Happy birthday to “Capability” Brown

This year we celebrate the 300th birthday of Lancelot “Capability” Brown.  His precise birthday is unknown but he was baptised on 30 August.  An English landscape architect, he earnt the nickname “Capability” because of his ability to assess the “capabilities” of the natural landscape: so it wasn’t, as one might assume, Brown himself who was “capable” or “gifted” but the landscape itself that had the “capacity” for improvement.  Brown was immensely sought after by landed families and in 1764 was appointed King George III’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace.

Numerous examples of Brown’s work can be found in Hampshire. In 1767 he begun a major architectural transformation of the Broadlands estate near Romsey; the work was later completed by architect, and Brown’s son-in-law, Henry Holland.


Broadlands [Cope Collection cq72 BRO pr 41]

The Broadlands Archives contains one letter from “Capability” Brown to Henry Temple, second Viscount Palmerston, concerning work undertaken from 1766 to 1779.  He writes from Hampton Court on 17 November 1779 to discuss his bill and tell Palmerston that the man currently at Mr. Fleming’s will level the hedgerows: “he is an old man but very sober and very honest.” [BR103/18/7]

The grounds were clearly being enjoyed by the second Viscount and his family and friends as shown by his (undated) measurements of the “pleasure ground”:

The tour from the south door to the river by the upper walk, by the river skittle ground wood, by the brook side to the vase and back by the upper walk to the house which may be called the short tour is one mile one furlong and 3 poles or one mile and half a quarter nearly. [BR103/18/11]

Broadlands was not the only Hampshire estate on which Brown applied his landscaping genius.  Hans Sloane inherited the estate of Paultons Ower, near Romsey, from Hans Stanley in 1780 and changed his name to Hans Sloane Stanley as a sign of gratitude.


Paultons, c.1830.  [Cope Collection cq72 PAU pr60]

The estate, now covering 3000 acres, was modelled and designed by Capability Brown in the eighteenth century.  The park is now better know as the home of Peppa Pig World.

South Stoneham House in Swaythling was once the seat of the Barons Swaythling. The building is currently owned by the University and until recently was used as a hall of residence.

South Stoneham

Gardens at South Stoneham House, 1920s

The previously formal grounds were landscaped between 1772 and 1780 by Capability Brown at a cost of £1,050. In 1819 it was bought by John Willis Fleming, who also owned the manor of North Stoneham the location of yet  another of Brown’s landscape projects.

The original Cadland House was built in the late 1770s for Robert Drummond, a member of the prominent banking family. Designed by Henry Holland, it had a landscape park laid out by Capability Brown, which included a fishing lodge surrounded by an eight acre garden.


Image of Cadlands Park, 1780 [rare Books cope cq 72 CAD, pr.44]

In the late 1940s, the house was demolished to make way for the Fawley Oil Refinery. The present Cadland House stands on the site of the fishing lodge and its garden, one of Brown’s smallest designs, has recently been restored.

Highcliffe Castle was built between 1831 and 1835 by Lord Stuart de Rothesay within the grounds of High Cliff, a Georgian mansion designed for the 3rd Earl of Bute, grandfather of Lord Stuart. High Cliff was built between 1773 and 1787 and Capability Brown was involved in some part with the design of the grounds.  High Cliff was one of only two Capability Brown seaside sites the other being Cadland. Both of these sites were in Hampshire but in 1974 the County boundary was moved eastwards, thus placing the earlier “Brown” park and its successor house, Highcliffe Castle, in Dorset.


Highcliffe drawn by Callander [Cope Collections cqHIH 72 pr 599]

There are numerous events taking place as part of the Capability Brown Festival 2016 including Capabili-Teas, talks, tours, conferences and family-friendly events.  A textile exhibition on a Capability Brown theme will be on display at the Sir Harold Hillier Gardens until October.


4 responses to “Happy birthday to “Capability” Brown

  1. You have inspired me to write this post, so I have given your blog post a plug on it – hope that is a fair exchange…
    Sol https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/37749613/posts/1137975885

  2. Pingback: 2016: Year in review | University of Southampton Special Collections

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