Celebrating the genius of a man who changed our landscape

He was the local lad who made a name for himself and left his indelible stamp forever across the countryside of England and Wales.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 16th July 2016, 10:30 am
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 3:31 pm
Framing the view as part of the Capability Brown exhibition at Alnwick Castle. Picture by Jane Coltman
Framing the view as part of the Capability Brown exhibition at Alnwick Castle. Picture by Jane Coltman

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was dubbed ‘England’s greatest gardener’. He was credited with changing the face of 18th-century England, as a prolific designer of country estates and mansions, painting the landscape with the brush of the finest artist.

He created more than 170 parks, from Alnwick Castle, his most northerly work, to Widdicombe, near Slapton, Devon in the South West. Many of them still exist and are open to the public.

The magnificent Capability Brown vista is framed. Picture by Jane Coltman

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Lancelot Brown was born in 1716 as the fifth child of a land agent and a chambermaid in the hamlet of Kirkharle, 12 miles west of Morpeth. He was baptised on August 30 and this year marks the 300th anniversary of his birth.

He was educated at Cambo School until he was 16. Brown’s father worked for Sir William Loraine, Member of Parliament for Northumberland, and his mother was in service at the MP’s home, Kirkharle Hall. His fledgling career started when he was employed as a gardener at Kirkharle, leaving in 1739.

He progressed to become one of the most influential landscape sculptors in history. He was nicknamed Capability because he would tell his clients that their property had ‘capability’ for improvement.

Brown is best remembered for design on a huge scale, constructing not just gardens and parks, but planting woods and building farms linked by carriage drives, many miles from the main house.

A classic view. Picture by Jane Coltman

In 1754, the 1st Duke of Northumberland employed him to landscape the parklands of his west London property, Syon House. They often dined together there and, by 1769, Brown had formulated a plan for the countryside opposite Alnwick Castle.

The cornerstones of his designs were that, firstly, everything should work and provide for every need of the great house. Secondly, his work had to cohere, look elegant and appear as natural as possible. He excelled himself in his beautiful landscapes at Alnwick.

The view across the River Aln from the castle is both serene and spectacular, and is enjoyed by thousands of visitors every year.

The current Duke told the Gazette: “When the 1st Duke and Duchess of Northumberland decided to make Alnwick their main home, they were faced with a semi-derelict castle in an unkempt landscape so they employed the finest architects of buildings, gardens and landscapes to create their vision of paradise.

Capability Brown by Nathaniel Dance c. 1773. Picture courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London

“Robert Adam took on the task of modernising the castle, while Lancelot Brown set about the transformation of Alnwick’s surrounding areas, including the monastic ruins and extensive hunting lands within Hulne Park.

“He tweaked and moulded the natural vistas, planting seeds and saplings that now stand in venerable splendour throughout this glorious landscape.

“Little remains of Robert Adam’s work on the castle but, 250 years or so later, Brown’s work has matured into a wonderful, living memorial to his vision and skill.”

Visitors to Alnwick Castle in 2016 can enjoy a new exhibition, which is situated inside the Saloon, one of the State Rooms, with an unparalleled view of Brown’s works, and outside on the Castle’s Gun Terrace, where large frames allow visitors to put themselves inside the landscape.

The 18th century view of Alnwick Castle Brown's restoration.

As Clare Baxter, collections and archives manager, explains: “The exhibition encourages the visitor to take time to look carefully at the landscape at Alnwick and imagine what transformation took place by understanding the techniques used, how the work was achieved and why. The design of the exhibition is inspired by the idea of looking at a picture on an artist’s easel, drawing attention to the ‘painterly’ nature of the Arcadian landscape designed by Capability Brown.”

The exhibition forms part of the Capability Brown 300 festival, in which sites across the country celebrate this important anniversary of one of England’s greatest landscape designers.

The Duke of Northumberland said: “Capability Brown transformed many great landscapes and it is fitting that, on the tercentenary of his birth, his magnificent legacy is being acknowledged throughout the country.” The festival has been funded by a £911,100 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, with the wider project worth in the region of £1.7million. There is a range of activities and events at many of the Brown sites. For more details, visit the dedictaed website www.capabilitybrown.org, with one of the main focuses being his Northumberland birthplace, Kirkharle, and nearby Wallington Hall.

On his illustrious CV are the likes of Hampton Court, Burghley House, Longleat, Blenheim Palace, Badminton, Warwick Castle, Harewood House, Milton Abbey and Kew Gardens.



From the Capability Brown exhibition at Alnwick Castle.

