Dr Oliver Cox explains how Oxford is gearing up to celebrate the tercentenary of Capability Brown's birth by honouring the magical eighteenth century landscapes that we still cherish today. 

  Capability Brown’s lake at Blenheim

 Above: Capability Brown’s great lake at Blenheim, commissioned by the 4th Duke of Marlborough in 1763

By Dr Oliver Cox

Next year will mark three hundred years since the birth of Britain’s most famous landscape designer, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown - and Oxford will be playing a crucial role in helping the nation to celebrate.

Throughout 2016, Oxford academics will explore the peaks and troughs of Brown’s reputation. We will probe the differences between the connoisseurial understanding of his landscapes, and the broader popular appeal of the particular kind of Englishness that his tripartite concoctions of trees, grass and water now represents. 

South Front of Stowe

Above: Stowe, where Capability Brown was appointed head gardener in 1741

Reviewing a 1950 biography of Brown for The Spectator, James Lees-Milne opened with the remark that, ‘the life of Capability Brown…makes the most unqualified success story, and that this is due as much to the hero’s sound sense as to his remarkable genius’. Balancing business with branding, Lees-Milne credited Brown with being ‘the man pre-eminently responsible for fashioning the English landscape’.

His enduringly appealing style appears at the beginning of every episode of the remarkably successful Downton Abbey, raising the question: are we still a green and pleasant land, or are Brown’s landscapes now part of an artificial construct, artfully deployed by destination management organisations and VisitEngland to lure in US Dollars or Chinese Yuan?

Stowe view

Above: View out of the south portico at Stowe to the Corinthian Arch

As the Knowledge Exchange Fellow at TORCH | The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities I will be co-ordinating the university’s response through the Thames Valley Country House Partnership. Oxford not only contains the academic expertise, but is geographically well-placed as many of Brown’s finest landscapes, including Blenheim Palace, Compton Verney, Nuneham Park, and Stowe, ring the city. The regional focal point for the tercentenary celebrations will be the Blackwell Hall in the new Weston Library, where an exhibition curated by Mike Webb (Curator of Early Modern Manuscripts, Bodleian Library) and me will use the collections of the Bodleian Library to explain and evaluate Brown’s contribution to Oxfordshire’s environs.

Compton Verney

Above: Compton Verney, where Capability Brown parkland will be restored 

Beyond the city, the university is already contributing to the festivities. At Compton Verney, an internship funded by the Careers Service provided valuable research support to their successful £2.5m Heritage Lottery Fund application to restore the Capability Brown parkland. At Blenheim Palace, another student intern, is engaged in important primary source research which will underpin the Palace’s spring 2016 Capability Brown exhibition.

At Stowe, I will compere a series of public lectures between May and September, which will see leading academics reflect on the importance (or otherwise!) of Capability Brown. Finally, working closely with Oxford Preservation Trust, Brown’s hidden masterpiece of Nuneham Park will open its doors for a weekend of celebrations. 

For detailsof the national celebrations, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, see: www.capabilitybrown.org.

Photographs courtesy of Oliver Cox


By Adrian Fort

Dear Dr. Cox,
I am in the process of writing a booklet about Brown and Kirtlington Park. Do you think that we could have a brief meeting, at your convenience, and a short exchange of ideas and information?
I am in Oxford on most days of the week.
Yours sincerely,
Adrian Fort