Lancelot Brown: Engineer and Businessman
Written by Dr Christopher Taylor, FBA
In the middle of the 18th century Lancelot Brown conceived of a new form of designed landscape which was both admirably suited to the soft climate and green topography of England and, more importantly, acceptable to many influential contemporary landowners. To realíze these new landscapes demanded artistic skills that amounted to genius. By creating sinuous lakes and drives, by the subtle planting of trees and often by massive earth-moving, a plain, unpromising agricultural landscape, or the regularity of an earlier garden or park, could be transformed into a new ‘natural’ world of great appeal.
Yet the creation of such landscapes demanded more than merely artistic ability and a knowledge of horticulture. What was also required was the talent to organize the necessary work on the ground to achieve what Brown had conceived in his mind. Further, such projects demanded the aptitude to run a large professional concern. Such skills he had in abundance.
As far as can be seen from the surviving records Brown had a loyal and competent group of foremen, each in control of individual schemes, with on average twelve to twenty workmen, as well as builders and surveyors. These were the teams that brought Brown’s ideas to fruition. Certainly the details of the engineering such as the position and size of a dam necessary to form a lake of the ideal shape can only have been the result of accurate surveys. They did not come from Brown’s wonderful proposal plans. These, surely were intended to persuade clients rather than to be working diagrams.
Brown himself knew how to carry out instrumental surveys. He had learned this at his first employment in Northumberland. But, while he certainly kept a regular eye on work in progress, a great deal of his time was spent on other tasks. For he was not just an artist, gardener or practical engineer who could see how the world might be rearranged as he imagined. He was, as he had to be, a consummate businessmen. At the height of his fame he was, in effect, the chief executive officer of, by 18th-century standards, a complex commercial organization the staff of which was widely spread on various projects. He was constantly on the move, meeting and socializing with landowners who were often of the highest rank, pressing his ideas, compromising where necessary, arguing over costs and advising on planting.
However, as is often the case with great achievers, Brown was also a man of his time, surely aware of and influenced by events in the wider world. During his life both the society and the landscapes of England were changed radically in many ways. There was for example a developing interest in plants and planting and, more specifically, with the overall increase in wealth and the enlargement of great estates, a growing desire for remodelling the latter. Beyond the purely horticultural and social developments were wider landscape ones that in turn led to technical and botanical advances which Brown could use. For the years that saw the appearance of Brownian landscapes also marked the beginning of the Canal Age, with all its consequent hydraulic works, and at the same time the construction of thousands of miles of turnpike roads with their associated cuttings and embankments. On an even larger scale, enclosure saw the eradication of hundreds of thousands of acres of ancient strip fields and the creation of the modern hedged landscapes. The draining of fenland too was particularly important for it demanded complex engineering works based on accurate surveys that in turn led to improved instrumentation.
Perhaps the most rewarding way of seeing Brown’s practical achievements is to examine some of the infrastructure that were put in to realize his aims. A good example is Fawsley, Northamptonshire, where Brown seems to have worked in the 1760s. The great glory of Fawsley was to be a large Y-shaped lake occupying the valley on two sides of a spur on which the Hall stood and extending down the main valley for almost 1100 yds (1 km). However, a survey would have revealed that because of the broad nature of the valley and its steep fall such a lake would had to have been twice as wide as desired as well as requiring a dam of great length and enormous height and width. The solution, also demanding an accurate survey, was to create two lakes, separated by a low flat-topped dam. The water level of the upper lake was controlled by a carefully constructed overflow channel to keep it only a few centimetres below the top of the intermediate dam. The result was that in all the views from the house the two lakes appear to be one.
A simpler instance is at Madingley, Cambridge, laid out in 1756-7. To achieve a long view across wooded parkland that was blocked by the principal approach road into the adjacent village as well as to create a suitable lake, Brown had a huge ha-ha constructed wide and deep enough to hide the road and all its traffic. The spoil from it, as well as earth from the new lake, was dumped between the ha-ha and the lake to provide a dam for the latter and to heighten the inside edge of the former. Although both of these projects were relatively uncomplicated, as with many other of Brown’s schemes they required a great deal of forethought by the designer as well as careful execution by his workmen.