Postage stamps: Capability Brown

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was a landscape gardener and architect, born in the north of England in 1716. His nickname, Capability, is said to have come from his frequent observations that areas of land had ‘great capabilities’.

He became an expert at creating works of art out of large areas of parkland, moving great mounds of soil and diverting rivers to achieve the look he was after. His aim was always to make something that looked natural, but was also beautiful and practical.

In August 2016 Royal Mail brought out a series of eight stamps to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Capability Brown’s birth, and I have the two second class designs. The first of these features Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire, birthplace and ancestral home of wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill.

When he redesigned the parkland at Blenheim Palace in the 1760s, Capability Brown engineered a great lake by damming the small River Glyme. The river flowed under an enormous bridge (said to contain over 30 rooms), built some years earlier by architect, Sir John Vanbrugh. The bridge was an impressive piece of engineering, but it looked out of place with a small river trickling under it. Brown fixed the incongruity by designing the lake to make it look as if the bridge had been built specifically to cross a wide expanse of water. The bridge and lake feature in the foreground of the Blenheim stamp, with the Palace in the background.

Capabitlity Brown Blenheim Palace
2nd class stamp featuring Capability Brown’s landscape creations at Blenheim Palace.

The second stamp features Longleat, home of the Marquesses of Bath. Located in the English county of Wiltshire, Longleat is a stately home set in 1000 acres of parkland. It was the first stately home to open to the public, and is perhaps best known for its safari park. The safari park was opened in 1966 and was the first such park outside Africa to house a variety of African animals.

It was the 1st Marquess of Bath, Thomas Thynne, who asked Capability Brown to redesign the formal gardens into something more natural-looking, with tree-peppered grassland and grand driveways. As he did with dozens of other gardens, Capability Brown produced a landscape that perfectly flattered the architecture it surrounded.

DSC03289
2nd class stamp featuring the grounds of Longleat, landscaped by Capability Brown.

Both Blenheim Palace and Longleat are open to the public, as are around 30 other gardens designed by Capability Brown throughout England.

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6 comments

  1. Wonderful, Lorna! I didn’t know that was how Capability Brown got his name. I assumed it was because of his own capabilities, rather than those of the landscape! I love those images of Longleat and Blenheim – it shows just what a grand scale he was working on – so ambitious! But what magnificent results.

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    • I had assumed the same about his name, Jo. He certainly was full of capabilities. Longleat and Blenheim are two wonderful examples of his work, but his achievements were incredibly wide ranging. As you say, he was very ambitious, and managed to display his talent on the grandest of scales. Apparently, he was also a very pleasant and popular man, which isn’t always the case with ambitious people.

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  2. I, too, thought his name came from him being capable. Talking about “capabilities” of the land is a much better story! Interesting too that he was pleasant – as you say, it isn’t always the case with ambitious people.

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