Bowood celebrates 300th birthday of Capability Brown

In a letter dated 2 November 1757, the 1st Earl of Shelburne asks his son, William:

“What wou’d you give to know the Consequences of the Visit of the famous Mr Brown, & the fruit of the 30 guineas which I gave him? He passed two days with me, & eat & drank, at rather a more elegant table than you saw here (if that be possible) & twenty times assur’d me, that he does not know a finer place in England than B. Park, & that he is sure no Prince in Europe, has so fine a Fruit-Garden.This I protest is all that pass’d between him & me, to the astonishment of all who were Witnesses, or who have since enquir’d, & many have, what services he did for me, or what Counsels he gave. While the Neighbours wonder, I laugh, because Crying will not bring back my three-times-ten Guineas. However I am perswaded that the Man means to present me, at some future time, with a well digested plan for this place, & perhaps to come to me on this Spot, to explain it.”

That 1757 meeting may not have been deemed an auspicious start between client and consultant but, as today’s visitor to Bowood’s 2000-acre Grade 1 listed parkland mapped out by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown will soon realise, Lord Shelburne’s initial investment of 30 guineas – some £5,500 in today’s money – was a wise one.

A special 2016 exhibition in The Orangery of Bowood House will reveal how, with Capability Brown’s first visit to Bowood, a vision for one of England’s best landscapes had already started to take shape. Bowood’s ‘Terrestrial Delights’ exhibition will chart the subsequent development of the parkland and lead the estate’s own particular tribute to the ‘father of landscape architecture’ during the nationwide Capability Brown Festival celebrating next year’s tercentenary of his birth. Bowood House and Gardens has also scheduled a series of specially-themed, guided garden tours around the parkland. The 43-bedroom Bowood Hotel and the four-bedroom Queenwood Lodge (both located, just a mile away, within the parkland’s western corner) will be offering special rates around these tour dates so that garden lovers from far and wide can also stay overnight on the estate. Gaining the Historic Houses Association/Christie’s ‘Garden of the Year’ award in 2014, Bowood is the most recent Capability Brown parkland to have received this prestigious accolade.

Having purchased Bowood Park and its unfinished House in 1754, Lord Shelburne’s next quest was a befitting park. His son, William, then took up the reins upon succeeding to the title in 1761 (later to become the 1st Marquess of Lansdowne in 1784). It was he who commissioned Brown to landscape Bowood Park with a four year programme set out in a contract, dated 10 August 1762. A sinuous lake was to be formed by damming two streams and the parkland on its western side was to be sculpted for great vistas to sweep down to the water’s edge.

Capability Brown was to create a ha-ha, level the ground, enlarge the pond and ensure a sufficient flow of water, make all the roads, provide and plant all the trees and shrubs, sow grass seed and make the Great Plantations. The project was due for completion by June 1766 and a fee of £4,300 was agreed – over three-quarters of a million pounds, if undertaken today.

For his part, Lord Shelburne was to provide horses, carts and wheelbarrows and to find exotic, ‘curious’ trees from abroad and tree seeds.

The work itself began in 1763 and it’s believed that a total of some 300 men worked on-and-off on the project over the next five years (the contract’s remit having subsequently expanded). Once all the work was completed, Bowood House was set naturally into its landscape with belts of trees encircling the Pleasure Grounds beyond the House’s walled garden.

Bowood’s archivist, Jo Johnston who is curating the ‘Terrestrial Delights’ exhibition explains that when Capability Brown undertook the project at Bowood he was at the height of his fame. “By this time, he had already developed his defining style. His was a new and fashionable approach to the layout of a grand English garden that was highly, and increasingly, sought after by large estate owners. Abandoning the previous taste for very formal gardens, Capability Brown took the more naturalistic compositions pioneered by William Kent from 1719 to another level altogether. Just as Lancelot Brown waxed lyrical to Lord Shelburne about Bowood’s outstanding setting so would he also emphasise, to his many other landed clients, the great ‘capability’ of their own estates for improvement. This was how the ‘Capability’ tag was added to his name.

“Appointing Robert Adam to work on the House’s interiors around the same time, the 2nd Earl of Shelburne certainly believed in recruiting all the best people. Ahead of the likes of Blenheim Palace and Highclere Castle doing so, Bowood’s appointment of Capability Brown was clearly a significant one as by the 1760s his usual annual charge for a single commission was £500.

“Lord Shelburne’s letter of 1757 had also observed that Capability Brown was ‘very carefull in Viewing & Examining’ . An accomplished rider, it took him about an hour on horseback to study the lie of the land allowing him to work quickly too in devising his plans,” comments Jo Johnston.
Indeed all progressed well as Lady Shelburne’s diary entry on 17 June 1766 notes – ‘…we took a Walk & were vastly pleas’d with the Effect of the Water which flows into a Magnificent River and only wants to rise to its proper hight wch it comes nearer to every day…’

Her walk will be followed as part of a series of monthly special ‘Capability Brown’ themed, guided garden tours scheduled from next April – October (inclusive) tracing out his designs for Bowood. With Bowood House and Gardens re-opening on 25 March after its annual winter closure, next season’s tours will be introduced as a tercentenary tribute.

The Capability Brown trail will set off from Bowood House’s Italianate Terraces, head around the lake (taking in Hamilton’s Cascade and Grotto as it does, as well as the lakeside Doric temple) and then weave through the arboretum before returning to the House for a two course lunch in The Stables Restaurant. (Starting at 11am, each 90-minute guided tour is priced at £32.00 per person and also includes general admission to the House and Gardens)

Those joining these guided garden tours from further afield can stay overnight within this spectacular parkland by taking advantage of special all-inclusive overnight rates at the 43-bedroom Bowood Hotel, Spa and Golf Resort ( Coinciding with the designated Capability Brown garden tour dates and including dinner (food only), breakfast, the guided garden tour, a Capability Brown themed gift pack and admission to the House and Gardens among a variety of treats, the residential rate (based on two people sharing a twin/double room) will start at £155 per person. Alternatively, the four-bedroom Queenwood Lodge (available for exclusive hire) will offer its own inclusive package from £210 (based on eight people staying) to coincide with tour dates.

The 1st Earl of Shelburne’s descendant, the 9th Marquis of Lansdowne is clearly delighted that his ancestor entertained Capability Brown so royally in 1757. “As time has proved, Lord Shelburne’s parting with 30 guineas was money very well spent!” says Charlie Lansdowne. “For his part, Capability Brown was a really astute businessman as well as a visionary designer. Now that Capability Brown’s and my forefathers’ young trees have achieved maturity, Bowood’s visitors can appreciate today what could only have been imagined in the mid-18th century.

“Capability Brown’s arboretum has been augmented right up to the present day and virtually every period of English garden design, from the Georgian period onwards, is now represented at Bowood. Yet, any addition holds true to Brown’s scheme of things as his sculpted vistas are retained,” adds Lord Lansdowne.

Bowood House & Gardens are currently closed for the winter but are scheduled to re-open on Friday 25 March in time for the Easter weekend.
Bowood’s Capability Brown guided garden tour dates:

Wednesday 20th April
Wednesday 18th May
Wednesday 22nd June
Wednesday 20th July
Wednesday 24th August
Wednesday 21st September
Wednesday 19th October