Landscaping a legacy

From the wilds of Yorkshire to the bustling Home Counties there is scarcely a corner of England that Capability Brown didn't touch. This year, 300 years on from his birth􀀏 there are many reasons to celebrate.

Few individuals made an impression on England's landscape like Lancelot "Capability" Brown. Born 300 years ago in Northumberland to a yeoman farmer, this pioneering landscape architect is honoured in 2016 with a host of tercentenary celebrations. One of these is a special exhibition at the Mercer Art Gallery in Harrogate,conceived by the Yorkshire Gardens Trust and sponsored by Savills York. “We’re thrilled to be involved. Capability Brown designed more landscapes in Yorkshire than in any other county in England,” says Elizabeth Nelson of Savills Estate Management.

Brown was incredibly prolific, re-shaping more than 250 landscapes during a time of great agricultural reform across Britain. Unlike the labour-intensive parterres and water canals of the 17th century’s formal landscapes, Brown’s creations were a breath of fresh air, although they were costly and challenging to execute. Most often conceived on horseback, Brown had a natural ability to see the hidden potential or “capabilities” across a variety of landscapes.

Brown gave magnicent country houses such as Stowe, Burghley House (see page 32) and Blenheim Palace the grand settings they deserved, while singlehandedly establishing a style of landscaping that is now synonymous with the English pastoral countryside. And some of these estates are still enjoyed by subsequent generations of the families who employed Brown.

"My ancestor William St Quintin commissioned Capability Brown to redesign the grounds at Scampston in 1782 and we feel very privileged to live within a landscape designed by such a prominent figure," says Christopher Legard, owner of Scampston Hall near York.

Yet Brown’s plans were as concerned with practicality – lakes for fishing, pasture for grazing and tree-planting for shelter and game – as they were with pastoral beauty.

"I think it’s important to remember that the gardens designed by Capability Brown and by many of his successors were not only designed to sit in harmony with the countryside, they were created to be an integral part of its living and working fabric. As such, they have always helped the rural economy in surrounding areas,” observed Prince Charles earlier this year.

While the opportunity to purchase or manage a Brownian landscape may be relatively rare today, his principles of land management still apply and much can be borrowed by today’s landowner or estate manager.

"A Capability Brown landscape shouldn’t be intimidating," explains Philip Eddell of Savills Country House Consultancy. "Although created artificially, Brown’s landscapes look very natural and they are actually very straightforward to manage. It might only require a few sheep for grazing and occasional tree surgery. A genuine Brown landscape is likely to impose some limits, but it can also present valuable funding opportunities, such as grant aid, paid-for public access and stewardship agreements. It’s a little like inheriting a work of art that is, in reality, relatively low maintenance."

Of course, there are aspects of modern landscape management with which Brown did not have to contend, as Elizabeth observes: "We have climate change and new tree diseases to consider, but we can plant new species and varieties to encourage diversity while still respecting the overall design. The Capability Brown tercentenary is a wonderful catalyst for people to appreciate these landscapes again. The challenge now is maintaining a pure form of landscaping design, in a modern environment, in order to hand over our estates safely to the next generation."

Perhaps in the future we will revere the work of Brown’s successors – the likes of KimWilkie, Hal Moggridge and Tom Stuart-Smith. Certainly, the Brownian approach to landscape planning and management is something Philip recommends. "We actively encourage this type of landscaping because a country house doesn’t stop at the front door. However, it’s very important to start with an over-arching design or masterplan," he says. "Today’s estate owners generally want beautiful vistas and an appropriate setting for the principal house, to be a working environment that might be grazed or used for food production, and to be a sporting and wildlife habitat. All of these factors are consistent with an original Capability Brown landscape."



Key contacts

Philip Gready

Philip Gready

Executive Director
Rural, Energy & Projects Division

Savills Margaret Street

+44 (0) 20 3107 5470

+44 (0) 20 3107 5470


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