The portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown (1716-1783)

 The Brown tercentenary is over, the portrait created from documentary sources is in existence and several bronzes now exist for perpetuity. Future exhibition opportunities abroad are still to come.

Several have asked how old Brown was when he sat for painting(s) that have influenced the sculpted head?

Looking back at the material and diary evidence, we can see Brown was at Burghley in 1769-70, making the original Dance portrait from about the age of 53. He was ill in January 1773 and the Cosway pencil sketch was likely from September of that year – at the age of 57. He died in 1783 at the age of 67.

John Phibbs advises that there was a £32 payment made to the painter Gainsborough in 1782, noted in Brown’s accounts. There is no information presently known as to its purpose.

The original terracotta is presently on display at Burton Constable.

Pleass make contact about acquiring a bronze for your permanent collection.

Rejecting hypotheses

A0 BROWN.inddWe discussed in an earlier post that analysing the portraits of Brown, it became clear that the viewing angle of the sitter was identical, and there were curious similarities in their make-up. Using Photoshop to overlay the portraits and observe characteristics of both at the same time, even the lights of eyes were identically placed. But yet these works would have been produced miles apart at different times.

Tracking down the original paintings was the only way that establishing a common link was possible, as whilst computer technology can compare the relative proportions of images, only scrutinising the physical objects yields their true relative size. If they proved to be identical then it made it more likely that the image attributed to Cosway was directly taken from the Dance, perhaps pricked out into canvas from a paper ‘cartoon’, just like frescos were made.

highlights of eyesA trip to Hampton Court Palace saw the Cosway painting in public for the first time. The distance between the whites of the eyes was 53mm. The National Portrait Gallery’s original Dance portrait was on loan to Twickenham and the curator confirmed that the same measurement was different – 58mm! So a hypothesis is quashed, but the Cosway is clearly derived from the earlier Dance. What is also interesting is that a number of acknowledged Dance copies have similar brushwork to the Cosway.

And what progress with the clay?

The final work was moulded in silicone at the foundry. This often partially destroys sections of the surface of a damp clay, so any bronze casts are the true final image of the work in this instance. The clay is restored before hollowing and firing at about 950 degrees C. The creation of this terracotta gives a work that will be displayed in curated conditions because of its comparative fragility; it will travel to Stowe where it will be displayed at the Discovery Centre for the summer.

The first bronze was unveiled on 22 June at the London Building Centre, WC1E 7BT as part of the Lenses on a Landscape Genius exhibition which now runs until 29 July, part of the 2016 London Festival of Architecture.

negotiating gaps in knowledge

Working from life, where form is present to observe, is a comparatively easy proposition in comparison to the creation of a posthumous head where one relies on intuition and luck to fill in the gaps.

There are now two clays of Brown, one fired and one unfinished. The earlier one feels caricatured whilst the second definitely has something at certain angles.

The feel of the portraits is that Brown’s head is quite ovoid or ‘egg-shaped’. He has a receding chin line. Overlaying the two images, we can see that the 2nd clay, developed through the same observation but over a longer period with slightly more rigour (and not referencing the first clay), has:

more jut on the chin

a less developed, smaller forehead.

The two have slightly different angles between the nose and the upper/lower parts of the head.


overlaying the portraits, by matching the line of the noses

My next task is to revisit those differences and see if the second clay develops further through adding some of the characteristics from the first. The danger is that if one changes the wrong bit, the character goes; the head becomes weaker. But where the evidence is compromised, it is the only way.

At all times, reassessing the clay in relation to its common angle with the painted portraits is essential.

To Winchester

Here are some of Sarah Sheldrake’s images from Uppark. On Thursday 31st, this developing clay will join the fired terracottas of The Northumbrian and the first Brown attempt at the Capability Brown exhibitions in Winchester, for an afternoon session working on the clay and an evening Private View. I’ll be at the Winchester Discovery Centre 3.30 -7pm answering questions and working on the developing head!CB_collage01 CB_collage02

Uppark and a second Brown study

As Brown may well have been at National Trust’s Uppark, surveying the scene to look where the landscape’s capabilities lay, I had planned to be outside the Game Larder all day on March 6th, working on the clay head and talking with visitors. As Mother’s Day was bright, over 900 people circulated and the cafe sold out of food – my Brown sources were the nearest I got to the hot bacon baps on the menu close to where I was working.

