History of Capability Brown | Living North

History of Capability Brown

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Northumberland countryside
Three hundred years ago Capability Brown was born in a tiny place in Northumberland. He would go on to become friends with a king, and be remembered as the Shakespeare of gardening. We looked back at this incredible man
‘What they had stumbled across was a landscape design for Kirkharle Estate, which Capability had drawn centuries before but had never put into action’

Three hundred years ago, one of Britain’s most famous landscape architects was born in Kirkharle, Northumberland. The son of a yeoman farmer and chambermaid, Lancelot Brown (nicknamed ‘Capability’ after becoming renowned for describing land as ‘having capabilities’) would go on to become gardener for King George III and the most famous landscape architect in British history.

Leading Northumberland’s anniversary celebrations will be Kitty Anderson and her husband John, who first became interested in Capability in 1980, when they inherited Kirkharle Estate and all that was within it, including one very important document from Capability’s early life. ‘We were clearing out drawers and I found this plan which my husband got extremely excited about,’ says Kitty. ‘I was so young and innocent, I barely knew who Capability Brown was – but we sent it off to Newcastle University to be authenticated.’ 

What they had stumbled across was a landscape design for Kirkharle Estate, which Capability had drawn centuries before but had never put into action. After the university authenticated the plans, they were confined to the drawer for another 25 years until 2008,  when Kitty and John decided to dig them out and finally bring them to life. They had to be amended slightly (the A696 now runs through the estate, meaning a huge lake on his designs would be impossible), but they stayed as true to the original as was practical, and now they get visitors from far and wide flocking to see a Capability Brown garden as his clients would have experienced it – in its infancy.

Kirkharle is just one of many gardens Capability was involved with – it’s thought that he worked on over 170 gardens across the country including Alnwick Castle;  Hampton Court Palace where he was King George III’s Master Gardener; Blenheim Palace, where he was commissioned by the fourth Duke of Marlborough; and Wrest Park in Bedfordshire where Marchioness Grey asked him to entirely remodel the grounds. Yet nowhere is celebrating his birthday quite as hard as Northumberland.

‘I think many, many people have absolutely no idea that Northumberland played such an important role in his life,’ says Kitty, who is now a Capability Brown expert. Capability’s father worked as a yeoman farmer for Sir William Loraine who owned Kirkharle Estate and his mother was in service at Kirkharle Hall, so he spent his youth walking from the estate to his school in Cambo. This is where many believe he got inspiration for his future designs.

When he left school at 16, he became an apprentice gardener to Sir William Loraine. ‘He learned his skills there including how to do waterworks,’ says Kitty. ‘We’ve discovered some water developments that were probably done in his time.’ At 23 he moved south to work for Lord Cobham at Stowe where he made his name working under the pioneer of the new English style of landscape gardening, William Kent. Capability was soon being given his own commissions by Lord Cobham’s friends, mainly (and rather handily) aristocrats with huge estates.

Even though he’s hugely celebrated, he isn’t always coming up roses among the gardening community however. ‘Some people passionately don’t like what he did,’ Kitty admits. ‘They feel he shouldn’t have swept away all the formal gardens and others think that his work is just absolutely wonderful. People adore water and trees, and his ability to put the two together make it a wonderful visual experience.’

Still, to go from farmer’s son to king’s acquaintance was quite a feat. ‘I think he probably had huge charisma,’ Kitty admits. ‘He had terrific skill, vision, understanding and empathy with the landscape but he was equally a very charming man that all the gentry loved to know. He became their house guest – he didn’t go to do the work and stay in a gardener’s cottage, he stayed with them in the big house.’

This year, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of his birth, Kirkharle is hosting an events programme with the help of the CB300 organisation. It may sound secretive and James Bond-esque but CB300 was set up by the Landscape Institute in London with the aim of making the anniversary a national celebration. ‘They were awarded a £911,000 grant from Heritage Lottery which has enabled them to employ people to crank up all the marketing and to help celebrate in the best way possible,’ explains Kitty.

Despite Kirkharle being one of the smaller sites they certainly aren’t holding back. Kitty has called in the help of some big names, including Alexander Armstrong (because, as she points out, ‘He’s another local boy made good’) who will be singing at a flower festival and concert at St Wilfrid’s Church where Capability was baptised, painter Tim Scott Bolton who will be signing copies of his new book on Capability Brown, and even Giles Hodges of Flog It who will be doing an antiques evaluation.

Alongside this there’ll be an opportunity to walk from Kirkharle to Cambo (as Capability would have done on his way to school), enjoy performances from Fingask Castle’s entertainers the Fingask Fillies and John Cobb (who does an excellent one man show on the life of Capability Brown).

It’s all kicking off with a torchlit procession around Kirkharle Lake on Easter Saturday with an appearance from Capability himself (impossible, you say? Just watch) and an abundance of tasty food and drink. It’s fair to say Northumberland will be doing Capability’s legacy justice.

Published in: May 2016

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