Lancelot Brown and the Capability Men:
Landscape Revolution in Eighteenth-century England
by David Brown and Tom Williamson
Pub. Reaktion Books, 2016 pp.250
Reviewed by Wendy Bishop – December 2016
This book covers the familiar ground of Brown’s landscape work but presents it from a new angle, looking closely at how Brown actually operated, and challenging the assumption that the ‘Brownian park’ was actually Brown’s innovation. As well as succinctly sketching out the political, economic, industrial and social context, the authors deal more specifically with the gardens and landscapes in the first half of the eighteenth century. This is not a simplistic account of those times, and the authors present familiar themes in a fresh light, reviewing texts of the time, authorities writing today, as well as newer research on Brown’s contemporaries.
Williamson and Brown unpick exactly what Brown’s landscapes were like, and question the idea that the Brown style, once formed, did not change. There is a wealth of plans, paintings and photographs, and the authors highlight Brown’s involvement not just with landscape parks but with shrubberies, kitchen gardens, the construction of stables, cottages, ice-houses, drying yards etc. David Brown’s research into Brown’s accounts underpins the analysis of how the ‘design and build’ business actually worked – who he employed, his network of contacts and ‘co-workers’ and these men, Brown himself, and his rivals, are characterised as the ‘Capability Men’.
This is a fresh and invigorating appraisal of Brown, and is very readable. It is not, however, a ‘light’ read, being packed with dense scholarship and penetrating analysis. As the sub-title suggests, it sets Brown firmly in the context of the eighteenth century, and explores what came after him.