Two recent blogs here and here give some background to the landscape at Uppark House, in a sleepy bit of the South Downs away from the disturbance of the larger roads. It is a mid eighteenth century informal walled garden, laid out to a plan perhaps attributed to Lancelot Brown, altered and added to in the early nineteenth century by Humphry Repton. The evidence is only the surviving plan in the West Sussex Record Office detailed in Sarah Rutherford’s 2013 Garden Conservation Statement for Uppark. Here for comparison are the References in an attributed 1768 Brown plan for Hills, Horsham (left), with the Uppark plan. It feels like the latter is by an apprentice, but supports the layout style Brown used personally. Brown expert John Phibbs gives a 55% chance of attribution for Uppark (Phibbs (2013), Journal of the Garden History Society 41:2)

There was ice on the ground when I arrived at 9.30 to set up, and my hat stayed in place all day. (I am confident Brown would have probably worn a forerunner to 19C longjohns whilst surveying in such temperatures). The cold meant that the clay stayed in good condition whilst working outside, where the sun normally dries the tips of the clay very quickly.

I was alerted to TWO Dance portraits in the main house at Uppark, which could have given some good comparison to the surfaces of the Brown portraits I had already inspected at the National Portrait Gallery. Alas, they were too high and in rooms in conservation-minded shade – they might have well have been posters.

So, what has emerged?

A0 BROWN.inddWhilst readying the headpeg for Uppark after my interpretative ‘reference’ board had arrived from the printer, I quickly threw up some clay late into one evening. A distorted head developed, nearly collapsed through much cutting and chopping around, but I have saved the evidence for firing, covering it and not looking back before putting clay back on the headpeg for Uppark once again. Thus, after Uppark, TWO heads will exist – the former with the Dance wig, the latter with Cosway informality – i.e. a semblance of Brown’s real hair. Comparing the two will be extremely interesting as it will contrast two independent periods of observation of the Brown sources, the second perhaps benefiting from the experience of the first. But it feels that the retention of these works – rather than continual reworking of one clay – could be useful for the third build which will be visible in progress at the Brown exhibition at Winchester on the afternoon of 31st March.

It will also be more useful for the viewer, able to see the stage development of a sculptor’s perception of Capability Brown. With two other 2016 Brown sculpture projects – Haddonstone bust and a full-figure statue – now having released their images, I still think there is Brown left to find.

Photographer Sarah Sheldrake captured progress through the Uppark day; some of her images in the next Journal post.




The Northumbrian (2016)

Chasing old paintings is all very well but let us return to more serious matters; a sitting which will fill in some of the gaps in knowledge for the posthumous portrait head.

Susan Campbell is a garden historian specialising in walled kitchen gardens and currently researching kitchen gardens, nation-wide, that might have been designed by Brown. A neighbour was born in Northumberland and she thought that he might share some of Brown’s facial characteristics. Indeed, on comparing his features with the Dance portrait, there was some similarity which I was keen to investigate further.

I am grateful for her perception and help in making this portrait come about, and for my sitter’s time and patience. I am hollowing the clay now so, whilst it will not be fired for Uppark on 6th March, it might accompany me to Winchester for the opening night of the two Brown exhibitions there. It will contribute to the thoughts for the Brown head, but it is, most importantly, an interesting portrait in its own right.

Dance, Dance, Dance; all night long

There are two well known paintings portraying Capability Brown, created by different artists at different times. Or were they?

The Nathaniel Dance original has been at the National Portrait Gallery since 1989, acquired from a descendant of Brown. A painting derived from it has been there for a good deal longer, and it is interesting to compare the two; the copy (or rather, the “after Dance”) more finessed and considered, but less lively as a result.

The work by Richard Cosway is well known as it is the image of the Tercentenary campaign. It portrays a different Brown, with less coiffure, more natural; less formality.

These are my two core works for the posthumous head of Brown. After examining the Dances in the cellars of the NPG in December 2015, I started to consider the information I had before me for the reconstruction. I could discount the “after Dance” as it offered no more secondary evidence than the original. It is one step further removed from my sitter. But the Cosway was interesting. It appeared to yield no more formal information than the Dance, and indeed, on superimposing the two images, it was clear the sitter was at exactly the same angle to the painter. Perhaps his best side, but with 360 degrees to choose from, a curious find.

See what else emerges as photographic images of the two works are overlaid, after a slight tilting of one of the images, in this short film:

The limiting factor of this hypothesis is that we are creating overlays by superimposing images which are factored to each other; we have no absolute sizes to compare. The Cosway original is in the USA, but distances from pupil to pupil could easily now be taken from each painting to explore the anomalies further.

Could we being led a further merry Dance?

What was Cosway up to?  Indeed, is the Cosway really a Cosway?

Another interesting observation is that – admittedly from consideration of Cosway web imagery only – there are similarities in the qualities in – and handling of – the paint in the Cosway and the NPG’s “after Dance”.

