Through Many Lenses: The Works of Capability Brown

Chatsworth / Gary Rogers, cropped.
Chatsworth (Cropped) / copyright Gary Rogers

This year is the 300th anniversary of famed English landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown’s birth. To celebrate, the Landscape Foundation and Building Center in London have put together Lens on a Landscape Genius, an exhibition of 100 photographs, depicting some of the 150 landscapes of Brown’s that still exist, out of the 250 he planned or designed in the 18th century.

Compton Verney (cropped) / copyright James Kerr
Compton Verney (cropped) / copyright James Kerr

Brown is viewed as the quintessential English landscape architect, “as deeply embedded in the English character as the paintings of Turner and the poetry of Wordsworth.” He is known for projects of an immense scale: vast estates, including the Hampton Court Palace Gardens, Blenheim Palace, and the landscape of Highclere Castle, known today on television as Downtown Abbey. At many of these grand estates, he removed formal gardens and replaced them with undulating grasslands and constructed hills and serpentine rivers.

Highclere (cropped) / Allan Pollok-Morris
Highclere (cropped) / Allan Pollok-Morris

Brown created elegant, seemingly-simple landscapes that hid deeper complexity. On the website of the foundation that promotes the preservation of his work, they write: “His designs appear seamless owing to his use of the sunk fence or ‘ha-ha’ to confuse the eye into believing that different pieces of parkland, though managed and stocked quite differently, were one. His expansive lakes, at different levels and apparently unconnected, formed a single body of water as if a river through the landscape, that like the parkland itself, ran on indefinitely. This effortless coherence is taken for granted today.”

Dawn at Gatton Park (cropped) / copyright James Bruce
Dawn at Gatton Park (cropped) / copyright Matthew Bruce

While he was highly sought after in his life time, becoming the master gardener for Hampton Court, his reputation declined immediately after his death. His Picturesque style, which would influence Frederick Law Olmsted and others, fell out of favor in the face of Romanticism and later Modernism. His work was viewed as the anti-thesis of the geometric, formal works of French landscape architect André Le Nôtre, but both were long seen as out of style. His style, now known as the English Picturesque, has seen a resurgence though. This year, The Telegraph calls him “the world’s most famous landscape gardener.”

Deer on Rutting Stand (cropped) / copyright Derek Saint Romaine
Deer on Rutting Stand (cropped) / copyright Derek St. Romaine

The exhibition includes noteworthy UK-based landscape photographers such as: Andrew Lawson, Joe Cornish, Andrea Jones, Allan Pollok-Morris, Gary Rogers, Derek St. Romaine, Matthew Bruce,  Gareth Davies, James Kerr, Archie Miles, Gavin Kingcome, Simon Warner, Jacqui Hurst, Stephen Studd, James Smith, and, lastly, Steffie Shields, who has also just published a book of her photographs of his landscapes: Moving Heaven and Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape.

If in London, go see the exhibition before it closes on October 27.

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