When Capability Brown met the 4th Duke of Marlborough: Blenheim Palace

Designed by the famous 18th century landscape architect, Capability Brown; Blenheim Palace is England’s only non-royal country house to hold the title of “palace”.

Built between 1705 and 1722, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire, it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987.

As the birthplace of Britain’s famous wartime leader, Winston Churchill, in 1874, it is located in a sprawling country park.

© Fulcanelli / Shutterstock.com

It was thanks to Brown that Blenheim’s park and gardens became the classic example of English landscaping that we know and love today. Prior to his involvement in the project, several aspects of the park’s early design had been criticised.

In particular, architect Sir John Vanbrugh had designed “the finest bridge in Europe” for Blenheim’s grounds, but it appeared out of context, as it spanned a marshy brook – making it the butt of jokes by the popular 18th-century poet and satirist, Alexander Pope.

After Brown redesigned the park in the 1760s, it became one of the finest examples of the landscape garden movement – a style that began in England in the early 18th century. He recognised that Vanbrugh’s grandiose design needed to be more natural and used his expertise to shape it into a masterpiece of landscape architecture.

History of Blenheim Palace

The land was originally given to the 1st Duke of Marlborough, General John Churchill, by Queen Anne in 1705, in recognition of his victories in the War of the Spanish Succession against the French and Bavarian armies, culminating in the Battle of Blenheim.

The queen also provided financial support to help construct the palace, which was named after the 1704 Battle of Blenheim. It was designed by Vanbrugh in the rare English Baroque style. He was a controversial choice, as he was an untrained architect.

He had previously worked with the trained architect Nicholas Hawksmoor on the Baroque-style Castle Howard, which led to the 1st Duke commissioning something similar for Blenheim Palace. However, the expectation had been that Sir Christopher Wren, designer of St Paul’s Cathedral, would be chosen for Blenheim Palace.

Instead, Vanbrugh was favoured by the duke – but his flamboyant style didn’t receive the expected architectural plaudits. The design was expensive, leading to accusations it was extravagant and impractical. Sarah Churchill, the Duchess of Marlborough, was openly critical of Vanbrugh and eventually banished him from the palace.

After the gardens were completed, the bridge came in for plenty of criticism, first from Pope, who joked that minnows in the stream below the towering structure took on the grandeur of whales as they swam underneath it, implying it was far too flamboyant for its surroundings.

The English writer and art historian Horace Walpole, after seeing the bridge in 1860, wrote that it “begged for a drop of water”, but, “like the beggars at the old duchess’s gate”, it was refused.

Vanbrugh had ignored the advice of Wren when he constructed the bridge over the River Glyme, which trickled slowly through the park. The marsh beneath the bridge had been channelled into three small streams, ruining the effect of the structure.

Vanbrugh’s designs also included the massive formal garden, known as the great parterre, measuring almost half a mile long.

The park also houses the spectacular Column of Victory, a 134 ft tall monument, standing next to a long avenue of elm trees leading to the palace. They are planted in the formation of the 1st Duke of Marlborough’s troops at the Battle of Blenheim.

Capability Brown’s redesign

Blenheim’s grounds were subject to a major redesign after Capability Brown met the 4th Duke of Marlborough, George Spencer, who lived there from his birth in January 1739 until his death in January 1817.

Brown was one of the most esteemed landscape architects in history and was dubbed “England’s greatest gardener”, as he designed more than 170 gardens and parks during the 18th century. Born in 1716, in Kirkharle, Northumberland, he was the fifth child of land agent William and chambermaid Ursula Brown.

He took his first gardening job at 16, as an apprentice to the head gardener of Kirkharle Hall, where his mother was in domestic service. He worked there until he was 23, honing his skills and awakening a lifelong interest in gardening.

On leaving Kirkharle Hall, he became a gardener at Wotton Underwood House, in Buckinghamshire, in 1739. He was then under-gardener at the family home of the 1st Viscount Cobham, in Stowe, from 1741. Renowned landscape gardener William Kent trained Brown, who was soon promoted to head gardener at Stowe.

In 1751, Brown started to take on freelance gardening commissions. His landscaping work was well-known by this time and he was much loved by the aristocracy. He was baptised Lancelot Brown, but was nicknamed “Capability”, due to his oft-said phrase to clients: “Your garden has the capability to be improved.”

His reputation was so great by the early 1760s that the 4th Duke of Marlborough desired his services to complete a redesign of Blenheim Palace’s grounds. The Duke, a former Coldstream Guard, had grown up in the palace with his siblings, Diana, Charles and Elizabeth.

He began making a few changes at Blenheim Palace, including installing a private observatory there, as he was a keen astronomer. The exterior had remained virtually unchanged until the 4th Duke met Brown and commissioned his services to make some major changes. He gave him free rein to do the refurbishment as he saw fit.

Brown soon dammed the paltry stream flowing under Vanbrugh’s huge bridge, leaving half the structure under water as a result. This vastly improved its aesthetic appearance, as it had a natural look more in keeping with its surroundings.

Brown also designed the English landscape garden scheme, making the grounds appear more natural. He completed a huge tree-planting operation and created manmade undulations in the ground that looked completely natural.

The feature he is best remembered for is the stunning lake, created when he dammed the River Glyme with the Blenheim Dam and engineered a series of cascades, allowing the river to flow freely in and out.

He improved the bridge’s appearance by narrowing the lake at its nearest point, while completely covering the three small streams with one vast river-like stretch of water. His greatest achievement was reducing its massive height by increasing the depth of the water. He also grassed over the great parterre to create an altogether more natural landscape.

The 4th Duke of Marlborough was delighted with the results of Brown’s work. He married Lady Caroline Russell and the couple and their eight children made Blenheim Palace their family home. Their son, George Spencer-Churchill, became 5th Duke of Marlborough.

Blenheim Palace today

Brown’s enduring design has made Blenheim Palace one of the most popular National Trust properties in Britain today. In the early 20th century, the 9th Duke of Marlborough, Charles Spencer-Churchill, extolled the virtues of his creation, describing the lake as having been “made by a consummate artist”.

He said the contours were good, with the ground having been made to undulate. Brown created a convex bank on one side to complement the concave bank on the other. “All this is done with the skill of the Romantic period, and on a scale bigger than the Basin des Suisses.” He was referring to the famous historic landmark at the Chateau of Versailles, in France; the 12-acre lake, constructed between 1679 and 1686.

The 9th Duke of Marlborough, a British soldier, Conservative politician and close friend of Winston Churchill, reportedly married wealthy American heiress Consuelo Vanderbilt in 1895, after his family dukedom fell on hard times, to “save Blenheim”, because he loved the palace so much.

He restored the grounds to their former glory, dredging the lake where silt had formed and replanting an avenue of trees near the Column of Victory.

It is amazing that the meeting between these two leading figures in English history led to the development of this landmark estate that remains prominent almost 300 years later.

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