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Capability Brown – Imperceptibility and Potential


Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.


*Alexander Pope – Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington

Who was Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown?

Baptised Lancelot Brown, he gained the moniker ‘Capability’ because of his habit of describing a client’s estate as having ‘great capabilities’ and then expertly demonstrating those capabilities with his work. Brown was the first landscape designer as we know them today and a prolific one at that, having worked on over 200 estates in his lifetime. Famous examples of where he worked include Chatsworth House and Highclere Castle, the latter is better known across the world as Downton Abbey.

His work across England spearheaded the shift in fashion for landscape and garden design from formal practices, where geometric neatness was paramount, to the natural, where straight lines were scarce and no one part of the property was sectioned off from another. Brown worked relentlessly until his death in 1783 and irrefutably left his mark on not only individual landscapes but the collective vision of how we imagine England’s countryside to this day, over 300 years since his birth.

blenheim palace park capability brown

Blenheim Palace Park, Simon Burchell, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons 

st james park plan capability brown

St. James’s Park, London: Plan, Yale Center for British Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons  

Understanding Capability – Potentiality and Actuality

Lancelot was nicknamed ‘Capability’ by his clients due to his personal phraseology, but what did he mean when he spoke of a landscape’s ‘capability’?

In Aristotle’s philosophy, there are the concepts of dunamis and energeia, which are most often translated as potentiality and actuality. Alternate translations include capability and action. Something’s potentiality, or capability, can both mean what could happen and what something could do well – possibility and proclivity. This is what we think Brown means when he refers to a landscape’s ‘capability’, he saw a latent potential ready to be realised, a beauty the spaces were able to emanate.

It was by Capability Brown’s hand that these capabilities came into actuality, how they came into action. Flat fields to hillocks, bubbling brooks to huge rivers, exposed simplicity to embracing complexity. He brought out the inner truth of the landscapes.

The Principles of his Work

The shift to ‘nature’ in landscaping entailed an approach whereby the finished product gave little, if any, hint that someone had been hired in the first place. Brown’s landscapes seemed entirely natural, entirely expected, as if they had been that way since time immemorial, but they were indeed artificial. From the wending rivers, meandering lakes, undulating hills, and venerable oaks, they were all envisioned by Capability Brown.

To be mistaken for natural, the upmost subtlety was required to pleasantly trick the mind and convince it that the scenery it perceived arose from the untampered processes of our green earth. Brown wanted the person experiencing his landscape to imagine the space as endless, that you were witnessing only a snapshot of the natural world that goes on-and-on forever.

To do this, Brown ensured that no piece of naked skyline met a field at the horizon, treelines touch the great blue above instead. Additionally, when Capability Brown constructed his water features they would enticingly curve away, out-of-sight behind the trees. And though the artificial lake reaches its terminus shortly after such the bend, or the river the point where it’s dammed, the illusion is created of the water ceaselessly flowing onwards.

A sense of going ‘onwards’ was also important in another respect. Brown’s landscapes were often designed to draw you onwards, around the property to see the architectural features. Often the views were intended to be had from carriage, where you’d see the openings and closings of vistas as if you’re a sweeping camera lens from an Attenborough documentary. The zone that Brown designed at Stowe House, for example, was intended as horticultural theatre. As you traverse the estate, trees and shrubbery reveal and conceal the property’s features, the design providing a self-renewing intrigue that guides you on.

Imperceptibility –Unseen Element and Attractor

Not noticing that the landscape is finite, and that it is a human-made at all, is key to the most essential characteristic of the Brownian design – imperceptibility. The viewer is to think that they are looking at a piece of untouched countryside, not a meticulously planned environment. However, the question remains: why? Why would Capability Brown choose this style of landscape architecture and why do we like it?

We want some sense of a natural idyll, nature untarnished by humans but that is nonetheless accommodating to our tastes, sensibilities, and convenience. We want the organic, the unregimented but not the untamed and threatening. Brown’s landscapes are calming, peaceful, and inviting; grass without bog, woodland without wolf, water without torrent.

This is not the Tennysonian ‘nature, red in tooth and claw’ but a nature of Edenic harmony. Natural but not wild. Perhaps the appeal of this imperceptibility is this: an artificiality that is only known by its consequences, consequences that are the landscapes themselves and the feelings evoked therein, where we are drawn to nature and feel welcomed by it.

That is, a countryside experience with dangers and inconveniences subtracted without the addition of dividing lines or other indicators that what grows or flows is being curtailed or controlled – a pleasing landscape design without the topographical handprint of human influence.



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