I am fascinated by the life of the man known to us today as Capability Brown. He is responsible for the design of some 170 gardens in England, among the best known being Blenheim, Petworth, Harewood House and Croome Court.
Towards the end of his career he was appointed as King George III’s Master Gardener at Hampton Court and few years later he acquired an estate of his own in Huntingdonshire and was made High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.
You couldn’t quite describe his working life as rags to riches, but he certainly left behind his humble origins to become a wealthy and successful businessman. This year his anniversary is being marked by UK wide celebrations including a festival.
What was the secret of his success? It was partly a question of zeitgeist and of being in the right place at the right time. From the age of 16 he started work as a gardener near his home in Northumberland. The turning point was a move to Buckinghamshire. He became Head Gardener on the Stowe estate where the architect William Kent was responsible for the garden design.
Men of taste
Kent was one of the originators of the English style of landscape garden and was undoubtedly a major influence on Brown. In that era, the rich and titled wanted to demonstrate that they were men of taste and a garden in the so-called English style became the epitome of discernment.
The English landscape park usually included rolling parkland, sweeping trees, a lake and some classical temples. When Brown visited an estate which he felt lent itself to this kind of approach, he would say he thought it had capability, hence his nickname.
The natural look
I can’t help but detect a parallel with orthodontics in the naturalistic styling that became Brown’s hallmark and made him so popular. In the UK, we favour the natural look when it comes to improving our smile and this applies today, 300 years later. Most of my patients want their smile to appear natural and harmonious and fit with their appearance.
I can’t stretch this analogy too far since the addition of multiple ruined Greek temples to English parkland isn’t exactly natural. And there is definitely no orthodontic parallel in the fashion for creating ruins!
Lady Nature’s second husband
It is for the deceptively natural appearance of his parkland that Brown will be remembered. What a credit to him it was that one social commentator at the time of his death described him as Lady Nature’s second husband. I think he would have appreciated that tribute.