Remembering Capability Brown – Lady Nature’s Second Husband – and a little bit of Compton Verney


The English landscape gardener, Lancelot (Capability) Brown died 236 years ago today, 6th February 1783 – and fittingly is remembered on Twitter, via @BrownCapability:

“Your Dryads must go into black gloves, Madam. Their father-in-law Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead! Mr Brown dropped down at his own door yesterday” wrote Horace Walpole to Lady Ossory on 7th February 1783.
Above is a photograph of that very front door – next to a branch of Prezzo. Would Lancelot have been on Twitter, would he have popped out for a pizza?
It’s lovely today then to think of where he might have felt at home, one of those places being beautiful Compton Verney where he designed the landscape and I was lucky enough to have a residency last year. Here are some photos from that time, and below them a poem to remember him. The form of the poem is a specular or mirror, which feels appropriate given the constantly changing reflections on the lake at Compton Verney.


Views Reflected
by Sarah Salway

Brown’s contemporary, Richard Owen Cambridge, longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had ‘improved’ it.

By the time it was heaven’s turn,
the formal landscape of England
had changed forever:
a gardener and a duke
working harmoniously together.
Scattered trees,
a serpentine lake,
the ‘gardenless’ garden
painted a new picture –
Brown, nature’s second husband,
moving mountains from his path.

Moving mountains from his path,
Brown, nature’s second husband,
painted a new picture –
the ‘gardenless’ garden,
a serpentine lake,
scattered trees
working harmoniously together.
A gardener and a duke
had changed forever
the formal landscape of England
by the time it was heaven’s turn.

On the anniversary of Lancelot Brown’s death

Lancelot – Capability – Brown is best known as the creator of our current vision of the English landscape, so would it surprise you to know this is where he died?


It happened on the 6th February 1783, 235 years ago today.  Apparently the night before he’d collapsed on the doorstep of his daughter Bridget Holland’s house in Hertford Street, London while returning after a night out at Lord Coventry’s.

Researching on the Historic England site, Henry and Bridget Holland lived at no 17, although there’s no plaque or general excitement. In fact, it’s now serviced flats, I got some odd looks when I was taking photographs of the doorstep – I think people thought I must have been a private detective! And slap next to a Prezzo.  I like to think of Lancelot Brown nipping there for a meal – it’s obviously a favourite for some locals! 

Jane Brown writes this in her wonderful biography, The Omnipotent Magician:

At the beginning of February he was spending time in town, staying with his daughter Bridget Holland and her family at their house in Hertford Street in Mayfair. It was an ordinary business trip, which enabled him to visit his clients at their London houses; on the Wednesday evening, 5th February, he was dining with Lord Coventry at his house in Piccadilly, and while he was walking the short distance home he collapsed from ‘an apoplexy’ and the next day he died.

His place of death couldn’t have been more different from his birthplace in rural Northumberland, right in the middle of the city, and I think even then full of secret private clubs such as the one now at No 5. And maybe even it was the footmen from General John Burgoyne’s nearby house who helped him home.

At least, he’d have had a view of Hyde Park running across the bottom of Hertford Street, I like to think of him not being too far away from green. His death, not surprisingly, caused a stir, with Horace Walpole wrote to Lady Ossory: “Your Dryads must go into black gloves, Madam. Their father-in-law Lady Nature’s second husband, is dead! Mr Brown dropped down at his own door yesterday.”

(Wouldn’t Horace Walpole been the best tweeter? Complete with exclamation marks!)

Lancelot Brown’s body was taken quietly to Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire to be buried, where he’d been Lord of the Manor. As his will stated, ‘my body I commit to the Earth to be decently buried.’

So here’s a poem to remember him today, based on something his contemporary Richard Owen Cambridge apparently said, which was that he longed to get to heaven before Brown, so he could see it before the great landscape gardener had ‘improved’ it. It’s a ‘mirror’ poem.

Views Reflected
Sarah Salway

By the time it was heaven’s turn,
the formal landscape of England
had changed forever:
a gardener and a duke
working harmoniously together.
Scattered trees,
a serpentine lake,
the ‘gardenless’ garden
painted a new picture –
Brown, nature’s second husband,
moving mountains from his path.

Moving mountains from his path,
Brown, nature’s second husband,
painted a new picture –
the ‘gardenless’ garden,
a serpentine lake,
scattered trees
working harmoniously together.
A gardener and a duke
had changed forever
the formal landscape of England
by the time it was heaven’s turn.


