No individual has had a greater influence on the English people’s perception of a natural landscape than Lancelot “Capability” Brown. The year 2016 sees the three-hundredth anniversary of his birth and the village of Ingestre will be playing its own unique part in the national tercentenary celebrations, under the banner CB300. For Ingestre Park, the setting for the Grade II* Ingestre Hall and home of the village golf club, is one of scores of country gardens to which this 18th century genius turned his hand. Capability Brown’s legacy is still with us today and survives at Ingestre just as it does in the grounds of many stately homes all over England. You may not realise it, but many of our ideas about what a modest suburban or country garden ought to look like began to take shape under the guiding hand of Capability Brown.
A series of walks and talks around the grounds of Ingestre Park is to be held throughout the year, giving visitors a rare glimpse of what he achieved here – and perhaps inspiring some ideas for your own garden. At Ingestre, as elsewhere, owners of large gardens throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance period sought to impose man-made order onto the natural world. Formal gardens with straight lines and neatly clipped hedges were the order of the day. Examples can still be seen – for example, in the grounds of Hampton Court Palace where Brown was appointed chief gardener in 1764 – and they clearly have their attractions. But Capability Brown was looking to create a different style, one which looked natural even if it was not. He wanted an English garden which disguised, rather than celebrated, human intervention. It formed part of what became known as the Romantic Movement, culminating in the nature poetry of William Wordsworth and the landscape paintings of John Constable, the appeal of which endures. Ingestre Park was among Brown’s earliest commissions, having been conceived in 1756 – just six years into a career lasting over three decades. It was the earliest known of at least nine Staffordshire country estates in the design of which Brown had a hand; others include Chillington, Fisherwick, Himley, Patshull, Swynnerton, Tixall, Trentham and Weston-under-Lizard. Innovation and improvement were family traits of the Chetwynds, who owned Ingestre from the 13th century.. Ingestre Hall had been built in the early 17th century by Sir Walter Chetwynd.
His grandson, another Walter, built the Church of St Mary the Virgin nearby to a design attributed to Sir Christopher Wren, architect of St Paul’s Cathedral. When Walter died in 1693, the estate passed to a cousin, yet another Walter, who was also MP for Stafford. His loyalty to the Hanoverian regime and its Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, won him an Irish peerage as Viscount Chetwynd. An engraving in Dr Robert Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, published in 1686, shows what the Hall and church looked like then, complete with formal gardens. Brown’s plans for the rear, or north side, of the house could not have been more different. By June 1757, the third Earl of Breadalbane, a political friend of the second Viscount Chetwynd, Breadalbane could write to his daughter, the Marchioness Grey, after dining at Ingestre: “There is a greater alteration by Mr Brown’s direction than I thought possible. “The garden is now surrounded by a sunk fence, which brings in a most delightful prospect…” He continued that Lord Chetwynd: “has had 70 men at constant work for a year and an overseer sent by Mr Brown. Another year will complete all.” Gone were straight lines of clipped hedgerows, with the exception of long avenues of trees giving vistas into the far distance. Trees were planted elsewhere apparently at random. Everything was designed to make the most of what already existed. It was this exploiting of the “capabilities” of the site gave Brown his nickname.
The sunken fence or ha-ha was one of Brown’s favourite devices, enabling livestock to be kept out of the garden without the use of obtrusive walls. Brown was no less adept at creating optical illusions with water. Thomas Clifford, owner of the neighbouring Tixall estate, employed him to design Tixall Wide along a length of the newly-planned Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. Clifford agreed to let the canal cross his land to connect to the Trent and Mersey Canal at nearby Great Haywood, so long as it looked natural. Capability Brown was obviously the man for the job. The design was implemented by the civil engineer James Brindley, who lived near Leek in Staffordshire and who was also born in 1716. Tixall Wide is still celebrated as a unique feature among the canals of the 18th century. Swynnerton Park, about ten miles to the north, was another Staffordshire estate where Brown worked his magic with water. The Fitzherbert family had recently built a new classical hall to replace the old one destroyed by the Parliamentarian forces during he Civil War.
At Swynnerton, Brown was engaged to hide the villagers’ houses behind natural-looking trees and to create an ornamental lake. In fact, he created two lakes in the undulating landscape but to this day they appear from the house to form a single large lake. Swynnerton Park is private and not open to the public. Some Staffordshire Gardens to benefit from Capability Brown’s genius are regularly open to the public, including Trentham Gardens, Chillington Hall, Weston Park Fisherwick and Himley Hall. Ingestre Park is owned by Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and run as a residential arts centre. It is not normally open to the public. To mark the tercentenary year of Capability his birth, an exhibition of Capability Brown’s work at Ingestre is to be held at Ingestre Orangery, featuring reproductions of the original drawings. Diane Barre, author of the Staffordshire volume of the Historic Gardens of England, will give the first of the talks at Easter 2016 (cMarch 27th). A further talk is planned for the summer about the creation of Tixall Wide, the joint venture between Capability Brown and James Brindley.
Lancelot Brown (Baptised 30 August 1716 – 6 February 1783), more commonly known as Capability Brown, was an English landscape architect. He is remembered as “the last of the great English 18th century artists to be accorded his due”, and “England’s greatest gardener”. He designed over 170 parks, many of which still endure. His influence was so great that the contributions to the English garden made by his predecessors Charles Bridgeman and William Kent are often overlooked; even Kent’s apologist Horace Walpole allowed that Kent had been followed by “a very able master”