It comes at you all of a sudden. One minute you’re driving along an astonishingly pretty side-street in the Oxfordshire town of Woodstock, thinking – as you enter what seems to be just a shoppers’ car-park – you’ve reached a dead-end. But then there’s a grand archway, which offers one of the most extraordinary views in Britain – the majestic sweep of the grounds of Blenheim Palace, the vast country house that, as well as being the birthplace of Winston Churchill, is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site.

This stunning view is what we’ve come to recognise as quintessentially English – undulating grasslands framed by enchanting woodland and, at the park’s epicentre, a Cotswold-stone bridge mirrored in the silver waters of a giant lake.

Blenheim Palace was designed by the architect John Vanbrugh at the dawn of the 18th century – the building conceived as a reward to John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough, for his military victories over the French. But the stunning grounds in which it sits was the product of one man’s imagination: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716–83). The foremost landscape designer of the 18th century – or, indeed, any century – Brown was a self-made man, a Northumbrian whose services were called upon by kings, lords and prime ministers. A later duke of Marlborough was one such client, in 1763 commissioning Brown to reconfigure Blenheim. The project took 11 years.

“Brown lived in a time that was a maelstrom of change and opportunity,” explains garden historian Sarah Rutherford. As expected, Sarah proves to be an excellent guide not only to the delights of Blenheim’s parkland, but also to what drove the man and his artistry. “He didn’t have a university education, but he did have a multitude of talents that gradually blossomed and that he made the most of. He not only had a genius for landscape design and the artistic side of things, but he taught himself architecture, he understood engineering, he was an able businessman and he got on with his clients, the wealthiest in the land.”

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Influential friends

Brown’s big break had been his appointment as head gardener at Stowe in Buckinghamshire in 1741, when he was only in his mid-twenties. It was a prestigious job; Stowe at the time was the greatest garden in the country. Not only did Lord Cobham charge Brown with landscaping and building work, but the company his employer kept proved crucial in accelerating his career. “He was loaned out to Cobham’s influential friends,” explains Sarah. “Then, when Cobham died, Brown went out on his own. He never needed to advertise. Everyone beat a path to his door. They would write him letters: ‘Oh please come and see me, Mr Brown. Next time you’re passing, I would very much value your opinion. Have a look at my grounds and see what you can do with them.’”

This reputation was bolstered by Brown’s nickname. ‘Capability’ wasn’t a reference to his own attributes; it alluded to the promise of a particular estate. “He was able to size up a site and say: ‘This place has capabilities, my lord.’ He could see the capabilities and how to make an artistic picture out of them. In today’s terms, we’d probably more fittingly call him ‘Potential’ Brown.”

Works of art

Gazing out across Blenheim’s unblemished vista, it feels like you’re looking at a landscape painting, one caught in time in oils or watercolour. “Brown was an artist,” confirms Sarah. “You can think of him as being like Rembrandt or Turner. He used a very simple palette of water, grass and trees – as you see here – and turned it into something that looked almost natural. That was the key to it. His parks settle into the British landscape so beautifully that you can’t tell what’s natural and what’s artificial.”

So subtle are many of Brown’s touches that it takes a garden historian to make my untrained eye aware of them. As we approach the northerly tip of Blenheim’s lake, evidence of such subtlety is right before us. “He put islands at the end of lakes,” Sarah says, indicating a tiny archipelago of three islands below us, “to make you think that the water goes on forever. You can’t see where it goes. You can’t tell if it goes on for another 100 miles.”

Not everything at Blenheim is Brown’s work, though. He inherited the 50-year-old Grand Bridge and needed to accommodate it within his design. His solution was to greatly widen the trickling river Glyme by digging out a valley, flooding it and damming it; the lower storeys of the previously outsized bridge were deliberately submerged. All of this, of course, was done by hand in those pre-mechanised times. The effect was worth that titanic effort, the perfect sense of scale giving the illusion that the water has always been there and that the bridge is the newer addition to the landscape.

While Brown’s designs weren’t a million miles from those of his competitors, he dominated the market thanks to his contacts and connections. And thanks to thinking bigger. “He was country-wide while the others were rather more regional,” says Sarah. “He was criss-crossing the country on his horse the whole time. He was all over the place.” Not that Brown was a ruthless businessman intent on crushing his competition. He barely viewed competitors as rivals. Often former employees of his, they would charge notably less. But, fortified by his formidable reputation, he wasn’t bothered. “There were enough parks he didn’t touch that others could hoover up.”

