Blenheim Park and Gardens - "Capability" Brown's Masterpiece

  • 01 of 06

    Aerial View

    Courtesy of the Blenheim Estate

    Blenheim Palace Park and Gardens display the work of some of England's greatest 18th century landscape architects - Launcelot "Capability" Brown and John Vanbrugh.

    The designs for the park and garden were developed at the same time as the house itself. Or, to put it as Blenheim's architect, John Vanbrugh put it, "The Garden Wall was set agoing the Same day with the House."

    In 2016, the 300th anniversary of "Capability" Brown's birth plan a visit to see how he changed the face of English country living.

    From the air, Blenheim Palace seems to float on a sea of green in its 2,100 acre park.

    The original gardens for Blenheim were not created by 18th century landscape architect "Capability" Brown, but by the 1st Duke of Marborough's gardener, Henry Wise. Apparently realizing that the Duke would not live long enough to see his concepts to maturity, Wise is said to have planted full grown trees in baskets. The gardens, in keeping with fashions of the day, were formal and symmetrical.

    Fashions had changed by the time of the 4th Duke, in the late 18th century. That's when Brown was brought in to "naturalize" the garden. The scenic vistas and limpid lakes are not as nature made them but were carefully planned, with a painterly eye.

    Even the animals that sometimes wander into view on the 2,100 acre estate - a few picturesque sheep, a handful of cows - were part of Brown's concept.

    Continue to 2 of 6 below.
  • 02 of 06

    The Grand Bridge

    © Ferne Arfin

    Vanbrugh Grand Bridge, considered one of the finest in Europe, was flooded by Capability Brown's new lakes.

    Not content with the natural environment, Vanbrugh dammed a small river to create several streams and islets. He built the Grand Bridge across the water, lining it up between the entrance to the Palace and the Victory Monument that punctuates the park.

    Several generations later, Launcelot "Capability" Brown dammed the streams again, creating two large lakes for the 4th Duke of Marlborough. In the process, he also flooded the bottom of Vanbrugh's bridge. Still, the Duchess was probably pretty pleased about that. According to the story, the 4th Duke and his cronies enjoyed gambling, drinking and other 18th century masculine entertainments in the now flooded, once usable, rooms in the base of the bridge.

    Continue to 3 of 6 below.
  • 03 of 06

    Autumn in Blenheim Park

    ©Ferne Arfin

    The Park at Blenheim Palace is scenic throughout the year. In the late 18th century, fashionable landscape architect "Capability" Brown fringed the lawns and streams with ornamental trees, created lakes and arranged a "hanging" vista of trees to frame Vanbrugh's Grand bridge. His technique was to create natural looking - though completely contrived - parkland. Wherever you are on the estate, lovely views unfold.

    Throughout 2016, to celebrate Brown's 300th birthday, special events are planned at the estate including carriage rides, tours and exhibitions. Check the Blenheim Palace website to see what's on.

    Brown's artificial lakes are now stocked with trout in season and available for coarse fishing as well. Fishermen can rent little boats at lakeside as well. Find out more about fishing at Blenheim Palace.

    Brown's work was as important for what he left alone as for what he added. While designing the gardens, he identified a particularly ancient woodland featuring a stand of ancient oaks dating from at least the year 1200. Investigations have shown that this is forest is the oldest woodland in Europe. And it's included on Blenheim's Park Perimeter walk.At least 60 trees on this walk are more than 900 years old. 

    While Blenheim is considered to be one of Brown's masterpieces, his landscaped gardens can be visited all over England. These are also worth seeing:

    Continue to 4 of 6 below.
  • 04 of 06

    The Water Terraces

    © Ferne Arfin

    Between 1900 and 1910, Blenheim's gardens were transformed once again.

    In the name of naturalism, 18th century landscape architect Launcelot "Capability" Brown, had grassed over the palace's three acre forecourt and surrounded Blenheim with lawns, trees and shrubs. By the beginning of the 20th century, a taste for a bit of formal, French and Italian garden design had returned and the 9th Duke decided to create a more formal setting for the house itself.

    Working with Achille Duchene, darling of European high society at the turn of the 20th century, they achieved a painterly compromise. The long views, are pure "Capability Brown", natural and pastoral. But immediately beside the house, front and rear, formal gardens harken back to Duchene's main influence, Louis XIV's landscaper, Andre Le Notre.

    A large, formal Italian Garden, that can be overlooked at but not entered, sits to the left of the main visitor entrance to Blenheim Palace. But, to my thinking, the real masterpiece is what is known as The Water Terraces, arranged between the house and lake. The upper level of the Water Terraces is pictured here.
    Continue to 5 of 6 below.
  • 05 of 06

    The Lower Water Terrace at Blenheim Palace

    © Ferne Arfin

    The lower Water Terrace, separated from the upper Water Terrace by a wall of caryatids and tiered shells has been compared to the Parterre d'Eau at Versailles.

    The Water Terraces were said to have been inspired by the sculptor Bernini. Amongst the statuary in the lower terrace is a scale model of Bernini's river-god fountain, after the original in Rome's Piazza Navona.

    The sphinx, pictured here, is one of a pair with heads modeled on the features of the 9th Duke's second American wife Gladys Deacon(the first, also American, was Consuelo Vanderbilt). They were created by H. Ward Willis in 1930.

    Another piece of sculpture on the lower Water Terrace was modeled on local man and gardener Bert Timms of Hanborough. According to the story, he happened to be walking through the gardens when sculptor Visseau, who was carving at the time, noticed him and was inspired. As a result, he became the model of the head and torso of the leftmost caryatid on the wall that separates the two Water Terraces at Blenheim.

    Continue to 6 of 6 below.
  • 06 of 06

    The Temple of Diana at Blenheim Palace

    © Ferne Arfin

    The classical Temple of Diana, where Winston Churchill proposed to his wife Clementine, is tucked into an arboretum of specimen trees.

    The Temple of Diana was built in the 18th century for the 4th Duke of Marlborough. In 1908, Winston Churchill, who was born at Blenheim Palace, proposed to his future wife, Clementine Hozier, in the temple. It was restored in 1975.

    One of the pleasures of the gardens at Blenheim Palace is the great variety of landscape features added by various occupants of the house over the years. The little temple, pictured here, sits in an arboretum under four tall incense cedars. Other garden features include:

    • The Rose Garden
    • The Grand Cascade, created by "Capability" Brown
    • The Grand Bridge, designed by Vanbrugh and much taller before being flooded by Brown's lakes. The first Duchess claimed to have counted 33 rooms in the bridge.
    • The Secret Garden, a secluded garden where keen gardeners will find many of the plants named. It was restored in 2004, the 300th anniversary of the Battle of Blenheim.