Celebrating Many Shades of Capability Brown in Buckinghamshire
Written by Claire de Carle MA, Buckinghamshire Gardens Trust
2016 marks 300 years since the birth of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, the renowned landscape designer. Brown is estimated to have worked or advised on over 255 sites across the country, with 17 sites being attributed to him in the historic county of Buckinghamshire.
Portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brownc.1770-75, Cosway, Richard (1742-1821)
Private Collection / Bridgeman ImagesThree of these Buckinghamshire sites are considered amongst his greatest works: Stowe, Wotton House and Ashridge. He arrived at Stowe (Grade I listed / National Trust) in 1741, aged 25 and stayed for ten years, becoming head gardener to Lord Cobham. Whilst there, he created the Grecian Valley and started to establish a name for himself. In the 1750s Brown laid out the stunning landscape dominated by lakes at nearby Wotton House (Grade II* / privately owned). At Ashridge (Grade II* / National Trust) he apparently created the Golden Valley.
His genius was in his instant ability to see how a work of art could be created out of raw land or an existing formal garden. His nickname is said to have come from this ability to size up a site. “Why my Lord”, he replied when asked his opinion by a client, “the place has its capabilities”.
Anecdotes of Mr Brown the gardener. The Morning Post, 30th July 1774.
Capability Brown is credited with establishing the archetypal Arcadian English landscape garden yet few written records and no plans or drawings survive for the Brown sites in Bucks. The attribution of the sites has been possible from information that survives in several account books from the period; some kept by Brown himself and others by Drummonds Bank, plus other documentary sources.
For the past two years the Buckinghamshire Gardens Trust (BGT) has run a Research and
Recording Project (the pilot scheme was funded by HLF), visiting many of the 400+ significant historic gardens across the county and recording the findings to ensure their protection for future generations. The Trust has looked at some of Brown's lesser known sites, which are not included on the Historic England Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, some of which
are within the Chilterns. These are Chalfont House (the house and grounds now containing
offices), Chenies Manor, (in association with Latimer Park, Grade II), Boarstall Tower Tower (National Trust), Stoke Place (now a hotel) and Stoke Poges Manor (privately owned).
Painting of Chalfont House by Thomas Girtin, circa 1796Brown's account books show he was paid 15gns for two visits to Boarstall in 1769, however it does not appear that any work was carried out there. At Chalfont House he was paid £35 which may have covered the cost of survey. The landscape work at Chalfont, including a lake created by damming the River Misbourne was carried out by Nathanial Richmond, with further improvements made by Humphrey Repton. This landscape remains largely intact, despite the later addition of a golf course and the A413 now bisecting the parkland. An Italian garden designed by Lutyens and Jeykell in the twentieth century is now sadly gone.
Throughout 2016, the work of this remarkable man will be celebrated through a nationwide Capability Brown Festival, including several events in the Chilterns. For more information on the Festival visit: www.capabilitybrown.org
As well as the Buckinghamshire sites mentioned in this article, Capability Brown also worked at, or influenced work at a number of sites in and close to the Chilterns. Records suggest he was responsible for gardens and parkland at Caversham, Denham, Fawley Court, Langley, Luton Hoo, Rycote, Taplow Court, Thame Park, The Hoo (Hitchin) and Wycombe Abbey.
Some of these sites are in private ownership and not open to public. Check www.parksandgardens.org for more information.
This article was featured in Chilternsaetna, Issue 10, Spring 2016 and has been reproduced with kind permission from Claire de Carle.
The BGT Research & Recording project is currently funded by The Finnis Scott Foundation and The Stanley Smith (UK) Horticultural Trust.