Compton Verney salutes 'Capability’ Brown and the landscapes he created in middle England

By Richard Moss | 19 July 2011
a painting of a man in a Georgian powdered wig
Nathaniel Dance (later Sir Nathaniel Holland, Bt) Lancelot ('Capability') Brown. Oil on canvas, circa 1770© National Portrait Gallery
Exhibition: Capability Brown and the Landscapes of Middle England at Compton Verney until October 2 2011.

From the gently rolling English deer park of Chatsworth to the 700 acre parkland of Petworth, modern day visitors to country house estates often come away with the name of one man in their minds.

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-83) did more than any other landscape architect to transform the country parks and estates of the landed gentry in the eighteenth century and today many of his creations can still be visited.

They seem so familiar that the term “Capability Brown landscape” has become shorthand for the standard naturalistic topography that one expects to accompany our Georgian stately homes.

Brown is said to have created over 170 of these landscapes and one of the best can be seen and experienced at Compton Verney, which is the setting for this first-ever exhibition exploring the 'Capability' Brown phenomenon.

Based around a series of case studies from the midlands, the exhibition puts Croome, Charlecote Park, Coome Abbey and of course Compton Verney under the spotlight.

a photo of a lake seen through trees towards an ornamental stone bridge
Capabilty Brown Case Study: Weston Park© Compton Verney
Using the latest research on the design and use of Georgian landscapes visitors are treated to a selection of maps, accounts, manuals and specially-commissioned photography to reveal how Brown changed the tastes and the parklands of the ruling elite.

The exhibition also reveals how carriage guns and their development helped Brown move the mountains of earth he needed to create his bespoke hills, vales and lakes in an age before tractors or JCBs.

These impressive feats of engineering, design and muscle power resulted in gently undulating grasslands, naturalistic clumps of trees and meandering lakes – enhanced by rustic bridges, follies and chapels.

The favoured landscape art of the period is also explored. Brown's was very much a romantic and classical vision of landscape that reflected the contemporary taste for the Italianate paintings of Claude Lorraine and Nicholas Poussin, two 17th century French painters who worked in Italy.

In their time then these carefully planned parks and gardens were fashionable but also revolutionary and controversial, as Capability Brown swept away some of the great formal gardens of the period, replacing them with a new type of parkland that both mimicked and manipulated nature.

At Chatsworth he even moved the entire village of Edensor to improve the 'capability' of the landscape – and the view of the Duke of Devonshire.

It was a heady rise to power and influence for a man who went from head gardener to the foremost landscape architect of the age. He even eclipsed the fame and reputation of his mentor and teacher William Kent.

The exhibition, which goes some way in assessing both the methods and the influence of this great figure of the Georgian period is curated by Compton Verney’s Director, Georgian expert Dr Steven Parissien and Professor Tim Mowl, Director of the Landscape and Garden History Centre at the University of Bristol.

More pictures from the exhibition:

a photo of an oval blueware dish with a landscape on it
Blue and white Staffordshire plate with a Capability Brown landscape© Compton Verney
a photograph of a lake lined with autumnal trees with a bridge in the distance
The Capability Brown bridge at Compton Verney© Compton Verney
a photograph framed by the bow of a tree in the foreground looking across a lake towards a bridge
The Grounds at Compton Verney© Compton Verney
a photo of a clump of trees on a mound with a castle wall climbing up its side
Capability Brown cast study: Warwick Castle© Compton Verney
a photo of a country estate with a formal maze garden in the foreground and a straight stretch of water in the distance flanked by trees
Coome Abbey© Compton Verney
  • Compton Verney is home to six permanent collections and a changing exhibition programme. Also currently showing until October 2 2011 is Stanley Spencer and the English Garden.
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