Brown’s concurrent contracts meant he not only had a great many people working for him, but that he was getting noticeably richer. In the 1760s, his busiest decade, he was turning over tens of thousands of pounds – millions and millions in today’s money. And the spirit of oneupmanship displayed by landowners kept the contracts coming, as Sarah reveals. “Some would say: ‘Do as you want. Just give me a landscape that my peers will be impressed with. I’ve got the money, you’ve got the taste. Get on with it.’ Others would be more specific and not allow him free rein.”

Wild woodlands

Brown’s work wasn’t just about aesthetics, though. They also needed to serve a range of functions, often those underwritten by economics. The provision of extensive grasslands provided hay as well as grazing for cattle, horses and sheep, while woodlands offered timber production and the breeding of pheasants for shooting.

The great artist always had a head for economics. “Brown was probably a businessman foremost. He had to make a living. He didn’t come from a background where he had an automatic income. He was very astute and didn’t want to live in a garret for his art. He wasn’t one to show off the trappings of wealth. He just wanted to be secure. I’ve calculated that he might have left as much as the equivalent of £40m when he died – unlike poor old Chippendale the furniture-maker whose household goods at the end of his life were worth £26!”

In 1764, George III appointed Brown royal gardener, tasking him with maintaining Hampton Court and St James’s Palace. This also gave the workaholic landscape designer plenty of time to undertake his own projects (indeed, work had only started on Blenheim the year before). Brown made very few changes to Hampton Court. “He said it was out of respect for the design that was already there,” Sarah notes. “Actually, it’s because no one was paying him to.”

Heading back to the palace, we pause for a while – along with several of the many dog-walkers enjoying the lunchtime sunshine – to take in the view from the Grand Bridge. Sarah shows me a reproduced original drawing of Brown’s vision for the park, one sketched out at this exact spot, with the lake, the largest island, and Woodstock on the horizon. The scene now is almost exactly as Brown planned it more than 250 years ago.

“He would recognise Blenheim today without a doubt,” she concludes. “It’s pretty much as he envisaged it. After Brown’s death, people said his work was too bland, too smooth, that things needed to be rougher. Of course, trends move on. But most of his parks still survive. They’re very enduring. People didn’t wipe them out. They still have them and they still love them.”

Capability Brown: five more places to explore

1) Alnwick Castle (Northumberland)

Where Brown deftly employed trees

Commissioned by the 1st Duke of Northumberland, Brown returned to his home county to reconfigure the land to the north of the castle as it rolled down towards the river Aln. He flattened the land and planted plenty of trees. These deliberately obscured a view of the castle until its finest aspect was revealed.

2) Harewood House (Leeds)

Where Brown reshaped 1,000 acres

Brown rarely designed the grounds of a just-built house. But shortly after Harewood House’s final brick was laid in 1771, he embarked on one of his most impressive designs yet, reshaping 1,000 acres of the existing landscape into the gently sweeping sight it remains today.

3) Petworth House and Park (West Sussex)

Where he shifted heaven and earth

The Petworth estate was a relatively early project for Brown, taken on by him in 1751, more than a decade before he started tackling Blenheim. Petworth was also a major project: 70,000 tonnes of soil and clay were moved in order to produce the perfectly undulating landscape.

4) Weston Park (Shropshire)

Where a lake was cunningly created

Weston Park is home to one of the five pleasure grounds Brown designed. It was commissioned by Sir Henry Bridgeman after he inherited the estate in 1764. One of the recently restored areas here – Temple Wood – showcases Brown’s trademark talent with water, having dammed a stream to form a lake.

5) Wimpole Estate (Cambridgeshire)

Where parkland dominates

Brown transformed the area of this estate known as North Park, dispensing with formality and creating open parkland. He also turned the sharp angles of two fishponds into serpentine lakes while digging a third. The combination gave the illusion of a river flowing through this part of the grounds.

Words by Nige Tassell. The historical advisor was Dr Sarah Rutherford, author of Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens (National Trust Books, 2016).
This article was first published in the March 2016 issue of BBC History Magazine and featured in BBC History Magazine's 2016 History Explorer bookazine