A garden and a library….

That’s all you need, according to Cicero, and I’ve just had a joyful residency in both! The Women’s Library at Compton Verney to be precise, looking out at grounds laid out by Capability Brown.

IMG_6364 2

The project was part of Spreadsheets and Moxie, a year of research and development into professionalism in the arts for women writers which I’m carrying out with fellow writer, Viccy Adams, and which is supported by Arts Council England. We first went to Compton Verney for this back in January, but this month I went back alone for a very good reason – the arrival of Viccy’s beautiful baby, Archer.

I wasn’t really alone though, because of the number of wonderful visitors to the Women’s Library who I cornered to ask for the one book they might recommend – written by a woman. From top left, working clockwise we have – I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Tulip Fever by Deborah Moggach, One Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley, The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey. And then there were the recommendations left in our #100Women100Books visitors book.


The residency was part of the overall year of research and development into professionalism in the arts, Spreadsheets and Moxie, Viccy and I have been working on, and which is supported by Arts Council England. For this, we devised a model project – #100Women100Books – specially for Compton Verney’s Women’s Library. We asked 100 women in our lives, from toddlers to the over-eighties, what book they would recommend to other women now, and why. The resulting list – A Women’s Library for the 21st Century – can be found and downloaded from our website here. It’s fascinating reading, and we’re so pleased how many people are already downloading it. Do let us know if you do, and also leave us YOUR recommendation. You can follow us on Facebook too, or on Twitter using the #100Women100Books hashtag.

The project fitted in well with the Compton Verney Women’s Library too, which has just undergone a splendid restoration, as part of the Unsilencing the Library project. It’s really worth a visit, virtually via their website or in real life! When Viccy and I visited back in January it was a strange experience not least because there were no books. There were bookspines however (above) – a ‘false library’ of what books would have been recommended for women in the 19th century when Georgiana Verney, wife of the reclusive 17th Lord Willoughby de Broke was thought to have created it. She was an enthusiastic champion of women’s education, reading and suffrage, so it was lovely to sit writing in the library and feel her presence. And also to be with other readers, as the Unsilencing the Library team asked different individuals and groups what books they would like to see in the library. There was Emma Watson’s shelf:


Margo Jefferson’s shelf:IMG_6309

And The Prison Reading Groups selection (I loved the wide range here):IMG_6305 2

Amongst others. And of course, outside the library there were the grounds. Can you imagine the bliss of sitting in this chair, looking up from a book and seeing this view?


So a last shout out to Gary Webb, who is in charge of Capability Brown’s vision now at Compton Verney. Here he is standing on Capability Brown’s bridge, with the house behind.IMG_6296

And here’s the poem I wrote for #100Women100Books with lines taken from the reasons people gave for picking their own book, and collaging it into just one book!

This book

Crossing the bridge at Compton Verney


Compton Verney –

When I say I love Lancelot Brown, I don’t mean it in the sense of ‘I deeply admire his work.’ No, I mean it in the same sense the teenage me wanted to faint every time I saw a photograph of Richard Gere.


Compton Verney –

Yep, that bad.

But perhaps it explains why I almost couldn’t cross the bridge from the car park to Compton Verney when I arrived there for my writing residency with Viccy Adams. This wasn’t just a bridge, it was THE bridge Capability Brown built. Over the lake he designed, and there around me – OH GOD ALL AROUND ME – was his vision. And for the next two days, I was going to be ‘living’ in the house as if he’d designed the landscape all for me. Not just a quick visit, but I’d be able to look out of windows at different times of the day, see it in different lights, walk in it, get cuddled by it…


Compton Verney –


Compton Verney –


Compton Verney –




But it was true. I’ve seen many Brown landscapes over the time, but I’m not sure I’d really got it in the way I did at Compton Verney. There were huge bits of landscaping – a derelict village cleared for this view…


Compton Verney –

The chapel (marked by the obelisk)…


Compton Verney –

…moved to behind the house so there was an unobstructed view of the lake from the windows…


Compton Verney –

Some relics were moved the church…


… others remained…



Beautiful, personable, characterful trees….


Compton Verney –

The bridges marking exactly the right points so the water seemed to go on forever…



The views in and out of the house…

So, in honour of being possibly his most fansydosy* fan, here’s a love poem to him… and first a quick video… it’s only a few minutes AND IT CONTAINS… no, I don’t want to spoil the surprise…


(*I don’t care if this is a word or not, it should be.)

