Travel & Undersail

Capability Brown portrait


Capability Brown’s 300th Anniversary Prompts Commemorations at Great English Estates    


Who was Capability Brown?  We today know his work from watching the excellent BBC Series, "Downton Abbey", filmed at an English estate Highclere, designed by the great landscape gardener.

Newport's many grand houses and beautiful grounds  reflect and honor the great tradition of English estates. It’s understandable that glorious vistas of undulating fields and wispy woodlands mirrored in glassy lakes,fit the definition of a natural, untouched purely English landscape.


Belvoir Castle



In truth however, more than 250 of England’s sweeping tableaux were actually contrived by one man - the iconic visionary Lancelot “Capability” Brown, whose tercentenary anniversary is being celebrated in every corner of England this year.

 As summer winds down and noisy throngs disappear, the legendary estates where Brown toiled, return to normalcy. Their empty paths offer leisurely strolling venues to appreciate Brown’s unsullied beauty in golden light that distinguishes this time of year.

Burghley House - View across the Lion Bridge

Often referred to as England’s greatest gardener, Capability Brown was born in the Northumberland village of Kirkharle in 1716. Happily, his formative years coincided with boom times, when enormous wealth and changing tastes drove land owners to transform their estates from fussy, often French-influenced schemes of parterres, topiaries, and border-enclosed sculptures, into pastoral parklands and pleasure grounds.

In the whoosh of this exciting phenomenon, Brown left school at 14 to become a gardener a Kirkharle Hall, the grandest house in his village.  With rudimentary skills in place, he subsequently graduated to Stowe House in Buckinghamshire where he worked in the kitchen garden under the tutelage of revered designer William Kent. As assistant to the genius who became his mentor, he worked on the  transformation of Stowe’s Baroque park into one of the first English landscape gardens. 

Portrait of Consuelo Vanderbilt, 
9th Duchess of Marlborough, 
with her husband and children

During this design revolution, Brown’s hands-on apprenticeships broadened his  exposure and  grounded his knowledge in the rapidly changing world of landscape design. It also inculcated necessary skills, such as surveying, hydraulic engineering, draftsmanship and architecture. Soon, the lowly apprentice became acclaimed maestro everyone clamored to hire.

To that end, he referred to his particular profession as “place-making,” and defined himself as an “improver” who was able to envision how beautiful each estate was “capable” of becoming with his assistance. Thus his name “Capability” evolved, and is what he is  off-handedly called today.  

John Phibbs, scholar, landscape consultant and editor of the, says “Brown was stunningly gifted and had a complete grasp of the physical, visual landscape.” If hIs straightforward principles seemed devoid of complicated philosophy, he once wrote that success of a scheme “should supply all the elegance and all the comforts which Mankind wants in the Country, and I will add. if right, be exactly fit for the owner, the Poet and the Painter.”  

As an improver, he boldly asessed nature’s  foibles, then eradicated or camouflaged those blemishes, by moving mountains of earth, and relocating roads and entire villages.  “When he smoothed out awkward or abrupt accidents of nature, he  massaged them into flawless visions of beauty,” Phibbs says, “You might say, his best work was indistinguishable from nature.”

Explaining that Brown had no serious rivals for over 30 years, and often worked on dozens of projects simultaneously, Phibbs says: “England’s great estate-building prosperity in the second half of the 18th century allowed him to leave an indelible imprint on man-made landscapes of more than a half-million acres across England and Wales.  Today there are still around 200 of his landscapes worth seeing, and millions of devotees visit the 140 that are at least occasionally open,” says Phibbs. “Within the mix, no landscape attributed to Brown should be excluded.”

Among the more well-known estates that bear his unmistakable mark, Blenheim, Burghley, Stowe, Highclere (real life setting for the popular television series, Downton Abbey), and Belvoir are certainly worth a visit. 

Burghley House
, situated at the edge of Stamford in Hertfordshire, is a palatial Elizabethan building of 100 plus rooms, once described as a ‘Sumptuous Structure’ and the indulgence of a ‘Luxuriant fancy.’ The  grand house which was often mistaken for a town, is distinguished by rambling wings, chimneys, cupolas, soaring ramparts and obelisk clock tower dated 1585. As one of England’s most remarkable places,it was commissioned by William Cecil, the lst Baron Burghley, Lord High Treasurer to Queen Elizabeth I, in 1554, its actual  construction took 30 years. 

Today, the massive house, which was a featured location in the 2005 film version of ‘Pride and Prejudice,’ is the family home of Cecil’s great-great (x12) granddaughter Miranda and her husband Orlando Rock, who is Chairman of Christie’s UK.  The family of a son and three daughters, reside in the spacious family quarters, where toys and sports equipment happily coexist with the priceless treasures.  As elected director of  Burghley House TrustMIranda Rock manages the estate.

 The Capability Brown landscape  of 1,300 acres, done between 1756 and 1779, includes a stable courtyard, 22-acre lake, graceful Lion Bridge and Orangery, that is still a popular place for lunch. Don’t miss the Sculpture Garden, with its riveting display of contemporary sculpture tucked around. Families with bathing-suit-clad children should head to the Garden of Surprises, a water park that keep little ones enchanted (and cool)  for hours. 

