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Exploring the evergreen appeal of Capability Brown’s grand landscape designs

300 years after his birth, the influence of the great landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is still very apparent — and growing — in contemporary garden design. Savills’ Philip Eddell and Chelsea...

300 years after his birth, the influence of the great landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown is still very apparent — and growing — in contemporary garden design. Savills’ Philip Eddell and Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medallist Marcus Barnett explore the principles and inspirations that make these designs so enduring.

In the tercentenary since his birth Capability Brown’s work  remains an important feature of our landscape. His introduction of more open and informal designs, which sat comfortably with the broader environs were a pleasing alternative to the more formal and intricate layouts previously adopted.

It  is testament to his vision that so many of the landscapes he shaped remain little changed today and many of today’s designers freely admit to being influenced by his achievements. Impressive statues at the end of long formal vistas which are there despite, not because of, the local landscape are being replaced with designs which are more sympathetic to the surrounding geography. The recent television series cataloguing the completion of his design for Belvoir Castle (pictured below) has contributed to a greater awareness of his work. Similar to seeing architect’s drawings come to life when construction of a building is underway, seeing how landscape designs are interpreted, mapped out and created with planting and earth works is quite compelling.

Herefords near lake - Belvoir Castle low res

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#008000″ class=”” size=””]Landscaping on a significant scale is making a return – and much of it is done with the spirit of Capability Brown firmly in mind[/pullquote]

Landscaping on a significant scale (but rarely a match for his) is also making a return – and much of it is done with the spirit of Capability Brown firmly in mind. In the 21st century good design has become increasingly important and part of our national consciousness. For instance a “Grand Design” style of project is now a widely understood concept, and there is an appreciation that good design (rather than mere utility) should apply to any project regardless of scale or budget.

Gardens have undoubtedly moved up the priority list and for most who can afford to create a genuinely beautiful not merely impressive garden, it is now a “must have”. It is fair to say a “house” does not start at the front door or the exterior walls, the situation (as opposed to simply the location) is  just as important.  The approach might be designed to create a sense of destination or drama for visitors as it leads them to the house. Likewise, the outlook from inside the house should be treated with the same importance as the internal design; we know from our own research that homeowners rate a view highly and the same degree of value should be placed on the immediate view as that on the horizon.

The scale of Capability Brown’s work (which was vast) is rarely under commission now but we still draw on his extraordinary vision and attempt to instil elements of his designs in the landscape today. In our designs, we “borrow” from the landscape thus blurring the boundary between garden and landscape. In this way, the transition between the two becomes less obvious. We do this for a number of reasons:

  1. the British countryside is one of the most beautiful in the world so drawing it closer has great appeal;
  2. the garden appears to increase in size dramatically;
  3. where possible and appropriate, we design planting palettes so that they echo plant communities in the local natural habitat.

The visions of our clients often focus on the areas immediately around the home, which is correct and to be expected. This is after all, where they will spend most of their time.  But enhancing vistas to the wider landscape, drawing nature in and framing views is what Capability Brown did so beautifully and as a consequence, we can, relatively effortlessly, dramatically increase a gardens drama.

Lifestyles have changed considerably since the eighteenth century; we now tend to live in less formal and hierarchical structures with the historic, social boundaries  often blurred and of little importance. The kitchen is a prime example being no longer the preserve of staff behind the green baize door, but the essential and multi-purpose space, where food is prepared, families meet and dine, guests are entertained, as well as  somewhere for people to  sit and talk. In Capability Brown’s time a grand house had its own walled garden to provide fruit and vegetables for the main house; today a modern kitchen might be supported by a small outside area where herbs and a few favourite vegetables can be grown as well as providing space  where people can sit outside, relax and dine.

Although Capability Brown’s designs appeared artless they were of course artful and he discreetly used structure and proportion to great effect, however natural his designs looked. Similarly, today’s homes are coherent in style, with complementary colour palettes, furnishings and sensitive combinations of period and contemporary features.

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”#008000″ class=”” size=””]Capability Brown broke the mould and opened the way for garden designers to become much more creative [/pullquote]

Today’s designers however, have the benefit of a drawing upon a number of powerful influences, which feed into the design and creation of compelling spaces including architecture, contemporary materials sourced from over the world, technology and changing lifestyles.

The designs which have a strong sense of a place and which work with the shape, colour and character of the local landscape, are still the most successful. Capability Brown broke the mould and opened the way for garden designers to become much more creative – but how many can seriously claim to rival his skill even today? The very best houses, whether large or small, sit in the best landscapes and are beautiful both inside and out. A healthy and attractive environment combined with a sense of place are essential to our well being but  whether in the country or in London, location is not the only factor. Good design is fundamental; poor design is  immediately obvious and its market value will be affected accordingly.

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace is one of the finest examples of Capability Brown’s work. He transformed grounds around the home of the Dukes of Marlborough (and birthplace of Winston Churchill) in 1763 to create parkland which, although appearing natural, is ‘contrived to pleasing effect’. The map below (click it to enlarge) shows the estate in 1835, as drawn by Nicolas Vergnaud in L’Art de Créer les Jardins, etc.


Blenheim_Palace_(3) copy

Three homes on the market now with Capability Brown-inspired gardens

Earlshall CAstle

Adjoining the castle to the north, east and south are magnificent listed walled gardens. The gardens were laid out by Sir Robert Lorimer who intended them to reflect and complement the castle. Ancient stone walls shelter 3.5 acres of various ‘rooms’ or ‘gardens within a garden’. These rooms are divided by yew and holly hedges and encompass the topiary lawn, orchard, rose terrace, bowling green, yew walk and secret garden. There are also herbaceous borders and shrub borders. Apple and fruit trees surround the vegetable garden. Past the tool house is the dowry border and herb garden and the dowry house with an apple store beneath.


The elegant gardens to Duntisbourne House have been re-landscaped by the current owners with prestigious designer, and Chelsea multi-award winner, Tom Stuart-Smith. A west-facing stone terrace with renewed stone balustrade sits before a formal lawn enjoying panoramic views of the Frome Valley beyond. To the south, terraced gardens comprise a hornbeam beehive topiary garden, a yew-cloud hedge and signature prairie planting in a mix of herbaceous plants and grasses. Raised above the coach house, a walkway passing The Courtyard leads behind the pool house to an organic walled kitchen garden with fruit trees, herbs, a myriad of vegetables and step-over-apples. A hazel pergola, adorned in the summer with climbing sweet peas, rises up to a delightful Victorian-style wood frame greenhouse. Surrounding the garden is beautiful parkland interspersed with a variety of specimen trees. An area of mature woodland directly below the house offers potential for a ‘wild playground’. The estate extends to some 70 acres including surrounding mixed woodland and pasture.

Woodend,-Park-Road,-Banstead-7 Woodend Woodend,-Park-Road,-Banstead-6

A beautifully appointed Edwardian country house, with a rich history, set in 2.86 acres of park like gardens and grounds only 14 miles from central London.

First image courtesy of Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire (normal opening hours: 11am – 5pm)
All properties via Savills

Philip Eddell is Director of Savills’ Country House Consultancy

Marcus Barnett is founder of Marcus Barnett Landscape & Garden Design

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