. Although he shifted thousands of tons of earth and created lakes and rivers, the result settled so quietly into the wider British ‘landskip’ that in one of his parks I challenge you not to feel entirely at home, softly enveloped in his woods, pastures and pleasure grounds, and unaware where land art finishes and the wider countryside begins.

Amazingly, most of his parks still survive in recognisable form. Covering sometimes a square mile or more, at this scale they can shrug off a certain amount of change with little damage to the essential design. Think of Trentham – Brown’s extensive 1760 design still holds its own, even with the house gone, the park skirted by the M6, and a large garden centre and retail outlet banging on the gates. It easily accommodates new design, for his mile-long lake is complemented by Charles Barry’s huge 1840s Italianate parterre, which in turn embraces Tom Stuart-Smith’s acclaimed modern planting, and Piet Oudolf’s scheme adjacent. Do today’s designs have as much in-built resilience as Brown’s schemes? Do yours?

To find out more about the Capability Brown 300 Festival, go to

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