Celebrating Capability Brown at Milton Abbey

PUBLISHED: 16:01 18 August 2016

MIlton Abbey set like a jewel in the Capablity Brown designed landscape

MIlton Abbey set like a jewel in the Capablity Brown designed landscape


Milton Abbas resident, Michael McAvoy, considers the legacy left by the man described as ‘The Shakespeare of English garden design’ who also designed his village

Without doubt Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown changed the face of 18th century England, designing country estates and mansions, moving hills and creating lakes and serpentine rivers which flowed through his majestic manmade landscapes.

This year marks the 300th anniversary of the birth of this extraordinary designer who changed the national landscape and created a style which has shaped people’s picture of the quintessential English countryside. As the first ever celebration of Brown’s extensive works, the Capability Brown Festival 2016 brings together a huge range of events, openings and exhibitions around the country.

Milton Abbey, one of Brown’s most ambitious creations, has been selected by the organisers of this national Festival as one of 14 regional ‘hubs’; it will host a major multi-media exhibition which will be the highlight of the local Capability Brown Festival from 10 July to 21 August 2016.

Brown was born in Northumberland in 1716. He worked as a gardener locally, before moving to Stowe where he married in 1744, and eventually had nine children. Among his major projects were some of the England’s finest houses including Blenheim, Chatsworth, Harewood, Longleat, Petworth and Syon.

Dorothy Stroud, author of one of the seminal works about Capability Brown which was published in 1950, said: ‘The gentlemen of Dorset, perhaps because they were mainly housed in snug little manor houses, were less responsive to the wave of mid-eighteenth century (landscape) improvement than their neighbours in Wiltshire and Hampshire, and the county yielded Brown only two landscape commissions, Milton Abbey in 1763, and a later one for Sherborne Castle in 1775.’

The Milton Abbey estate was acquired in 1752 by the wealthy landowner Joseph Damer, who had married the daughter of the Duke of Dorset, and had been created Lord Milton in 1753. Brown first advised Lord Milton in 1763 and continued up to Brown’s death in 1783.

Milton Abbey, Lord Milton’s mansion, St Catherine’s Chapel and the village of Milton Abbas are embraced and integrated by a breathtaking 500 acre landscape designed by Brown. Three valleys converge, and inside one of the valleys is the village of Milton Abbas, contained either side by a silhouette of trees on top of the hillsides. This picturesque ‘lost village’ in a wooded valley is the first ‘new town’ in England.

The creation of Milton Abbas resulted from Lord Milton’s bold decision to remove the old town of Middleton that lay close to his proposed grand mansion. At the time this was a thriving town with some 500 inhabitants, three pubs and a grammar school, but Lord Milton found this too busy and noisy and it intruded on his planned landscape, which was to be designed by Brown. So in 1774 Brown was asked to draw up plans for a new village – Milton Abbas - for which he was paid £105.

Milton Abbey is at the focal point of the converging valleys, encircled by 16 miles of walks and rides. It is designed to draw the visitor through the space, enriched en-route by features such as the folly - called the Sham Chapel - built by Brown and William Chambers. Everywhere there are glimpses and then vistas opening up to the Abbey as the route is travelled. This sublime Dorset landscape is one of the finest examples of the work of Capability Brown in England.

The 18th century English writer on agriculture and economics, Arthur Young, visited Milton Abbey in 1771. He commented that the landscape was: ‘A remarkable winding valley three miles long, surrounded on each side by hills whose variety is very great. It is all lawn; and as the surface has many fine swells and other gentle inequalities, the effect is everywhere beautiful. The hills on the west side are thickly covered with wood, from the edge of the vale, spreading over the tops of the hills; these continued sweeps of hanging woods are very noble. In some places they form projections that break forward in great style; in others they withdraw and open bosoms of wood which are as picturesque as can easily be imagined’.

Brown planned a lake that would cover the whole valley to the south of the Abbey. This was never completed in spite of extensive works after his death by Brown’s foreman, Samuel Lapidge and others.

The major exhibition at Milton Abbey - A Capability Brown Experience - will include a new film narrated by John Phibbs, the leading expert on Brown; artwork by Royal Academician, Stephen Farthing; artist and author Tim Scott Bolton who has been painting Capability Brown landscapes and settings across the UK, ahead of the Capability Brown Festival; work by 11 artists of Dorset Visual Arts; exquisite embroidery from the National Guild; interactive digital imagery; photography from a range of leading photographers and games for children. The theme of the exhibition is ‘enjoyment of landscape, as well as built heritage, and its enhancement of quality of life’.

Among the many fascinating exhibits will be Brown’s account book. In total Brown worked at Milton Abbey from 1763 to 1781. By 1770 he had received £2,052 8s 0p (probably in the order of £350,000 in today’s money). He was subsequently paid a further £1,000.

Whatever the final sum – Brown has left his distinctive mark on Dorset’s landscape which is a legacy we can all enjoy. 

A Capability Brown Experience - 10 July-21 August

The exhibition at Milton Abbey is open from 10am to 5pm daily. Milton Abbey is off the A354 between Blandford and Dorchester. More details at capabilitybrownatmiltonabbey.org.

Capability Brown at Sherborne Castle - Until 30 October

New exhibition charting Capability Brown’s impact and legacy on the gardens and landscape at Sherborne Castle. More details at sherbornecastle.com or call 01935 812072. 

For details about other Capability Brown 300th anniversary events visit capabilitybrown.org.

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