Exploring Capability Brown’s landscapes gardens in Surrey

Bench overlooking the lake at Claremont Landscape Garden (Photo National Trust Images - Andrew Butle

Bench overlooking the lake at Claremont Landscape Garden (Photo National Trust Images - Andrew Butler) - Credit: ©National Trust Images/Andrew Butler

A nationwide festival this year will mark the 300th anniversary of the birth of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, known as the ‘father of landscape architecture’, with everything from garden openings to talks and exhibitions. Leigh Clapp takes a look at his influence here in Surrey – and reveals a few of the events happening locally

Brown's design of undulating form, water and trees can be seen at Gatton Park (Photo Leigh Clapp)

Brown's design of undulating form, water and trees can be seen at Gatton Park (Photo Leigh Clapp) - Credit: Leigh Clapp

Originally published in Surrey Life magazine February 2016


The leading landscape gardener of his age, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716¬83) changed the face of 18th century England with his style, which has shaped our vision of the quintessential English landscape.

Whether you think of him as having laid waste to the formal gardens that preceded him or champion him for his vision of creating idyllic pastoral scenes of well¬mannered English landscapes, his legacy can be seen in many parks and gardens today.

This year will provide plenty of opportunities to discover more about this influential designer, with the first ever celebration of Brown’s extensive works, to mark the 300th anniversary of his birth.

“This promises to be a very exciting, nationwide event, with a whole series of events, openings, talks and exhibitions,” says Ceryl Evans, director of the Capability Brown Festival 2016. “There’s lots of Brown landscapes to explore in Surrey, such as Gatton Park, Claremont Landscape Garden in Esher and Clandon Park. To find Brown sites and events near you, visit our website at capabilitybrown.org.”

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A collaboration between a wide range of organisations, including the Landscape Institute, the National Trust, English Heritage, Historic England, Natural England, the National Gardens Scheme, the RHS and Visit Britain, the festival looks set to be something very special.

To further mark the occasion, 2016 has also been designated as the ‘Year of the English Garden’.


• Born in 1716, Lancelot Brown was baptised at Kirkharle in Northumberland on August 30 of that year. The fifth of six children, his father was a yeoman farmer and his mother had worked in the big house on the Kirkharle estate.

• After attending the village school, Lancelot began work as a gardener on the estate, before in 1741 he moved to the famous garden of Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Here, he worked as under-gardener to William Kent, who had started the trend for more naturalistic designs, and later Brown became responsible for both architectural and landscaping works there.

• Working with William Kent at Stowe, who was keen to escape the formality of gardens , helped crystalise his ideas for open expanses with views and vistas.

• During this time, he also married Bridget Wayet with whom he went on to have nine children.

• Later, he went on to work as an independent designer, and his rise came at a time when people were looking for a change from inward-looking formal gardens, in the Tudor, Dutch and French traditions, and the Italian look was just coming into the picture.

• By 1751, he was well enough established to be able to move his family to Hammersmith, which was the market garden area of London.

• By this stage becoming very successful, Brown was soon sought after by those in the upper echelons of society. In all, he is associated with around 260 landscapes, imbuing them with his grand visions, removing existing gardens and moving the earth if needed, to create his ideal of a romantic, natural scene.

• He offered various services, ranging from a survey and plans that the client could then execute, providing his own team to oversee the work, or he would oversee and refine the work himself by visiting a number of days each year.

• In 1764, while still continuing his own private practice, Brown also became the head gardener at Hampton Court Palace for the young King George III. However, here he had little influence as the formal gardens were historically important and therefore sacrosanct. His legacy is the Black Hamburg grapevine, now the world’s oldest and largest.

• Horace Walpole, the playwright son of the Prime Minister Robert Walpole, is quoted as saying of Brown: “We have reached the peak of perfection. We have given the true model of gardening to the world.” So quite an accolade indeed!

• Brown continued to work and travel until dying suddenly in 1783, having suffered from asthma all his life, while visiting his daughter in London.

• He was buried in the small village of Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire, the only place where he actually owned a property, and here there will be some special events to celebrate his life, including a five-day music festival themed around English landscapes.

• With over 150 of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s landscapes possible to see today, there is a wide choice across the country to put on your must-see list for this year.


Gatton Park,

Reigate RH2 0TW

Ranked in the top quarter of Brown’s grandest designs, with a payment in excess of £3,000 for his services, Gatton Park, near Reigate, is a great place to start your journey this year.

Commissioned in the 1760s by Gatton’s wealthy owner, Sir George Colebrooke, at that time a great parkland designed by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was the must¬have status symbol of the day.

True to form, Brown replaced the formal landscape with his naturalistic plantings to accentuate the rolling landscape of the park. Around the house, he planted shrub borders, created walks, expanded and shaped the lakes and levelled the southern terrace to form one of his signature elements – an area to view the resulting parkland scene.

