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Capability Brown comes of age

By Hayley Hannan
The nationwide celebration of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s life, work and legacy is gathering momentum as the Capability Brown Festival takes shape, celebrating the man and his achievements three hundred years after his birth.

Examples of Capability Brown’s landscapes span England and Wales yet his influence reaches across the globe, with parks and gardens inspired by his work being found being found in many parts of the world. From serene landscapes, designed for multi-purpose play and economic functionality, to walled kitchen gardens or water management schemes, Brown is estimated to have worked or advised on a staggering 255 sites across the country. A prolific worker, Brown is credited with evolving the archetypal Arcadian English landscape style, yet he left few written records. This lack of a paper trail has meant that he has not been studied or celebrated in the same way that many of his eighteenth century groundbreaking contemporaries have been.

Brown is considered ‘the last of the great English eighteenth-century artists to be accorded his due’. The epitome of an Enlightenment polymath, he blended art, science, engineering and design to create natural and beautiful landscapes that are still visited, admired, emulated and celebrated today.

The memorable nickname of ‘Capability’ is thought to have come from his practice of telling landowners that their landscape had ‘capabilities’. He travelled the country by horseback often installing lakes, bridges, follies, meadows and woods, and replacing earlier formal gardens. His landscapes are renowned both for their feeling and their functionality and were at the forefront of fashion. The upcoming Capability Brown Festival has evolved from a growing demand that he be properly recognised and celebrated. It is funded with a development grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, enabling the project team to scope out and develop what may be  the largest festival of its kind ever attempted in the UK. It is managed by the Landscape Institute and unites 17 partners.

The festival will build over the next 16 months, culminating in nationwide celebrations in 2016, the 300th anniversary of his birth Activities will take on a myriad of forms to help people access, understand and celebrate Capability Brown, his work,
and his landscapes.

The project has two key strands. The first is increasing public access to the sites Brown created and advised on. The festival will open up access to Capability Brown sites not usually seen by the public, as well as deepening knowledge and access at Brown sites currently open. People will be able to explore, interpret and engage with Brown’s legacy landscapes, features and houses as never before. Schools, charitable trusts, independent and public sites, local authorities, landscape architects, festival partners and any other interested groups will be supported and encouraged to work together to provide a network of open sites, site background information and interactive interpretations on site and on-line.

The second strand of the project is to discover more about Brown’s work, and how he created his amazing landscapes and management systems with the tools available in the 18th century. Universities, schools, landscape courses, researchers, media, volunteers, independent groups and passionate individuals are encouraged to undertake research projects on Brown and his work, which will be collated into a knowledge base and shared through exhibitions, websites and a range of events.

The Capability Brown Festival project network and framework were launched with an information day at Compton Verney in June. Attendance was at capacity, with 95 guests. In between presentations and workshops, the tea room buzzed with enthusiasm as site owners, managers, representatives of schools and local authorities, landscape architects and project partners shared Brown stories, ideas and ambitions.

Even 298 years on, Capability Brown has a far-reaching influence. For Steve Fancourt, Arup associate landscape architect, Brown’s work still applies to contemporary landscape architecture. ‘I am fascinated by the fact that in the 18th century, he was designing with a multi-disciplinary mind, and I think that that has huge resonance today,’ he says.

‘Some of the things he was dealing with on a massive scale – landscape engineering, architecture, landscape architecture – are all things that we have to address in the current environment. Some of his thinking affects projects like High Speed 2, the Olympic Park, new housing areas, eco towns and urban extensions.’

Steve is interested in how Brown transformed the landscapes into what is seen today.

‘[Brown’s landscapes are] usually well-managed, and calm and serene, but at one point there was massive change involving construction, lots of people, moving villages, converting streams to lakes, and I’m fascinated by the process,’ he says. ‘If you speak the language, you can understand that the landscape you see today is totally man-made and involved mathematics, engineering, and landscape. He fused all those sciences and creative arts.’

Kirkharle, Brown’s birthplace in what is now Northumberland, is a community already well entrenched in Brown celebrations and knowledge. Kitty Anderson co-owns and runs Kirkharle Courtyard and Lake, which sees 40,000 visitors stream in annually to see a lake built from a Brown plan and the artist courtyard and workshops.

For Kitty, hopefully the festival celebrations will encourage more schools to get involved. She already works with local schools to learn about Brown, build interpretation boards and visit trees and landscapes, but is lacking a formal education pack which she expects will develop through the festival planning.

At the other end of the spectrum, Lee Marshallsay, from Harrow School in Middlesex, hopes to get involved in the festival by opening up access to a golf course adjoining the school which was built on a Brown design.

Lee’s next step is readjusting the landscape to reflect Brown’s work, he says.

‘Our landscape is trying to get back a little bit of how it used to be – it’s a golf course, and that’s not going to change, but we’re just trying to readjust it a bit,’ Lee says.
‘It’s about finding out about how the site was when Brown was alive.’

At the same time, the school grounds team and school staff are learning about Capability Brown themselves, as they weren’t aware of the depth of his influence before the festival.

The challenge for Lee, he says, is then to figure out how to share Brown’s influence at Harrow School with the wider public.

‘The question you’ve got to ask is how do you get people to know about it?... It’s a tough one to get people to learn about him, and understand.’

Whatever the academic or event focus, the festival gives sites the opportunity to open people’s eyes to the beauty of landscape. As John Phibbs, principal of Debois Landscape Survey Group, said at the Compton Verney Information Day, a united celebration of Brown has been a long time coming.

‘What makes Brown fantastically international and good, is the scale of Brown’s work. Only then will we realise that he’s bigger than Brunel, bigger than the engineers that work on sites.

"This guy transformed England, and that’s why we’re here today."

Hayley Hannan is communications officer for the Capability Brown Festival.

Find out more about the Capability Brown Festival, or get involved through
or email Ceryl Evans, Festival project manager on
[email protected]

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