The best of Dorset in words and pictures

Capability Brown in West Dorset

Peter Meech and George Tatham look at Capability Brown's work in the west of the county

Lake and trees at Minterne Magna

Lake and trees at Minterne Magna

Nowadays we would probably speak of an estate’s ‘potential’ or ‘possibilities’, but in the 18th century one English landscape designer preferred the word ‘capabilities’. So it was that Lancelot Brown, baptised 300 years ago on 30 August 1716 in Kirkharle, Northumberland, acquired the sobriquet ‘Capability’ by which he is better known. In his lifetime he designed well over 200 parks across England and Wales (and abroad), from Alnwick Castle, Northumberland, in the north-east to Ugbrooke Park, Devon, in the south-west. Sadly, nothing survives today of the work Brown carried out for the 3rd Earl of Bute at Highcliffe, Christchurch (then in Hampshire), and his possible association with Down House, Blandford (destroyed by fire in 1941), remains doubtful, while his work at Milton Abbas was covered in the June issue. But these were not the limit of his Dorset associations.
Dorset in the 18th century was not a wealthy county, with relatively few potential clients with both an enthusiasm for landscaping their parkland and the means to afford a landscape designer. Members of the Digby family of Sherborne were an exception on both counts. The landscaping at Sherborne Castle, Brown’s first major commission in the West Country, is widely acclaimed as his finest in the county. In the early to mid-18th century, the Digbys had established a formal pleasure garden between the ruined Old Castle and Raleigh’s 1594 ‘New’ Castle. A plan of the estate indicates how the River Yeo had been channelled rectilinearly through and around the original garden. In 1753 this plan was very possibly included in a parcel of documents that Lord (Edward) Digby sent to Brown, until recently Lord Cobham’s head gardener at Stowe, in what was to be the start of a long and mutually beneficial association with the family.
Later that year, a flood between the two castles inspired Lord Digby to suggest making such a ‘Piece of Water’ a permanent feature. By late March 1754, the felling of trees, uprooting of hedges and demolishing of canal walls needed for the construction of a lake had begun. As supervisor of this work, Brown was to visit Sherborne on eight occasions before its completion the following year.
The serpentine lake is one of the typical features of the kind of landscape for which Brown is universally known and admired, sometimes gushingly, as in this piece by G M Butt, ‘Sherborne, 1815’:
Hail, noble Lake! thy crystal waters bend
Their lengthen’d way, (while springs unnumbered send
A willing tribute to thy sovereign force,
Pouring from hill and dale their limpid course.)
Grandly sublime! majestically slow!
Wafting ambrosial freshness as they flow.