Gatton Park is around 600 acres, with 260 that include the main core features and gardens managed by the Gatton Trust, and the rest, which is open access, looked after by the National Trust. The area managed by the Gatton Trust opens for specific events and open days. Despite the split ownership, Gatton is managed as a whole by the two trusts to create an open ‘Brownian’ landscape – and there are some exciting developments in the pipeline too.

“The Gatton Trust is currently seeking funding for a project that will restore some of the viewpoints created by ‘Capability’ Brown,” says Louise Miller, education manager. “The project will include new ways for visitors to learn about this designed landscape, including tours and display boards. The planned grand finale will be a tea party that will include a tour by Sir George Colebrooke and ‘Capability’ Brown – courtesy of Gatton Community Theatre’s actors – and a peek into their world, as they show their guests the great works that have been achieved at Gatton.”

For now, a walking tour of the whole Brown landscape is one not to miss on Sunday May 15, (1pm to 4pm), priced at £10 for adults and £2 for children. Gatton Park is also open from February to October on the first Sunday of each month (1pm to 5pm) and there are additional openings through February for snowdrop days.

• For more information, see gattonpark.com


Claremont Landscape Garden,

Esher KT10 9JG

Various designers have put their mark on the estate of Claremont Landscape Garden over its 300¬year history, including Sir John Vanbrugh, William Kent and ‘Capability’ Brown, as the various owners kept up with the latest fashions.

In the 18th century, Claremont was among the most famous landscape gardens in Europe, and today there are still some unique features to discover, including elements of Brown’s design.

Brown came on the scene when Robert Clive of India bought the estate in 1769. The old house was pulled down and Brown employed to design the new one (now Claremont Fan Court School). He also re¬routed the Portsmouth Road, which bordered the garden, to increase privacy.

Now managed by the National Trust, enjoy time strolling the landscape with its parade of famous designers. From the serpentine lake designed by William Kent to the turf amphitheatre and the fanciful Belvedere Tower, you will have lots to admire on your visit. Also make time to taste the fare at the café, including the delicious ‘Capability Brownie’ (find the recipe at surreylife.co.uk).

Claremont Landscape Garden is open through the year; take a look at the website for updated details and information on events planned for 2016. You can also visit Claremont Fan Court School during Heritage Open Days on Saturday September 10 (11am to 5pm).

• For more information, see nationaltrust.org.uk/claremont¬landscape¬garden


Clandon Park

West Clandon GU4 7RQ

While the house was tragically destroyed by fire last April, leaving it as a shell, the gardens at Clandon Park are still open to the public on special open days.

Clandon was Brown’s penultimate design and the scale of the work meant that the majority wasn’t actually completed until 1814, and some of the design was never installed such as a key-shaped canal and demolishing Temple Court, which was ignored.

While most of the design is actually now beyond the borders of the property, you can still see the iconic views from the garden and the parkland reflects some of his principles.

These include the fact that the axis extends from the mansion all the way to Merrow; the previous formality was mostly removed; belts of trees frame views; and there is limited use of architectural elements.

Keep an eye on the website for updated details on any future garden open days as well as the salvage project following the fire.

• For more information, see nationaltrust.org.uk/clandon¬park



To find out more about the Capability Brown Festival 2016, and stay up to date on the events being planned , see the website at capabilitybrown.org



• Brown’s nickname ‘Capability’ came about from his favourite phrase when evaluating a garden, telling clients their gardens had “great capabilities for improvement.”

• He also worked as an architect, contributing to country homes such as Burghley House in Lincolnshire and Claremont here in Surrey.

• He liked to be known as a ‘place maker’ rather than a garden designer.

• He didn’t always charge for his work, sometimes allowing the client to determine the value of his plans and surveys, rather than submitting a bill.

• After Brown’s death in 1783, the golden age of English landscape gardens ended and there was a change to a greater use of flowers and buildings in the landscape.

• One of the most prolific and influential designers of all time, most modern-day garden designers and landscape architects have been influenced by his work to some extent.

• His obituary read ‘where he is the happiest man he will be least remembered, so closely did he copy nature his works will be mistaken.’


If your interest in garden history has been piqued, why not join the Surrey Gardens Trust? As well as lectures and garden visits to properties, there will also be some special events for this landmark year. For more details, see surreygardenstrust.co.uk


If you get a chance to visit some of the ‘Capability’ Brown landscapes in other counties, here are some suggestions…

• Stowe, Buckinghamshire

• Burghley House, Lincolnshire

• Petworth Park, West Sussex

• Sherborne Castle, Dorset

• Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire

• Croome, Worcestershire

• Longleat House, Wiltshire

• Highclere Castle, Berkshire

• Sheffield Park, East Sussex