The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-1783

Written by Jane Brown
Review by Doug Kemp

The author has written an impressive number of books on gardening in England, and she now turns to look at the country’s most renowned landscape visionary. Visit any of England’s large houses, and there is a good chance that at some point they received advice and visits (often numerous) from Lancelot Brown; indeed the amount of work he did was prodigious, and Jane Brown narrates his peripatetic life on the road as he goes from wealthy patron to wealthy patron, transforming the grounds of England’s largest houses. Starting from modest circumstances in the isolated north of the country, his reputation grew until he was courted by monarchs and nobility for his advice and the enjoyment of his congenial company.

Lancelot did not leave a mass of documentary material, and so most of the book is devoted to the evidence as it exists on the ground – with his lakes, undulating lands and patterns of planting. He was at the forefront of the movement away from strict formalism in gardens to the sweeping, romantic approach, with occasional Gothic decoration features, to landscape design. This is an impressively comprehensive and knowledgeable work on Lancelot Brown and ends with the surprising assessment that the devoted family man may also have fathered a child out of marriage.