Lancelot 'Capability' Brown
1716 - 1783
Lancelot (Capability) Brown was born at Kirkharle in Northumberland, the son of a gardener. Attending school until he was 16 at nearby Cambo he acquired a reasonable education. First employed by Sir William Loraine at Kirkharle Hall as a boy, he went to Kiddington, Oxon, before moving to Stowe in 1741. Brown later worked for George Grenville at Wotton Underwood, Bucks.
At Stowe he met William Kent who was working at the estate. This association enabled him to develop a practice for himself which also came to include the design of buildings as well as gardens and parks. He came to earn the nickname “Capability” from his habit of describing the potential for landscaping parks as capabilities, rather than opportunities: a self invented malapropism.
Master Gardener at Hampton Court
In 1764 Brown was appointed Master Gardener at Hampton Court Palace in succession to John Greening and in this post he occupied an official residence, Wilderness House. His work at Hampton Court brought him into contact with Edward Lovibond, then living at Elm Lodge in Hampton. They became friends to the extent that Lovibond bequeathed him a one third share of the property when he died in 1775. He also became friendly with Thomas Nobbs who had bought the property later known as The Old Court House following a long stay in Cross Deep Lodge in Twickenham.
While Master Gardener, Brown employed Samuel Lapidge as an assistant. Lapidge was the father of Edward Lapidge the architect who designed Kingston Bridge in 1825 and the new church at Hampton in 1830. Brown had also employed John Spyers as a surveyor, a native of Twickenham. Spyers produced a number of drawings of Hampton Court Palace and Bushy Park, at one time the property of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia and which are now held in St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.
The grounds of Hampton Court Palace did not offer the usual opportunities or “capabilities” for Brown: the formality of the layout with parterres and avenues were sacrosanct. Mere maintenance of the status quo did not engage his interest to a degree satisfactory to the Board of Works and in 1770 there was a frank exchange of letters about this: Brown standing his ground forcefully. A cheeky postscript to his letter to William Robinson noted that: “The Gravel at H: Court is totally worn out; I have been obliged in the course of the year to break it up three times, otherwise it would have been as Green as Grass.”
Gerald Heath, HAMPTON COURT The Story of a Village, edited by Kathy White and Joan Heath, The Hampton Court Association, 2000, ISBN 0-9538700-0-6.
Howard Colvin, A Biographical Dictionary of British Architects 1600-1840, Yale University Press,1995.
Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, 1975
Simon Thurley, Hampton Court, A Social and Architectural History, Yale University Press, 2003.