The History of English Landscape Gardening

All landscape gardening essentially makes reference to the great English maestro “Capability” Browne’s life work. Lancelot “Capability” Brown introduced a style of gardening in the 1750’s which became known as “serpentine” gardens. Perhaps the best known example of this style is Hyde Park, in London, England, which although not actually designed by Capability Brown, was certainly influenced by his work. As the style caught on, it began to be known as “English Landscape Gardening”, which in one form or another came to influence the grounds of every stately home in Britain.

Capability Brown’s basic philosophy was that a park or estate should be a heightened reflection of the glories of nature. Plants and lawns should be arranged in a harmonious, natural setting. This was in direct opposition to the French style of garden, such as at Versailles, which aims to trammel nature into formal, abstract – and for Capability Brown ultimately sterile – formations.

The great master’s influence is still strong today. The ideal of a garden is to bring out the best in nature and give it an idealised setting to shine. The “serpentine” which tended to form the backbone of the garden is a winding or naturally formed body of water or lawns. In Hyde Park, the artificial lake is actually called The Serpentine. Lancelot was born and grew up in Northumberland, in a labouring family, and his first work was as a gardener of an estate, where he was in charge of vegetables. This proved to be an invaluable early education into plants and how to take care of them.

In 1739 he moved to an estate in Walton, where he caught the eye of the owner of Stowe Park, in Buckinghamshire, one of the country’s great estates. Here he learned the art of growing exotic fruit and vegetables and pleasure gardens. Lord Cobham, the estate owner, was very up-to-date both politically and socially and encouraged the introduction of all the latest techniques. Top names such as Vanbrugh, Bridgeman and William Kent had contributed to work on the grounds. Their influence was classical and they tended to include follies, or sham ruins and attempted to perfect nature. Large-scale landscaping was introduced, using water, trees and mossy caverns, to create a classical but natural effect.

Lancelot, undoubtedly influenced by this trend, moved it into another dimension by increasing the scale and taking the whole estate as a theme. The grounds became huge woods and lakes, more rivers were introduced and spectacular views brought right up to the doorstep of his client. Clever use of proportions and enhanced perspective gave the effect of rolling hills falling away from the main buildings.

This was a revolutionary approach and contrasted strongly with other styles of gardening of the times. Italian Renaissance, Tudor knot gardens and the French and Dutch influences, with formal fountains and canals, and constrained-looking, clipped evergreens and concentric circles, aimed to dominate nature, instead of working with it. You can visit for more information about garden landscaping.

The ideals which Lancelot spent a lifetime developing have stayed with us until modern times. His influence has been so profound that his harmonious ideals are to this day those which the makers of gardens, no matter how big or small, adhere to. On a smaller scale, the owner of any garden or plot of land can take his basic tenets to create a harmonious space in which to relax and feel part of nature.