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Lancelot Brown, Lessons from Home 1716-39

Written by Jane Brown Adapted from her book Lancelot 'Capability' Brown 1716-1783, The Omnipotent Magician (Chatto & Windus 2011)

Kiddington GlymeThe River Glyme in the grounds of Kiddington Hall, Oxfordshire. Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. Copyright Montacilla.Magic, or the magical impression of his works, contributed greatly to Lancelot Brown’s fame.   When he was twenty-three he made his first lake by damming the river Glyme at Kiddington in north Oxfordshire, causing passers-by to wonder at this water where there was none before; at sixty and at the height of his fame, he ‘danced’ around the park at Wimpole in Cambridgeshire with Jemima, the feisty Marchioness Grey who owned Wrest Park and had ‘married’ Wimpole, and she noted, ‘Mr Brown has been leading me such a Fairy Circle & his Magic Wand has raised such landscapes to the Eye – not visionary for they were all there but his Touch has brought them out with the same Effect as a Painter’s Pencil upon Canvass’.   His ‘Touch’, his ability to read a landscape, and his memory for visual effects (that we would call a photographic memory) were the essence of what others called his ‘capabilities’, all cultivated from his childhood.

Sometime after their marriage in 1701 William and Ursula Brown came down from their native Redesdale in the Borders to settle on the 2,000 acre Kirkharle estate in the Wansbeck valley west of Morpeth, and raise their family of three girls and three boys. Lancelot, ‘Larnie’, was the youngest boy and only four when their father died, mourned as a respected member of their small community. Ursula Brown kept her family together in their traditional stone row cottage in Kirkharle village, her older boys John and George taught Larnie to ride and their sports and games – derived from their native fellcraft – taught him the pleasures and perils of the countryside he loved.  Later it was said that he made his parks all over England look like miniatures of his home Wansbeck valley.

Hampton Court Great VineGreat Vine House Hampton Court London. From Wikimedia Commons, copyright Jim LinwoodThe Brown boys went to school in neighbouring Cambo on the larger Wallington estate, and they may even have acquired a smattering of Latin at Morpeth grammar school. John Brown became a surveyor and eventually Sir William Loraine’s land agent at Kirkharle, and George was apprenticed as a stonemason at Wallington. For Lancelot it was a gardener’s apprenticeship but an unusual one, in that Sir William Loraine, who had spent most of his life as a London lawyer among friends with advanced scientific and horticultural tastes, was keen on improving his estate by clearing and draining his fields, making roads and planting thousands of trees and miles of hedges. He was also ‘skilful in the Fruit-Garden’ and planted some six hundred fruit trees – fruit growing became Lancelot’s abiding interest, much later he was to plant the Great Vine at Hampton Court and build walls for fruit whenever he had the chance, most notably at Luton Hoo in Bedfordshire, where his Great Walled Garden is now being restored.

It seems no coincidence that historians give 1738 as the year Sir William completed his improvements, as it was also the year Lancelot finished his apprenticeship. He was grown into a well-built, long-boned and attractive young man and an expert horseman – this was to be an ingredient of his success and he was to keep a saddle horse all his life despite acquiring a coach. All three brothers were personable characters, John had won the heart of the Loraines’ daughter Jane, and George was advancing to be a mason-architect at Wallington, where he married and settled and was valued all his life. Lancelot never ceased observing and learning and with John he surely saw  Sir William’s books, including  Stephen Switzer’s The Nobleman, Gentleman and Gardener’s Recreation, the writings of Philip Miller of the Chelsea Botanic Garden, and Batty Langley’s New Principles of Gardening, all illustrating the ways to make scientific and natural landscapes. Via George he met the professionals who came to Wallington, the architect Daniel Garrett who had worked for Lord Burlington at Chiswick House, and the surveyor William Joyce, a disciple of Switzer’s, and they both opened up for Lancelot the world of the itinerant professional who laid out gentleman’s estates. Having found what he wanted to do he tried for work in the North but the owners were more interested in their mines than their parks.

So he decided to leave in 1739 just before his twenty-third birthday; it was also significant that his mother Ursula had recently re-married and returned to Redesdale. Dame Anne Loraine gave him introductions to her father in Buckinghamshire and relatives in Lincolnshire, and as he wanted to learn more of water engineering in the Fens, he took ship for Boston. There he met his future wife, Bridget Wayet, an alderman’s daughter and river engineer’s sister; eventually his Buckinghamshire contacts led him to work at Stowe, where he married Bridget in 1744 and, provided that he worked hard, his future success was assured.