Elsewhere, Stowe House, which is now home to the prestigious Stowe School, is a property that Brown loved, and toiled in for 25 years. Its immense landscape dotted with Greek temples, follies and a semi-subterranean grotto dedicated to Venus, all feel like an ode to his work. The fact that the famous property is now overseen by the National Trust insures its longevity.

 Highclere (Downton Abbey) owned by the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon  offers another look at Brown’s work feted by a plethora of special Autumnal Capability Brown events. Some showcase  the 1771 gardens and parkland; others feature tours of the State Rooms and Bedrooms. All are sure to magnetize Downton’s habituees.  

Blenheim Palace

Blenheim Palace, the stunning Oxfordshire seat of the Dukes of Marlborough, is the only great house with a  “palace” moniker, that is not a royal domicile.  The magnificent pile, where Winston Churchill was born (it was his grandparents’ home at the time), is within a stone’s throw of the pretty, walkable village of Woodstock, about two-hours from London. Built on land gifted from grateful Queen Anne to John Churchill, who became the lst Duke of Marlborough, it is a constant reminder of the Crown’s gratitude to Churchill for leading the victorious Battle of Blenheim in August 1704, against the French. Today, the grand residence, and vast 2,000 acre Capability Brown Park is home to the 12th Duke and his young family; and is also a World Heritage Site  that offers tours, exhibits, a gift shop and restaurant, amenities and gardens. 

  The “Upstairs and Downstairs” tour is one of the Blenheim’s most popular, offering glimpses of lower level passages and rooms “where the work of the palace takes place.” This includes “fortified rooms”  for storage of silver and candles;  the China Room where hundreds of porcelain patterns, including those no longer in use, are displayed. The white tile laundry was and is home, to washers and ironers, and the Cold Room houses all the flowers being readied for upstairs. Kitchens feature interesting blackboard menus offering: “Beluga Caviar, Cheese Souffle, Black truffles and Chateaubriand, finished with a Strawberry Tart!

The Kings's Room, Belvoir Castle

Not surprisingly, upstairs, is dramatically different  with opulent chambers filled with collections that range from tapestries to silver.  The Churchill Rooms are a must-see for anyone interested in the Prime Minister and the World Wars, but the exhibition also features emotional vestiges of Winston Churchill’ s boyhood visits to his beloved grandparents, during which he learned to ride a pony and cavorted with his cousins.  Particularly touching are his childish, hand-written scrolls from boarding school.

But Americans are invariably riveted by Blenheim’s later ties to the Vanderbilts of New York and Newport, who incredulously fell into the “Title Trap” that was so common at the time. This upper crust phenomenon occurred frequently as ultra-wealthy American families bartered daughters and dowries in exchange for a noble title. So it was with 18-year old Consuelo Vanderbilt, and her unwilling betrothal to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Her nightmare, became a dream-come-true for  the 23-year old Duke whose massive house was in desperate need of an infusion of funds. On their 1895 wedding day, at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan, national and international newspapers breathlessly reported every intimate detail including the fact that the bride’s train stretched15-feet and her underwear was secured with solid gold hooks. The press missed the fact that she was weeping behind her face veil.    

However, after an opulent honeymoon,and subsequent production of “an heir and a spare,” Consuelo remained supremely unhappy. Her lavish $2.5 million dowry had paid for Blenheim’s sorely-needed  lighting and heating upgrades, as well as a new roof and telephone lines. Nevertheless, the young family’s prosperity was recorded by famous portraitists, including John Singer Sargent’s 1905 larger than life painting on the first floor. In it the Duke appears sanguine in his ermine-trimmed robes, while the ravishing Duchess and little sons are captivating.  But happy portraits don’t always reveal the whole story, as the couple separated a year later and divorced in 1921. 

The Duchess of Rutland at Belvoir Castle

A little farther afield in LeicestershireBelvoir Castle creates its own allure.  Home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Rutland, Belvoir (pronounced Bee-ver) which means “beautiful view,” is sited on thousands of acres of ancient land gifted by William the Conqueror in 1066.  The 4th Duke commissioned Brown to create plans to alter Belvoir’s landscape, but intervening circumstances precluded their enactment, and  the plans were eventually lost for more than 225 years.  Amazingly, they were found in one of the towers, about 10 years ago.

“I can still remember chills running down my spine when we saw the 1780 drawings we now call “The Lost Plans for the Lost Garden,” the Duchess says.  Now a 10-year plan prepared by  Phibbs is in full swing. Thousand of trees have been planted and three new lakes create more than a mile and a half of water. “ The 300th anniversary is the perfect venue to show them off for the first time,” says the Duchess. “We hope visitors will come to England for this important celebration.” 

Roses at Blenheim Palace

Information: If you go:  During the year-long festivities, there are talks, walks, carriage rides and scholarly lectures; house tours and assorted events at many estates that are not usually open to the public.  For overall information visit or websites for individual properties.  is a great resource for Capability tripping  as well as arranging house parties and shooting weekends at some of the houses.


                                                  --Marion Laffey Fox

Burghley Housee -
Highclere Castle
Stowe House -











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