Cascade, lake and Sherborne Castle

Cascade, lake and Sherborne Castle

Drawing on the Arcadian visions of the painter Claude Lorraine from the previous century, the so-called ‘Brownian’ look comprised rolling parkland, specimen trees such as the Cedar of Lebanon, and distant vistas, in addition to great expanses of water. Artfully combined, they evoke a harmonious, ‘natural’ serenity. Although Brown is the person most commonly associated with the style, it had in fact been pioneered a generation earlier by Charles Bridgeman and William Kent.
The so-called ‘English garden’ quickly became the fashionable style throughout Europe and beyond (Catherine the Great and Thomas Jefferson were both enthusiasts). However, not everyone was as impressed by Brown’s replacement of Italianate formal gardens with variations on a standardised, formulaic design, however ‘natural’ and easy on the eye. Sir Walter Scott, for example, wrote that his imitations of nature bore ‘no more resemblance to that nature which we desire to see imitated, than the rouge of an antiquated coquette, bearing all the marks of a sedulous toilette, bears to the artless blush of a cottage girl’. Though not always as harsh as this, there was criticism of Brown’s style throughout the 19th century, and his reputation only recovered in the 20th.
In 1776, after an interval of two decades, Brown received another commission from Sherborne. On this occasion Lord (Henry) Digby, who had succeeded to the title on the death of his elder brother in 1757, requested that he make a number of additions and improvements in the area near the house. These included building a ha-ha, making a sloping lawn down to the lake and altering the garden by ‘planting trees, shrubs and flowers’. Lord Digby sourced shrubs and plants locally but some were sent by Brown from London. For his involvement in this work he was paid £1100, the equivalent of over £162,000 today, out of which he would have had to pay his workforce.
Brown’s involvement in these two projects is well attested. But what of an estate like Minterne Magna, the landscaping of which is said to be ‘after the manner of Lancelot “Capability” Brown’? There are no records of his having ever visited Minterne, home at the time of Captain Robert Digby, the younger brother of Lord Digby, owner of the Sherborne estate. The answer can be found in Robert’s diaries and in the game books housed in the archives of Sherborne Castle.
On 14 November 1768, aged 35, Robert Digby rode the four miles from Sherborne to the Minterne estate, which he described as ‘compact, but naked & the Trees not thriving, the house ill contrived & ill situated’. Despite this less than positive impression, he bought it from the Churchill family. Over the next few years he set about improving it, initially by planting trees along the top of the hills enclosing the Cerne Valley as a windbreak, Minterne lying as it does some 850 feet above sea level.
On 15 January 1776, Brown arrived at Sherborne Castle at the request of Lord Digby and spent the next two days walking round the estate with him and discussing his ‘intended alterations’. Robert Digby happened to be there too, but seems to have spent at least some of his time out shooting. Brown returned to Sherborne on 12 October and inspected the ‘new works’ with his client, who noted in his game book that ‘Capt. Digby came from Minterne in the Evening.’
Three months later, on 22 January 1777, Brown was back again at Sherborne and once more Robert managed to coincide with him. Tellingly, Lord Digby notes that on 24 January ‘Capt. R.D. went with regret to Minterne before Breakfast, sorry to loose [sic] any of Mr Browns [sic] Company.’
From these encounters it can be surmised that Robert picked Brown’s brains on landscape design on a number of occasions. But how did he know to coincide so perfectly with the latter’s visits? The answer is that Lord Digby knew that his brother had also inherited the family’s keen interest in landscape gardening. Aware, too, of Robert’s enjoyment of Brown’s company, he will have had a member of staff ride over to Minterne with news of the latter’s visits.

Cedars at Sherborne Castle

Cedars at Sherborne Castle

During the American War of Independence Robert, by now a Rear Admiral, was given command of the Americas Station and arrived in Sandy Hook, New York, in 1781. On his return to Dorset, he planted more clumps of trees, got rid of the existing formal gardens, created lakes and a series of cascades. He also put into practice his talent for designing bridges, including Eleanor’s Bridge at Minterne, named after his American wife, and Pinford Bridge at Sherborne, based on a Robert Adam design, for his brother. Does the fact that Robert called one of his horses ‘Brown’ – and even referred to his wife similarly – indicate a possible infatuation with his mentor? Possibly just a coincidence, but the parkland at Minterne nevertheless owes a considerable debt to the ideas of the brilliant landscape designer (its Himalayan Garden, with its celebrated rhododendrons and azaleas, dates from the late 19th and early 20th centuries).
The genial Capability Brown was always a welcome guest at Sherborne Castle, paying regular visits until shortly before his death on 6 February 1783. A game book entry in January 1777 in the Castle archives, for example, records that ‘Mr Brown came from Lord Milton’s while we were at dinner and was very agreeable.’

© Portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, c1770-75, by Richard Cosway (1742-1821) Private Collection Bridgeman Images

© Portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, c1770-75, by Richard Cosway (1742-1821) Private Collection Bridgeman Images

  • The ‘Capability Brown at Sherborne Castle’ exhibition runs until 30 October. Visit www.sherbornecastle.com for details.
  • ‘A Capability Brown Experience’ continues at Milton Abbey until 21 August, details at www.miltonabbey.org/capability-brown-milton-abbey.php

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