Other people's gardens

Happy Birthday Capability

This month marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown. He’s the man responsible for the beautiful ‘natural’ landscapes that surround many great English estates, colouring the image of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’. A generation of young aristocrats in the mid-18th century returned from their Grand Tours keen to express their newly acquired ‘taste’ by, among other pursuits, pulling out their fathers’ dowdy old baroque gardens and replacing them with the bold plans of Capability Brown.

Brown’s plans were certainly bold. The distinguishing features of a Brown landscape: a serpentine lake resembling a river, with waterfalls; copses of trees on a ridge of hills; and parkland sweeping right up to the house, required massive changes to the topography, and also to the people who lived on the estates. One village, complete with church and graveyard, was moved when Brown decided it interrupted the views.

Croome court, National trust

Croome Court, Worcestershire, designed by Brown in 1758 and requiring the draining of a morass and removal of a village. Photo: The National Trust

His ambitious designs challenged contemporary engineering technologies and horticultural techniques, including the transplanting of mature trees to create those signature silhouetted clumps. Brown’s clients weren’t keen on waiting half a century for the expected effect to grow in, so he experimented with a number of transplant methods. His ‘transplanting machine’ was a long pole attached to cartwheels. The pole was tied to the tree while it was vertical, then lowered by ropes, wrenching the tree from the ground. Success rates varied.

Petworth Park, National trust

An aerial view of Petworth Park shows how Brown made the link between garden and natural landscape imperceptible. Photo: National Trust

Like any new fashion, Brown’s designs operated as a refutation of past practices. Flowers were banned, and so too was ‘foreignness’, represented in older gardens by classical statues, temples and references to antiquity. Instead the new landscapes were expressions of honest English virtues. Livestock replaced statuary as part of the decorative programme. A charming group of cows or sheep could be admired from the house, separated from it by a ha-ha. These ingenious in-ground barriers are formed by a ditch or steep slope bounded by a retaining wall, so that animals are restrained without a visual barrier.

Brown’s new landscapes were also pragmatic. Mowed by the estate livestock they were much less expensive to keep up so landowners could spend their disposable income on other pursuits – like fishing in the lakes and hunting in the woodlands. Brown’s heyday coincided with the development of better guns, so that hunting and shooting became a more important part of aristocratic leisure. Pheasants were introduced to England from India at this time too, and they liked to live on the edges of copses trees that were fortuitously features of Brownian plans.

Croome, National Trust

The stream at Croome, with a Brown signature planting of Lebanon cedars. Photo: National Trust

Brown’s plans were immensely popular and he worked on more than 170 estates through his career, transforming the landscape of England. In effecting that transformation he also changed perceptions of landscapes in a way that resonated across the English-influenced world for centuries. So when Lachlan Macquarie marked out the boundaries of the Botanic Gardens and Governor’s demesne (domain) 200 years ago, the landscapes of Capability Brown shaped his visions.

It’s time to

Plan for daffs
The heritage village of Rydal celebrates spring with thousands of daffodils blooming in public parks and private gardens. Gardens are open on 10-11 and 17-18 September. Go to www.rydal.com.au for details and accommodation options.

Prune hydrangeas
Take out the weak and spindly branches and a couple of the oldest gnarliest ones to allow room for renewal, then cut off the dead flower heads, back to the first pair of fat buds.

Feed the vegies
Keep winter-growing vegetables moving with regular soluble fertiliser.

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2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday Capability

  1. I look forward to your weekly column, with some substantial garden reading, whether or not it appears in Spectrum. In a time where we are served the quick information bite, it is a joy to recline into a longer discussion.

    • Robin Powell says:

      Thanks Liz. Gardening, gardens and plants offer such a tempting platter of interesting things to think about and talk about. There’s so much more than what’s wrong with my lemon!

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