An interesting debate to be had in this tercentenary year. In the meantime, my sitting with a Lancelot Brown look-alike takes place next week. My eyes will be considering the man then for his merits alone, but the result may additionally fill in gaps in our Brownian evidence – with those of a Northumbrian nature.

Brown family resemblances

Holland relative cropCheryl Gaynor’s father sent her a photo of her Grandfather (left).

His name was Alexander E. Holland. His parents were Charles E. Holland and Alexandrina Dickson; Charles’s parents were Frederic Holland and Bijsbertje Kuij; Frederic’s parents were Colonel Lancelot Holland and Charlotte Peters; Lancelot’s parents were Henry Holland and Bridget Brown. And Bridget Brown’s parents… well, you have it by now, I suppose?

What is clear is that from a genetic point of view there is a likely 50% dilution of the material directly from Lancelot Capability Brown at each successive generation. But that shouldn’t stop us studying this head for similarities as it IS a great find. The nose and brow seems similar; likewise the cheek lines running down into the chin.

What do YOU think?

Brownian Motion

Cosway sketchThings are hotting up! I have heard of a Northumbrian with features akin to Brown, who may be willing to sit for me to establish some base characteristics – the Reiver physiognomy – to guide the work of the portrait head of Capability Brown.

Several plans are now fixed for next year’s roadshow, engaging the public with the developing clay.

Firstly, a gathering at National Trust Uppark on the South Downs on Sunday March 6th, of which more about this interesting Brown-linked landscape in a future post.

Secondly, Hampshire Cultural Trust are involved with two free entry Capability Brown exhibitions at Winchester Discovery Centre from 26 March 2016. Capability Brown: Master of the Landscape runs until 12th June, and Capability Brown: Making the Landscape runs until 15 May. The clay will be being worked on the afternoon of Thursday 31 March and present for the Private View.

2015-09-25 12.53.40I am also starting work on a block of red sandstone, after an interesting discussion with Anthony Wallersteiner, Headmaster at Stowe School – closely connected with an important period of Lancelot Brown’s life and one of his most celebrated landscapes.  We will unveil the first terracotta head as well as a more abstract sculpture responding to all things Brownian in late May, to coincide with their Speech Day and the 26 May performance by The Fingask Follies.  HA-HA! is Brown-themed for the Tercentenary and also celebrates 21 Seasons of their performances.

Next on the agenda? A trip to National Portrait Gallery in early December with Steffie Shields, landscape historian and Capability Brown specialist – and Susan Darling, Garden & Landscape Historian & CBF2016 Research Co-ordinator for London Parks & Gardens Trust.

We will all be looking closely at the portrait material on Brown in our national collection. Personally, a great spur to proceeding with the first claywork in the New Year!

image top: Richard Cosway’s sketch of Brown (pictured right) c. 1773


The first statue of Brown?

DSC00619The challenge of immortalising Brown was recently brought up by Peter Bate, Sustrans Area Manager for Beds, Herts and Milton Keynes. He had needed to find out what Capability Brown looked like and how tall he was for a portrait bench statue on the National Cycle Network near Luton Hoo. This, he believes, is the only extant statue depicting Capability Brown and is conveyed as a pierced silhouette in Corten steel.

His brief in 2012 was to come up with characters with a connection to the site and route and then source images that could be used as the basis for the statues. The designs were developed by Katy Hallet, the then Sustrans Director of Art & the Travelling Landscape.

Peter noted: “It was rather difficult to find out anything about Capability Brown’s appearance apart from the NPG portrait. I specifically needed to find out his height, as the statues are life size, and his style of dress. The NPG portrait is head & torso only so I also had to find something for the bottom half! In the end two pictures were blended together. What was of great value was guidance from Jane Brown, author of the Brown biography ‘The Omnipotent Magician’. I eventually decided on a height of 1.8m based on historic accounts of Capability Brown looking William Pitt in the eye”.

Capability Brown designed the River Lea lakes on the valley bottom and the landscape on the other side of the valley, all part of the Luton Hoo estate. Finding out his likely height and style of dress was the most difficult part of the project. The other characters depict Eric Morecambe who lived in Harpenden (the route connects Luton & Harpenden) and used to go bird watching in the area, and the Sea Scout celebrates the long-established Sea Scout troop based on the shore of the Lea lakes.


I rather like the incongruity of it all. These sculptures of course can only be ‘read’ in two planes rather than in the round, but are simple and bold and incite the viewer to question. The artistic goal for Brown is somewhat different from my own – but a fine contrast.

Sustrans’ Portrait Bench series is a national social history project that celebrates uniqueness of location. More information here