Design, In the Garden, Living with Style, Travel Notes


Inspiring Garden Design: The Talented Mr. Brown

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This annual “Inspiring Garden Design” series is going to have an international flavor in 2020, starting with the Cotswolds. There are many reasons that I traveled to England in December, the most important one prompting a first stop at Blenheim Palace…to view the 2,000 landscaped acres of this parkland masterpiece.

Created by Lancelot “Capability” Brown over an eleven year period beginning in 1763, Blenheim was one of the 170 completed landscapes that resulted in the prolific Brown earning the moniker of “the world’s most famous landscape designer.” That picturesque image we all carry in our minds of grand English estates…with the mansion at the center of carefully contoured grand pastures, dotted with specimen trees, serpentine lakes and sweeping lawns framed by woodlands…was owed to Brown’s esteemed talents.

At Hampton Court, Highclere (“Downton Abbey”) and Chatsworth, to name just a few, he tamed nature to create idealized visions that made him the darling of 18th century aristocrats and royalty. His nickname, “Capability,” came from his selling skills in convincing clients of the capability of improvements on their acreage (the results of which could not be fully appreciated for decades, if not a century). So persuasive was he that the Dukes of Marlborough have maintained this landscape exactly as Brown planned it over 260 years ago, a testimony to the respect of his patrons. The image below prompted King george III in 1786 to announce this “the finest view in England” (across the manmade lake, with the Palace at the far left and the stone bridge at the far right).

The immense scale of his projects is compellingly on view at Blenheim Palace. And yet, his three principles of design style–comfort, economy and elegance—create such a naturalistic view that one can never feel put off by the scale. Not one to hesitate at adding structures, he was, however, blessed with an elaborate Cotswold stone bridge that already existed at Blenheim. He needed “only” to build two dams to turn a trickling river into a breathtaking, forty-acre lake that embraces this magisterial Palace.

I treasured the opportunity I had early one misty morning when I left my little inn in Woodstock and walked through one of his two ornate stone gates. Proceeding along the drive and paths that wind throughout the park, I was able to fully appreciate one of his guiding dictates…carefully planned “glimpses” of the house (rather than a full view). The result of this thoughtfully conceived artifice is both enchanting and enticing. Here again, seemingly so simple, but what a difference it makes in the grand scheme!   

In the 1920s, the ninth Duke of Marlborough employed French landscape architect, Achille Duchêne, to create two formal  gardens close to the Palace that are a contrast to Brown’s parklands. Both were funded by the very large dowry that his then-divorced wife, Consuelo Vanderbilt of Newport, had brought to the marriage in 1895 (given English law, the funds remained in his possession).  The new formal gardens included the Water Terraces on the west side of the Palace;

as well as the Italian Gardens on the east side. Both can easily be enjoyed from two sides of the main building’s wings, embracing this historic and magnificent English country estate.

The third addition to the new Formal Gardens was the romanticized rose circle, which affords a wonderfully nuanced view of the river.

Blenheim Palace became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987, in recognition of this exceptional architecture by John Vanbrugh and Nicholas Hawksmoor and landscaping by “Capability” Brown. It is is one of the finest examples of Brown’s skill and vision in creating a seemingly natural and sublimely beautiful landscape. That he also strived to create a landscape with hidden elements creating a different image from every angle from which it was viewed puts him at the top of my most revered garden maker’s list.

All images courtesy of © Blenheim Palace.

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Bettie Bearden Pardee

About Bettie Bearden Pardee

Author of Private Newport and Living Newport, garden furniture designer (The Parterre Bench), national lecturer, and entertaining expert. An honoree for the second year on "The Salonniere 100 America's Best Party Hosts", she was also the host and creative producer of "The Presidential Palate: Entertaining at the White House".

10 thoughts on “Inspiring Garden Design: The Talented Mr. Brown

    1. A lovely compliment from one I’m sure knows Blenheim Palace well. What a treasure…as was the weather!! xB

  1. What a beautifully written article! And those photographs – did you take a professional photographer with you to England in December? You have an extraordinary gift Bettie!

    1. Thank you dear Alison, but no, I have not mastered drone phohotgraphy. All of those on the blog are from Blenheim Palace.
      It was such a treat to be taken around by their lead archivist…my new best friend. Hope all’s well with you!! xB

  2. These photos are phenomenal ! They look like they were taken in the spring. Did you were there in December? Was there snow? Did you take photos of the landscape in the snow ?
    Thank You for sharing. It has been quite a few years since I have been there and now I have a clearer memory of the beauty.

  3. Dearest Bettie,
    We are getting so excited about your visit to Greensboro this April! Would you please call me at your convenience? We are making plans for your visit and I wanted to check on some details with you.
    All the best,
    Ann Davenport 336-707-2183

  4. Sarah, the first Duchess of Marlborough, was livid with Vanbrugh for his fixation on that same bridge. It consumed an outsized portion of his attention while construction on the house itself languished. Apparently theirs was not a happy relationship. Looking at the scene from today’s vantage point, the bridge was well worth Vanbrugh’s focus. His timing was probably off, though! First rule of contractors: make sure the client is settled IN the house before you start fussing about outbuildings (or bridges, in this case)…
    Thanks for the lovely pics.

    1. Good advice…and there’s much more to this relationship, and fallout.Scoot over to Wikipedia for more insight that you will surely love! xB

  5. You have done a superb job of taking your readers to Blenheim. Having been there four times myself, I dread the day I am no longer able to walk those gorgeous grounds. When that time comes I will fondly revisit compliments of your lovely post.
    And Capability Brown is indeed the common denominator with Chatsworth and Blenheim, however, I found “Downton Abbey” unable to hold up to it’s televised beauty. But others loved it so I feel sure it was just me.

    1. Nancy, how lucky you are to have visited Blenheim four times! I shall promise to keep up the posts of English gardens for you to enjoy for a long time to ocme. xB

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