28 February 2014

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown: Correspondence with Lady Hester Chatham

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown c. 1768 by Nathaniel Dance

Lancelot Brown (1716-1783), commonly known as 'Capability' Brown due to his frequent use of the word in reference to the potential of the projects submitted to him, was one of the most prolific English landscape gardeners of the 18th century. He worked on over 170 gardens and parks, many of which endure and can still be visited today. 

One of these sites was Burton Pynsent, the former Somerset estate of William Pitt the Elder, 1st Earl of Chatham. The pleasure grounds of Burton Pynsent were laid out jointly by Capability Brown and Pitt the Elder (who was also a keen amateur landscape architect) soon after the estate was bequeathed to Pitt by Sir William Pynsent in 1765. Pitt also commissioned Lancelot Brown to design a column at Burton Pynsent commemorating Pynsent's benefaction [1].

The Burton Pynsent Monument on Troy Hill 
Lady Hester Chatham (nee Grenville), the devoted wife of William Pitt the Elder, was familiar with Capability Brown from her young adulthood. Brown was living and working at Wotton Underwood, Lady Hester's childhood home, and he was employed under the landscape architect William Kent at her maternal uncle Richard Temple, 1st Viscount Cobham's estate at Stowe in Buckinghamshire. Brown began work at Stowe in 1741, and upon his own merits he rose to the position of head gardener [2]. Brown remained in that capacity until 1750, when at the recommendation of Lord Cobham, Brown became increasingly sought after by other landed families. King George II later appointed Capability Brown as head gardener of Hampton Court Palace and Windsor Castle [3]. 

As might naturally be expected, there are many preserved letters from members of the 18th century aristocracy and landed gentry to Lancelot Brown. Amongst one collection of these letters at The British Library, there are over 100 letters to and from Brown to his clients and family. What I found striking, and noteworthy, is that there is only one female patron whose letters to Brown are still in existence, and that is Lady Hester Chatham. When Lord Chatham was ill, which unfortunately was frequently the case as he got older, Lady Chatham dealt with his correspondence and acted as his secretary. Unsurprisingly, this also included managing their financial affairs. The banker Thomas Coutts once called Lady Chatham 'the cleverest man of her time,' and her intellect was astounding [4].

What was even more incredible to me as I sat down expecting to read all about landscape gardening techniques, was that not once does Lady Hester mention anything of the sort. In fact, the letters from her to Brown do not mention gardening once, but are mostly about politics. At the time of the letter I have transcribed below, the American War of Independence was well under way, and Lady Chatham was writing to Lancelot Brown about her and her husband's stance on the crisis. From the tone of the letter, it seems she felt Brown was not necessarily in concurrence with their views on the subject, despite the bonds of friendship which had subsisted between them.

Hester Chatham to Lancelot 'Capability' Brown, sent from Hayes Place, Kent (another Pitt family estate) on Thursday Novr 13th, 1777:


Neither I nor my Lord [Pitt the Elder] have wanted any assurance that your conduct respecting him, at all times, is ever dictated by your kind Friendship towards us. The Letter I have just received from you is an additional Proof of it, and claims our sincerest Thanks. It is impossible not to feel sensibly the Animation of your Conversation in support of the rectitude of your Lord’s Principles, and of his Zeal for the Prosperity of the Whole Empire, and for the true, Solid Glory of His Majesty [George III]. You may be persuaded that your having been heard favorably and without Acrimony, affords real Comfort and Happiness to my Lord [her husband], who is most undoubtedly actuated in all he does, or means to do, by the purest Motives of disinterested concern for the King, and the Country. 

You know that this is not Words, but an existing Truth, to which his conduct has been always consistent. His [Pitt's] View of Things now tells him ruin is at our Door if not immediately prevented. From the Stamp Act [a harsh tax placed upon the American Colonists in 1766] to this day, his [Pitt's] Judgments, he says, concerning America, have never varied. In the present terrifying Crisis, to be silent the first day wou’d be want of Duty to the King, and utter insensibility to the public Calamities. The Ardent Wish of my heart cooperates entirely with his, that the Past may be redeem’d by happier Councils! You join, I am sure, in the same honest hope. The sentiments of Esteem and Friendship which my Lord, and my self, have for you are of the most unfeign’d sort, which I beg you to believe, as well as that I am ever Sir, 

Your most Faithful and very humble servant, Hester Chatham. [5]

What an amazing woman to stand her ground, and freely talk politics in a world dominated at that time entirely by men!


1. Parks and Gardens UK. Burton Pynsent. http://www.parksandgardens.org/places-and-people/site/629.

2. Hinde, Thomas (1986) Capability Brown: The Story of a Master Gardener. London: Hutchinson, p. 19. 

3. Loudon, J.C. (1840) The gardener's magazine, and register of rural & domestic improvement, Vol. XVI. London: Longman, Orme, Brown, Green & Longmans, p. 327.

4. Meryon, C.L. (1846) Memoirs of the Lady Hester Stanhope, Vol. 3 (2nd edition). London: Colburn, p. 305.

5. British Library. Capability Brown Letters. Add Ms 69795, f. 99. 


  1. Such a great article, I'm reblogging it 3/2/14 with links to your page. So Fantastic!

  2. Thank you! I'm glad you enjoyed it. :)