Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783 by Jane Brown

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Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783 by Jane Brown

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Category: Biography
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A biography of the noted 18th century landscape gardener, whose expertise transformed many country estates of the age.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Pimlico
ISBN: 9781845951795

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According to William Cowper in his poem of 1785, 'The Task', The omnipotent magician, Brown appears. It is this quotation from which Jane Brown (seemingly no relation) takes her sub-title for this life of the renowned 18th century landscape gardener Lancelot 'Capability' Brown.

Among those who helped their contemporaries living through the Age of Enlightenment to see the world around them in a different light, Brown was unquestionably one of the most influential. Having trained as a gardener, as a young man he acquired an exhaustive knowledge of plants and trees, as well as of drainage and water management. To this was added a rare ability to look at the dullest of gardens and landscapes, decide that they had 'capabilities' for improvement (hence the time-honoured epithet), and persuade the owner that a transformation was both possible and desirable.

Born in Northumberland in 1716, he moved to Buckinghamshire as a young man, serving a valuable apprenticeship under the pioneer landscape gardener William Kent at Stowe, and rising to the peak of his profession in 1764 when he was appointed Master Gardener at Hampton Court. It was an honour he accepted with some amusement and limited expectations, suspecting that George III and his family seemed happiest with old-fashioned, string-around-the trousers gardeners, but aware that royal recognition would give him added status among his clients. A plain-speaking man, he had a reputation for treating and addressing his aristocratic patrons with due deference and respect, but without excessive flattery, always ready to say what he meant. William Pitt the Elder, Earl of Chatham, who became a friend and staunch supporter, once said that he knew Brown to be an honest man, and of sentiments much above his birth.

It has been estimated that he was responsible for over 170 gardens attached to country houses and estates throughout Britain. The major instances were at Blenheim Palace, Warwick Castle, Chatsworth and Harewood Houses, Kew Gardens, Petworth, Broadlands, and Croome Court, where he added to his talents by also designing the house. Where the bricks and mortar were already in place, he brought his genius to bear on the landscape, providing lakes, drives, ornamental walks and woodland, all in harmony with the fields nearby set aside for agriculture.

The majority of this book is about the works he created, described in painstaking detail. Yet the author also reveals something of the man behind it all, his family life and ancestry, his wife and children, and something of the political undercurrents of the time. Just occasionally her style becomes a little florid and over-imaginative, as in the description of one landscape being exuberantly hilly, as if it has escaped from the sea and is lurching and laughing in delight. On another page she describes how his wife 'Biddy' (Bridget) nurses him during a serious illness, and we read that she now became the one woman who excited him to emotional extremes in the case of loving gratitude. Admittedly, he has left very little in the way of correspondence or personal papers, but even so there is surely no need to resort to such flights of fancy. As he himself might have said, he let his creations say basically all there needed to be said about him.

The story of Brown does not end with his death, and there is a measured summary of his achievements, in that over a 35-year career he had transformed several thousand acres of landscape, as well as providing badly-needed employment to a large number of labourers, while being a fair and considerate taskmaster to them. The author also points out that there was a reaction against his parks and indeed his principles in general during the Victorian era, and not until the 1920s was there some long-overdue appreciation of the lost world of the 18th century. Sadly, it was not only the general expense of maintaining country houses and the bulldozer masquerading in the name of progress, but also Dutch elm disease and the severe storms of 1987 and 1990, felling ancient trees by the thousand, which between them destroyed much of what remained of the lost world – and a goodly part of Brown's legacy at the same time.

Thankfully a few of his estates survive, as do the pictures showing them in all their glory. The book is attractively presented, using several half-tone images integrated with the text, complementing two colour plate sections of paintings by Claude, Turner, Stubbs and Wilson, as well as portraits and even caricatures. It is a fairly demanding, not a light read, but a very worthwhile one.

If this book appeals then youmigh also enjoy Pitt the Elder: Man of War by Edward Pearce

Buy Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783 by Jane Brown at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783 by Jane Brown at

Buy Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783 by Jane Brown at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: The Omnipotent Magician 1716-1783 by Jane Brown at


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