Fresh Green Silence
Sarah Salway

Maybe like this: sunburnt hands
brown as earth or the bark of a tree,
stroking the neck of his horse,
sweat and mud flicking high
in air, as even then, cantering

into the courtyard, his mind as open
as the servants’ kitchen, where ale spills
over the oak table while he arranges
pots and pans as forests, skims off foam
from his tankard for a lake,

until later, upstairs, he unrolls
vellum plans, takes silky ladies
to the window. You must always,
he urges, embrace even disorder
with necessary order. Arms stretched

out in the offer of so many possibilities:
here the sound of rushing water
under a spinx lined bridge,
there there there, spaces between trees,
full stops in a constant conversation.

I will give you, he whispers to her hand,
fresh green silence, and it’s this
she holds on to, the rush of air
as he rides away and the very land
she walks on is transformed forever.

How to be Capable (ity Brown)

I’ve been thinking about Lancelot (Capability) Brown for probably far too long. Here’s a post I wrote about visiting his birthplace, Kirkharle in Northumberland. So it’s lovely to join in the celebrations for the 300th anniversary of his birth, with a series of poems coming out in the commemorative copy of the magazine for the Follies Fellowship.

The visit to the Church above, the path he would have walked to school every day, and the countryside he grew up in (not his house, that’s now a car park!) all informed writing an imagined view of how he became the ‘Shakespeare of English gardening’.

How You Learn To Be Capable by Sarah Salway

Never be told you can’t.

Walk to church every Sunday, sometimes more, past stories that thrill even when they should be scaring you, and although you know you shouldn’t speak about the past, let the land whisper it with just a sideways glance at a mound or an old bent tree.

On your daily trek to school, surprise yourself by glimpsing future stories hiding in clumps of trees, behind a hill, swimming down stream to a lake where they are lost before you fish them out.

Lancelot, your teacher smiles, now do you know where that name comes from? And although you’re only five, you do. So you tell him of ancestors, of the land, of the trees, of woodsmen and the earth, of the pride of being a servant to a good man, of what it means to be a Brown.

There is another story, he says, and that’s how honour, and gallantry, and most of all, maybeoneday, enter your world.

Now when you walk to school, you place the rises and falls, the trees and the rivers in different places in order to catch the future better.

One day when you are in the kitchen, you tell your mother that you’d like to move the hill in front of the house. And she doesn’t laugh, but looks out of the window as if she can see over the horizon now too.

You walk to school through rain, walk to church through rain. You get so tired of rain rain rain every day.

We need the rain to keep our lands green, the preacher says that Sunday, and because you listen hard every time he mentions land, you start to think again about water.

Because what if we could control it, you ask your teacher, what if we could turn the weather on and off when we need it. Not just for the land but for beauty too.

 Shhh. It’s by scaring your teacher that you learn another story. That Control is something you have but pretend you don’t. Power exists when it’s not questioned. And Stories don’t have to be spoken aloud to be heard.

Control and Power and Stories are like you and your brothers. You may fight, but you can’t be separated, and in some people’s eyes and shakes of their heads, you are one and the same. Those Brown boys. The ideas in them.

 But God, your teacher says, is the one who holds the Order.

You say, Like my Lord Loraine, but now your teacher, your mother, even your brothers, tell you not to think so much.

You’re still thinking when your father comes to say he’s got you a job, working on the land, working so hard that your mind will stop worrying at itself like a dog with a bone, and although you agree, of course you do, if you hold your head a certain way, if you were to move the hills, rearrange the trees, let the rivers flow in a new way, you know you can rewrite Order’s story. Because you are a Brown, but you’re a Lancelot too, so the Story you keep inside, and don’t even have to say out loud for people to listen, is for Beauty too.


The rest of the poems will be in the magazine, due out in May!

A visit to Kirkharle – where Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown began


So, the above might not be the picture of a garden you’re expecting from the birthplace of the man who has been called the ‘Shakespeare of Gardening’ but the house that Lancelot Brown was born in was once situated where this car park now stands.


It’s at Kirkharle Hall in Northumberland which was owned by Sir William Loriane when the Brown’s were tenant farmers on the estate. Lancelot started at the Hall as ‘gardener’s boy’ at the age of 16, and it was from here that he moved to work with Lord Cobham at Stowe. It was the start of a journey that changed much of the shape of British landscape as we know it today.


