Capability Brown’s Greatest Gardens

2016 is the ‘Year of the English Garden’ and marks 300 years since the birth of our greatest gardener. We’re marking the occasion with a delightful directory of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s loveliest landscapes…

From humble beginnings, the landscape architect ‘Capability’ Brown rose to prominence by revolutionising the gardens and parklands around many of England’s finest estates. Signature sweeping vistas, serpentine lakes and artful tree plantings; Brown’s work was so naturalistic, garden and countryside were barely distinguishable. His harmonious style influences and endures in many of our most beautiful country houses today…

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

The lake in Blenheim Palace, blue sky with some clouds at sunset in Oxfordshire, England

A World Heritage Site and one of Britain’s grandest stately homes, the vast 2000 acre parkland around Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire is one of Brown’s most celebrated landscapes. In 1764, Brown’s work was in vogue and he was commissioned by the 4th Duke of Marlborough to transform his estate. The canal became a sinuous lake, while artfully planted trees defined a landscape that would constantly change as the viewer progressed. He also preserved Europe’s oldest collection of ancient oak trees, many of which are now almost 900 years old and still standing. Today, further Blenheim highlights include the wonderful Versailles-inspired Water Terraces, the splendid portrait and paintings collection and stunning Orangery restaurant. The adventure playground, butterfly house and miniature train are a must for families.

Highclere Castle, West Berkshire

Better known as the setting for the wildly popular TV series Downton Abbey, the imposing towers of Highclere Castle in Berkshire sit stunningly in the North Wessex Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Here, from 1771 Brown continued his theme of perfecting nature, smoothing lawns, creating lakes and hills and re-envisioning the formal into the natural. The house and gardens are open to the public on selected dates when visitors may explore both the lavish interior of the house and the elegant grounds, or make like a lady and quaff a champagne afternoon tea.  Downton – we mean Highclere – is about as English as it gets.

Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

Chatsworth house

The great house and gardens at Chatsworth are a jewel of northern England…indeed it’s the true ‘palace of the peak’; famous for its grand facade, striking 300 year old cascade and more than 100 acres of beautiful gardens. Between 1760 and 1764 Brown carried out large-scale landscape works here, transforming working farmland. He altered the course of the River Derwent, planted trees extensively and removed the estate’s formal gardens. His landscape vision endures today – a rolling green idyll, merging seamlessly with the verdant limestone landscape of its Peak District home. Don’t miss its impressive fountains,  wonderful walks through rare trees, sculptures and grazing herds of red and fallow deer.

Burghley House, Lincolnshire

Burghley in Lincolnshire, one of England’s greatest Elizabethan houses is regarded as Brown’s most important commission. His work here, close to the pretty riverside town of Stamford, took him 25 years to complete. He managed the beautiful vistas at Burghley, solved their drainage issues with a serpentine lake, and created the recently restored ha-ha – a small wall designed to keep the deer out of the garden whilst giving an uninterrupted view from the house to the parkland – a Brown signature feature . Notably, Burghley House (the architecture of which Brown also influenced) owns one of only two known portraits of the man, and it is displayed in their state rooms. This year, the house is hosting a range of specialist talks and walks with an exhibition dedicated to Brown’s legacy.

Hampton Court Palace, London

Hampton Court Palace

Brown’s illustrious career lifted him far above his lowly birth and in 1764 he was  appointed as Chief Gardener at Hampton Court Palace by King George III. The land agent’s son moved to live within the palace walls. Capability’s most dramatic legacy here is the Great Vine.  Planted  in 1768  it’s the world’s largest grape vine. It  still bears fruit and every September the sweet black grapes are available to buy in the palace shops. Today, Hampton Court’s many highlights include the royal Chocolate Kitchen, the Privy Garden and the maze. This year there’s also a special exhibition – ‘The Empress and the Gardener’; a fascinating collection of drawings from the time Capability was in charge. They provide a rare and  important record of life at Hampton Court in London towards the end of the 18th century.

Harewood House, West Yorkshire

The rolling swathes of green created by ‘Capability’ inside Harewood House’s boundaries are so inspiring that they were captured by another celebrated and particularly English luminary, the painter JMW Turner. The beautiful, Grade I listed, deer-grazed parkland at Harewood in Yorkshire, now patrolled by wheeling red kites, has survived largely unchanged since Brown spent six years creating it. The great curving sweeps of the carriage drive and the 32 acre serpentine lake are key Brownian features and still delight the eye today. Harewood House is celebrating their Capability connection with a series of guided walking tours and a new ‘Art of Landscape’ exhibition, exploring his cultural influence.

Audley End, Essex

Audley End Stately Home

It may not be hugely famous, but Audley End in Essex is one of England’s finest Jacobean houses, surrounded by a gorgeous example of Capability Brown’s work. By the banks of the river Cam (canalised by Brown to make a slim-line, gently curving lake) and protected by wooded slopes, this magnificent building enjoys a glorious position in  unspoilt English countryside. As sumptuous as any royal palace, (it was in fact bought as a country residence by Charles II) it is preserved in its majesty today by English Heritage.  Art aficionados will be wooed by the wonderful collection of Old Master paintings hanging inside, including a Holbein, and the striking Jacobean oak screen in the Great Hall.

Dinefwr Park, Carmarthenshire, Wales

A Site of Special Scientific Interest and the only parkland National Nature Reserve in Wales, Dinefwr is a beautifully diverse habitat of woodlands, wildflower meadows and beautiful bogland. Pertinently, it is also a historic house set in an 18th-century landscape park and medieval deer park with the only Capability Brown garden open to the public in Wales. The Park’s socialite owners commissioned Brown in 1775 to recreate the kind of undulating and idyllic gardens of their fashionable friends in London, and the tidy landscape was duly naturalised. Special tercentenary Capability Brown Walks this year are being organised by its custodians, the National Trust.

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