skip to content

Boston - The Small Town With A Big Story

 Capability Brown (1716-1783) 

David Radford

Capability Brown became famous in the eighteenth century for creating landscapes, lakes and great water features for the wealthy gentry on their country estates. He came to the Boston area as a young man, married a local girl and honed his engineering and water management skills.

Black and white portrait of Lancelot 'Capability' Brown looking directly at the viewer. He is wearing a smart suit and white shirt.

Capability Brown

Painting of Bridget; Capabilities daughter. She is seated and smiling gently at the viewer. She is wearing a white gown, with a lacy black shawl across her shoulders and a yellow pair of gloves.

Capability Brown’s daughter Bridget was said to be similar in appearance to her mother.

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was baptised on 30 August 1716 at St Winifred’s, Kirkharle, a small parish in Northumberland. He went to school in Cambo, a three-mile walk across the estate of Sir William Lorraine where his father worked as land agent and his mother as a chambermaid. During these walks he observed the improvements being made to the estate as an apprentice gardener.

Sir William was an MP and a member of the Royal Society with a network of influential friends. In an age where societal snobbery seems to have been excluded from the pursuit of knowledge and its practical application, Brown’s name as someone who understood how to improve an estate aesthetically and commercially must have come up in many of Sir William’s conversations. Lancelot Brown’s oft repeated phase ‘it has great capabilities’ gained him his nickname.

Brown came to Boston around 1738. The Deeping Fen Act of that year had authorised new drainage works between the Witham and the Glen under the direction of John Grundy. It is thought the 23-year-old was responding to the call for ‘engineers’ as much of Capability Brown’s life-story has to be conjectured from his work and who he associated with. While we cannot be certain he worked on the Surfleet reservoir and sluice scheme he was certainly an acquaintance of both John Grundy and his son John Grundy Jnr. He was familiar with their methods.

A photograph of the grounds surrounding Grimsthorpe Castle on a sunny day. There are grassy fields with cows grazing, and hills in the distance. A large lake is surrounded by trees.

The landscaping the Duke of Ancaster’s Grimsthrope estate was one of Lancelot Brown’s early projects in Lincolnshire.

Around this time he also met Joseph Banks, of Revesby Abbey, an MP and member of the Royal Academy. He introduced Brown to the Duke of Ancaster at Grimsthorpe Castle. There Lancelot constructed one of his earliest ‘naturalised’ lakes in the landscape he created. John Grundy Jnr succeeded him at Grimsthorpe, further developing Brown’s vision and may later have collaborated with Brown on the feature dam and sluice disguised as a multi-arched bridge.

While working at Grimsthorpe, Brown was called upon to repair some dams on Lord Cobham’s Stowe estate which had been damaged by the severe winters of 1739 and 1740. The following year he became assistant head gardener to William Kent, the leading landscape garden designer of his day and in 1742 he succeeded him as head gardener.

A coloured photograph of Grimsthorpe Castle grounds. There are purple flowers in the foreground, and in the background the grassy landscape has trees surrounding a large lake.

The landscaping the Duke of Ancaster’s Grimsthrope estate was one of Lancelot Brown’s early projects in Lincolnshire.

The garden landscape he created at Stowe was opened to the public in 1744. In November of that year Capability married Bridget Wayet, the Boston girl with whom he had fallen in love. She was the daughter of William Wayet, a respected Boston businessman.

In July 1764 Brown received his highest accolade, a royal warrant as ‘Surveyor to His Majesty’s Gardens and Waters at Hampton Court’. By his death in 1783 he had completed and influenced more than 250 projects, many now being viewed as being the quintessential English countryside. The epitaph on his tomb reads: “He sought an image of Heaven”.