Guided Walk (1.5 miles)

Sat 16, Sat 23, Sat 30 July; 1.30pm–3.30pm

Trained guides will help visitors to interpret the landscape and Brown’s plans for the park. FREE event. Advance booking not required. Meet in the courtyard beside Capability Brown’s plan for Kirkharle.

Time Bandits

Sunday, July 24

A chance to meet Capability Brown and learn about the time he was redesigning the landscape and lake at Kirkharle. Brown leads a walk around the lake and surrounding countryside. Free event at Kirkharle Courtyard and Lake.

10am coffee in Coffee House

11am tour of Lake with talk and singing (about 40 mins)

1pm lecture in Loraine Room

3pm second tour of Lake

18th-century Picnics

Throughout July and August, 11am–3pm: 18th-century picnics can be ordered from the Coffee House. Advanced booking please from [email protected] £18.50 for two people.


Guided Walk (1.5 miles)

Wed 3, Sat 6, Wed 10, Sat 13, Wed 17, Sat 20, Wed 24 August; 1.30pm–3.30pm

As above. Meet in east car park.

Planting the Plan

Sat 6, Sat 13, Sat 20, Sat 27 August, 1.30pm–3.30pm

Trained guides will help visitors to interpret the landscape and Brown’s plans for the park. Free event. Advance booking not required. Meet in east car park.

The Eyecatcher Performance

Sat 6, Wed 10, Sat 13, Wed 17, Sat 20 August; 10am and 2pm

Theatre Sans Frontiers’ John Cobb stars in this twice-daily one-man theatrical extravaganza on the life, times and gardens of Capability Brown. Starts 10am and 2pm each day. £5 per ticket. Advance bookings not required.

Anniversary Bike Ride

Sunday, August 7

Cyclists are invited to take part in a 29-mile bike ride, which starts and ends at Kirkharle. Booking essential, email [email protected] Entry form and route map via the Kirkharle Courtyard website, http://kirkharlecourtyard.co.uk/capability-brown/2016-celebrationsTime Bandits

Sun 7, Thurs 11, Sun 14, Sun 21 August

Details as above (July).

Poetry Event

Wednesday, August 17

The Renga Poetry Reading and Composition event will be held in the pavilion at the east end of the lake at Kirkharle. Wear sensible shoes and bring a rug. Refreshments can be purchased at the coffee house. Meet in the east car park. Entry fee: £8. For more information, email [email protected]Bike Ride

Tuesday, August 23

Five cyclists will tackle the gruelling marathon route from Brown’s birthplace in Kirkharle, Northumberland, to his final resting place in Fenstanton, Cambridgeshire. Come and see them off!

The Big Birthday Weekend

Friday, August 26, to Monday, August 29 (bank holiday weekend)

Events will climax with a birthday festival starting on the Friday in Kirkharle’s St Wilfrid’s Church, where the great man was baptised on August 30, 1716.

Flower festival

A flower festival will be held in St Wilfrid’s Church throughout the weekend – entry by donation.

Evening Concert

Friday, August 26; 7pm

An evening concert featuring Rothbury-born, TV presenter and entertainer, Alexander Armstrong. Tickets £40. To book, email [email protected]Talk

Saturday, August 27, 7pm – Capability Brown – A Very Northern Gardener

Historian and broadcaster John Grundy’s talk about Brown, his Kirkharle life and the extent of his influence on English landscapes. Held in the Marquee, in the Barn. Limited tickets available, £20 each. To book, email [email protected] or call Kirkharle Coffee House on 01830 540362.

Church Service

Sunday, August 28; 11am

Service of Holy Communion and thanksgiving for the life and works of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown will take place in St Wilfrid’s Church, conducted by The Rt Revd Christine Hardman, Bishop of the Newcastle Diocese.

Church Fete

Monday, August 29; 2pm–5pm

A traditional church fete, including displays of traditional crafts, games and pony carriage rides. Time Bandit, Mr Brown himself will be available to guide visitors round the courtyard. Entry £5 per car.


Heritage Open Days

Thurs 8, Fri 9 and Sat 10; 11am–4pm

For the third year running, Kirkharle will host this event, welcoming school and family groups, as well as adult visitors. Learn about Capability Brown, his boyhood at Kirkharle and his life as the Shakespeare of Gardening.


Tree Plantings

November 26 to December 4

Throughout National Tree Week, families are invited to plant new trees into Capability’s landscape. More information to follow.

The magnificent Capability Brown vista is framed. Picture by Jane Coltman
A classic view. Picture by Jane Coltman
Capability Brown by Nathaniel Dance c. 1773. Picture courtesy of National Portrait Gallery, London
The 18th century view of Alnwick Castle Brown's restoration.
From the Capability Brown exhibition at Alnwick Castle.