Discover the life of Capability Brown, the huge changes he implemented at Blenheim Palace and how he went about the mammoth task of undertaking them!
When you picture Blenheim Palace's grounds, no doubt the timeless view of the Grand Bridge stretching out across the still and shimmering water of the lake comes to mind. King George III was so impressed by the view when visiting in 1786 that he remarked “We have nothing equal to this!” However, the Park and Gardens didn’t always look so impressive.
The man responsible for Blenheim Palace’s ultimate garden transformation back in 1764 was none other than Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, one of the most popular and successful gardeners and landscape architects of his time.
Capability Brown came from surprisingly humble beginnings – his father was a landowner and his mother a chambermaid at Kirkharle Hall, where Brown initially worked as the Head Gardener’s apprentice in the kitchen garden until he was 23. He then joined Lord Cobham’s gardening staff at Stowe in Buckinghamshire and was appointed Head Gardener himself at the age of 26.
Capability Brown went on to set up his own private business in 1751 and quickly gained further gardening renown, receiving his nickname ‘Capability’ due to frequently telling his clients that their property had ‘capability’ for improvement. By the 1760s, Brown was the most sought-after landscape gardener of the times and was earning around £6,000 a year - equivalent to a hefty £873,000 today!
It was the 4th Duke of Marlborough who commissioned Capability Brown in 1763 to redesign the Park. The Grand Bridge had been the subject of more than a few critical remarks previously due to the rather underwhelming streams that ran underneath it. The famous 18th century poet Alexander Pope joked that minnows in the stream “took on the grandeur of whales as they swam underneath it”.
Capability Brown’s solution was to widen the trickling river Glyme by digging out a valley, flooding it then damming it, creating the stunning lake which we know and love today. The lower storeys of the Grand Bridge, featuring 30 secret rooms, were deliberately submerged under water. In fact, there are relics in the rooms which have remained trapped there to this day. Brown also engineered a man-made waterwall, the Grand Cascade, as an overflow section to the dam across the valley. This was all done by hand, dug and shaped by labourers with the soil lined with a watertight layer of clay. It is thought that sheep were even herded across it so that their hooves would drive the clay into the ground. When the Lake was eventually flooded, it took over a year to fill it!
Capability Brown also redesigned the entire 2,000 acres of Gardens and Parkland. He grassed over the original parterre and Great Court (this was then repaved in the early 20th century) to create a more natural landscape. The outlines of the original 17th century plant beds were spotted during recent hot weather on the parched South Lawn. In the Parklands, Brown created gentle slopes and planted thousands of mature trees.
Capability Brown’s transformation of Blenheim Palace’s gardens and parklands took 11 years. The landscape has remained largely unchanged over the past 250 years and his talent for creating the natural, idyllic style of English landscape gardens means that often his work goes unnoticed, appearing as if it has always been there. As his obituary put it, 'so closely did he copy nature that his works will be mistaken'. Plan your next visit to Blenheim Palace and enjoy a relaxing walk to our famous Capability Brown viewpoints. See if you can spot any of the changes he made.