Capability Brown in Cambridge

“‘Now there’ said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’ pointing to another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.’”

Hannah More on Capability Brown (1782)

The Cambridge Backs might have looked very different to their current, meandering jumble. In the 1770s there was a plan to allow the great landscape gardener, Capability Brown (1716-1983), to redesign the whole riverside. His proposals included straightening the river, creating a small lake, removing the bridges, and focussing attention on the Classical Gibbs’ building at King’s College by obliterating the very unclassical gothic and assorted English medievals of the rest with trees.

Lancelot Brown, known almost universally, also in his lifetime, as ‘Capability’ Brown from his habit of telling his aristocratic clientele that their land had ‘capabilities’, was the greatest gardener of his age, although his teacher, William Kent, might have had something to say about that. He developed and extended Kent’s apparent informality, which sought to blend garden with farmlands and rolling champaign beyond in an idealised landscape, not unlike something out of the painting of Claude Lorrain.


Claude Lorrain, Pastoral Landscape with Lake Albano and Castel Gandolfo, 1639 – Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

The plan came to nothing. The Backs remained a picturesque higgeldy-piggeldy of gardens, bridges and odd buildings, just as the architecture of the colleges is an agglomeration of styles from every century between the thirteenth and the twenty-first. Capability Brown might have brought a certain sort of rationality to proceedings, but there are probably enough grazing cows in Cambridge, and if you want to see something by Claude Lorrain, you’ll have to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum.