The most famous of all British landscapers, Lancelot "Capability" Brown is widely credited with having changed the direction of British garden design, championing the "natural", ecologic style of landscaping that represented a fundamental departure from the very formal French Baroque style typical of grand estates and gardens until the late 18th century.
The leading exponent of the "new English style", Brown exerted a dynamic influence over the garden fashions of the day, and yet, although he enjoyed considerable renown in his own lifetime, he is described as "the last of the great English eighteenth-century artists to be accorded his due".
Born in Kirkharle, Northumberland in 1716, Brown learned his trade as a gardener's boy in the service of Sir William Loraine. After working at Wotton for Sir Richard Grenville, he joined the staff of Lord Cobham at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Brown's mentor at Stowe was William Kent, one of the founders of the new English style. The pair grew close, with Brown eventually marrying Kent's daughter.
Under Kent's guidance, Brown's career began to flourish and, when Lord Cobham died in 1749, Brown left Stowe to set up his own gardening practice in London. His services soon became immensely sought after in aristocratic circles, and he is believed to be responsible for some 170 gardens surrounding many of England's finest estates, including Burghley, Chatsworth and Blenheim, where his work endures to this day.
Brown worked with a grand vision that demanded a blank canvas. Despite his popularity, he attracted considerable criticism from contemporaries who objected to his unsentimentally destroying the work of previous generations in order to make way for his radical new designs.
Brown's technique was to impose on the English landscape ideal forms and patterns that were modeled after nature. His gardens were artfully contrived to give a sense of informality and 'natural' beauty, featuring wide, green, undulating lawns and scattered clumps of trees.
Brown referred to himself as a "place maker"; the term "landscape gardening" had yet to be coined. He owes his famous moniker to his habit of describing prospective clients' estates as having "great capability" for landscaping.
Brown was appointed head gardener at Hampton Court Palace in 1761, although he continued to undertake private commissions until his death in 1783. Brown's reputation suffered in the following years and decades, reaching its nadir in the mid-Victorian period. However, the 20th century witnessed a growing resurgence in his popularity and he is now recognized as a master landscaper in the history of English garden design.