Chatsworth is my nearest Capability Brown garden. I love seeing it appear through the wild scenery of the Peak District, as it might have done to Jane Austen when she wrote Pride and Prejudice*. It makes me take a sharp intake of breath, just as a cab driver told me the Downton Abbey fans do on first seeing Highclere appear from behind the trees, that or they scream. Capability’s dramatic reveals are still thrilling people 300 years later.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, designed gardens at some of the country’s greatest stately homes including Blenheim Palace, Chatsworth and Highclere. This year is the Year of the Garden, the 300th anniversary of Brown’s birth. I was lucky to spend a day at Highclere Castle earlier this year, location of Downton Abbey, learning lots more about Brown’s work from Lady Carnarvon and her team of experts.
If you ever want to pretend to your kids, parents, in laws or a know-it-all sibling that you’re a secret garden whizz, here’s all you need to know to pass yourself off as a Capability Brown expert.
Lesson One – managing large grounds is an epic task, each layer of history makes that more complex too.
If you have ever moved into a new house and wondered where to start with the garden, imagine trying to unfathom a garden the size of the ones Capability Brown created? These days castle and palace owners call on academic garden history experts like Professor Timothy Mowl and Dr Kate Felus who have helped to unravel the layers created by Capability Brown at Highclere. Lady Carnarvon was able to point out trees that have been planted in the ‘wrong place’, unravelling Mr Brown’s intentions hundreds of years later is a complex puzzle of joining together maps, plans, letters and expert knowledge of his intentions.
As I discovered on my tour, managing the landscape in the same way Capability Brown intended allows visitors to see the places he landscaped at their best. Clearing excess growth at Highclere has helped wildlife too, and encouraged many forgotten species to return.
Lesson Two – don’t assume the land looked anything like this before Brown arrived!
Kate and Timothy also taught me to appreciate understand Capabilities intentions. His work was very intentional, the landscapes were dramatically altered to create views that appear completely natural. It is very easy to take them for granted for that very reason. Lady Carnarvon explained Brown made the rolls in this lawn to make it feel more natural. Kate pointed out the stunning views of the castle and other landmarks that Capability Brown sculpted in the landscape. Tim explained that Capability Brown insisted the bends in the lake had to have have the straightest edges, such precision was necessary to create the ‘effect’ of a natural lake.
Lesson Three – Always pay attention to how the building first appears from the grounds as you arrive – chances are it is a piece of landscape theatre.
We stopped along the driveway and suddenly from behind an ancient cedar tree we saw the castle. We must have looked a strange sight, a group of journalists popping out from behind a tree, playing Capability Brown ‘Peepoo’ by popping out from behind a tree to rewind and replay the dramatic entrance of the castle. Brown completely planned the gradual reveal of the castle.
Lesson Four – take time to stop and stand and really see why paths, structures and trees have been placed. Does the landscape suggest you stand in a particular place to catch a view?
The landscape was structured to bring focus to follies and structures like Jackdaw’s Temple, Heaven’s Gate and the Tower. These are places for family and guests, and now visitors to the castle, to eat and play. Taking photos I became suddenly aware that standing beside certain trees shaped my view of these wonderful follies and buildings – Capability’s work is so intentional. Kate explained how boats on the lake were described in letters as ‘pretty moving summerhouses’ and would have been an important focal point.
Lesson Five – look at the colours, textures and shapes, how do they create perspective or punctuate the landscape?
Kate explained that Capability Brown (that’s his statue above) described how he would ‘punctuate the landscape’ with trees – even the colour of bark was designed to create ‘aerial perspective’, with trees placed to move down the garden from dark dark to light. Looking over his shoulder here, I think I can see that tree that shouldn’t be there, can you?
If you want to test your new found Capability Brown skills on a real place, Classic British Hotels have identified some great garden breaks around the UK, including Blenheim and Chatsworth.
*In Pride and Prejudice, Chatsworth was used as Pemberley, the residence of Mr. Darcy. It is believed that Jane Austen based her idea of Pemberley on Chatsworth House, she wrote the novel while in Bakewell.