Although there’s not much of the original hall left and the outbuildings are now a thriving crafts centre, it still retains a strong link with Capability Brown. That’s his portrait in the sign above.


And in fact, the grounds are being landscaped to follow what is thought to be Brown’s first design – rather wonderfully found by accident amongst old papers by the current owner of Kirkharle in 1980.


The place is part commercial, part educational, with the balance – at the moment – just right.


What I wanted out of the trip – aside from a pot of Capability Brown handcream and cashmere socks – was to get a feeling of what shapes an artist’s vision (and in my book, gardens are definitely art). Is it possible to find this out from looking direct at what they might have seen as a child?


This window for example is in the Church where Lancelot Brown was baptised in 1716 and which, as the child of an estate worker, I’m guessing he must have spent much of every Sunday. Did he look at the window and dream of a view just seen through a solid frame?


And then there’s the spot in the Churchyard where his grandparents are buried. Did it give him the idea of seclusion in the midst of openness?

walk to school

Here’s the way he would have walked to his school in Cambo, two miles back and forth every day. Was it just too much of a straight trudge for those little legs, and did he sometimes dream of a more serpentine trail?


I can’t find a record of his school achievements, but I’m guessing grammar was well taught. A conversation with Hannah More in 1782 shows this: “‘Now there,’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’ pointing at another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.”


But what’s for sure is this monument almost next to his house, and dedicated to one of the Loraine ancestors would have played a large part in a small boy’s imagination. It reads: “In memory of Robert Loraine his ancestor who was Barborously Murder’d in this place by the Scots in 1483”. The monument was established in 1728 (when Lancelot was just 12), and records how Robert Loraine had been coming back from the church when he was attacked by Scottish ‘barbarians’ who cut his body up into pieces small enough to stuff into his horse’s saddlebags and then sent the horse back to the house. Makes me shudder even now. Perhaps it was averting his eyes from this, or even forcing himself to look, that led to his sight breaks in otherwise solid lines.


Oh look, there are still ‘rebels’ who don’t obey the boundaries… (That’s one of Lancelot’s famous ‘ha-ha’s’ by the way. I don’t think the sheep knows that though!) This free spiritedness of the inhabitants of the Northumberland countryside was always bound to create someone who didn’t always follow the rules!


And, of course, clumps of trees and surprises everywhere.


So although – this is becoming a habit – traditionally not a garden, Kirkharle feels an important place to visit for anyone interested in garden history. There’s also the wildlife, the plants, the wild natural beauty.

80 years

And the other people. This couple are in their 80s but had driven here from Newcastle. We’d seen them laughing and talking together in the cafe earlier – they were flirting with each other as warmly as if on a first date so it was wonderful to find out after just how long they’d been married! Garden visiting does this to you, I’m sure…


My research into Capability Brown is personal at the moment. I’m planning a novel about his wife, Biddy Brown, who was born on the other side of the country, in Boston in Lincolnshire.


I’ve visited her birthplace too – and although her childhood house has been demolished too, there is one house of that period left in the square she lived in and it’s known she was close friends with the inhabitants. Look how different it is in appearance from Kirkharle Hall. At the time they met (1737) Boston was the second busiest port after London and Biddy was the sister of a well-to-do merchant, soon to be mayor. I can’t help wondering how much she must have influenced Capability Brown, especially as I learnt that the plant collector, Joseph Banks came from Boston too and although younger, was undoubtedly a friend of Biddy’s family. Did she perhaps introduce him to Brown? So much more to find out!

And so here’s a poem for you – inspired by childhoods, and gardens, and grammar!

Garden Punctuation
Sarah Salway

Peace is the line of a horizon
shaped like the story of soil,
written without breaking the rhythm,
commas and full stops so carefully placed
that all you hear is the swell of the view,

and it’s as green and moist as night grass,
a memory of lying, legs akimbo, watching stars
and you point out the Plough and the Bear,
although you don’t have to do anything
but sink deep into the ground, looking up

as you feel the heft of the land under,
and there’s nothing to see here but green,
the trees gently rock you, air strokes you,
water sparkles, sun warm on your back,
and for this moment, you’re safe,

only the end of day to make for, each hour
planted with capabilities, until later
walking along the path, grass under toes,
you watch circling birds ready to migrate,
in tune with a world that keeps turning.