To the auditorium of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Cambridge (the amazingly heavy door of which was clearly not designed for the demographic of the Friends of Cambridge University Botanic Garden). However, we are stalwart types, and having overcome this obstacle, we sat down, in seats considerably more comfortable than I ever experienced as an undergraduate, to learn about Lancelot Brown.
The contrast between his romantic first name and his prosaic last is striking – but of course we all know him not as Lancelot but as Capability, and, as our splendid lecturer, Dr Laura Mayer, remarked, we would have to have been living quite a long way under a heavy stone not to realise that this year is the tercentenary of his birth, probably in August 1716. The actual date of his birth is one of a very large number of facts which are not known about him, including the name of his mother and how tall he was. He was baptised on 30 August, and was the fifth of six children of William Brown, a farmer of Kirkharle, Northumberland. After basic education at the school in nearby Cambo, he went to work in the garden of the local big house, owned by the Loraine family.
Aged about 23, he moved south, and came to the attention of Lord Cobham, who in 1741 appointed him as head gardener at Stowe, and therefore responsible for the execution of the massive works which were transforming the surrounding parkland to the designs of James Gibbs and William Kent. He seems to have quickly begun added features of his own, replacing the parterre at the south front of the house with a sweeping lawn, reshaping lakes, excavating the Grecian valley, ‘irregularising’ the formal avenues of trees to create ‘vistas’ – doing everything, in fact, which we associate with a Capability Brown landscape.
While at Stowe, Brown began to work as an independent designer, working on Wotton (also in Buckinghamshire), Croome Park (Worcestershire), Packington (Warwickshire), Warwick Castle, Wakefield Lodge (Northants.), and (considerably further afield) Petworth in Sussex.
On Cobham’s death in 1751, he moved with his growing family to the tranquil village of Hammersmith, west of London, home of the famous Vineyard Nursery, which had been established in 1745 by Lewis Kennedy and James Lee, gardeners to Lord Bolton at Chiswick and the duke of Somerset at Syon House respectively. (Lee had been apprenticed to the great Philip Miller at the Chelsea Physic Garden, and corresponded with Linnaeus, to whose new binomial system he wrote an introduction; and the partners had a network of plant suppliers all over the world: the Fuchsia magellanica was one of their introductions.)
From the Mall at Hammersmith, Brown really got going. Very few of his personal papers survive (and he published nothing, unlike some of his rivals, emulators and detractors), but the record of part of his bank account with Drummonds Bank (now part of the RBS) exists: it shows that he turned over very large amounts of money for most of his career (and of course many payments and receipts in cash would not have passed through the bank at all). However, as Dr Mayer pointed out, his success depended on having the co-operation of as many as twenty main sub-contractors (surveyors, engineers, earth-movers, gardeners…) who in turn employed ranks of skilled and unskilled labourers, gardeners and tree-movers. It appears that Brown would provide a bespoke service of what he called ‘place-making’, from riding round your grounds and coming up with a plan which you could then implement yourself (many who tried to save money this way became badly unstuck, especially over the water features), to overseeing the whole process in person (which became much harder as he struggled with more and more commissions all over the country).
Meanwhile, Brown was rising higher in the social world: he obtained the post of master gardener at the royal palaces of St James, Richmond and Hampton Court, where he lived from 1764 at Wilderness House, and was responsible for planting the great vine in 1768.
There are two likenesses of him known to exist: a portrait by Nathaniel Dance (c. 1773) in which he looks like a quizzical clergyman, and another by Richard Cosway (1770-5), more informally dressed, without the wig, and smiling. The former was engraved by John Keyse Sherwin (1751-90), and seems to have circulated widely.
Quite how many gardens and parks Brown actually had a hand in is not clear. There is an interactive map showing almost 300 gardens in England and Wales alone attributed to him, and there is a very useful list here which shows which attributions are certain and which less so. I cannot find any references to Brown’s working in Scotland (though he did collaborate with Robert Adam, who designed interiors at Croome Court, Compton Verney, Syon House and Audley End, all Brown gardens). He famously said, when asked if he would work in Ireland, that he hadn’t finished with England yet…
One of the most intriguing insights given by Dr Mayer was that of Brown’s plan for Cambridge. In 1772 St John’s College had asked him to design a ‘wilderness’, which still exists today, and he seems to have gone one further, offering the university a landscape design which integrated the area along the river behind the colleges – the famous Backs.
His plan was to widen the Cam to form a lake below King’s College chapel, with tree planting to frame the iconic view of the chapel and Gibbs Building.
He proposed to do away with all the college boundary walls and fences, and the bridges, and conceal all the other college building with carefully planted clumps of trees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the individual colleges reacted in a territorial manner, and the scheme went no further. But there are two other Brown gardens within very easy reach of Cambridge, Madingley Hall (1756) and Wimpole Hall (1769), and, extraordinarily enough, he ended up a Cambridgeshire (well, Huntingdonshire, in those days) landowner himself.
The earl of Northampton was so ambitious in his landscaping ideas for his seat at Castle Ashby, and so short of ready money to execute them, that he ended up paying his debts to Brown in kind with the Fenstanton estate, near Cambridge. Brown died on 6 February 1783, at the Wilderness, having collapsed on returning from a visit to Lord Coventry at Croome Court, and was buried at St Peter and St Paul’s church at Fenstanton. There is a modern gravestone in the churchyard, and a spectacular family monument inside the church.
As Dr Mayer pointed out, we no longer see quite what Brown had planned at any of his famous gardens, since all would have been planted with some shorter-lived trees which have long since vanished from the scene. But after 250 or so years, some at least of the more long-lived specimens must be reaching a tipping point in terms of age: how is the future of these gardens – which are the same time both completely artificial constructs and what everyone thinks of as the quintessential English landscape – to be secured?