A Date with History

6th February 1783. ‘Capability’ Brown and Rhubarb.


What rhubarb, senna, or what purgative drug would scour these English hence’: Macbeth, Scene III.

Rhubarb of family Polygonaceae. The colour depends on the presence of Anthocyanins a parent class of Flavonoids which impart the red colour to the stems. It is a laxative!

Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, gardener, landscape designer and flatterer of the rich who died today in 1783 would have been familiar with antique rhubarb varieties, but made his name in landscape design.

Brown was born in 1716 at Kirkharle in Northumberland becoming an apprentice gardener at 16 working on the Kirkharle Estate until 24 before going on to design 170 gardens including Blenheim and Warwick Castle.

To celebrate the tercentenary of his birth Doddingtom Farm at Kirkharle not only produced a cheese in his memory but a vintage rhubarb ice-cream using an antique rhubarb variety as used in Brown’s day, from their fields near the dairy.

Brown was to inspire William Kent who had created the garden at Thomas Coke’s Holkham Hall, following the natural landscapes of Claude Lorraine and the 17thc Italian paintings and so ended formal geometric parterres typical of previous times.

One of Brown’s innovations was the ‘ha-ha’ a sunken barrier separating pleasure grounds from the fields. Temples, grottoes and follies proliferated, however one garden defeated Brown: ‘the place is so flat’, he said in declining the 3rd Earl of Harrington’s request to landscape his 200 acre estate at Elvaston, Derbyshire. (1)

Badminton House in the 19thc showing grounds designed by Brown.

After achieving royal recognition with Hampton Court, Brown went on to Blenheim Palace in the 1760s where with 2,500 acres he dammed a river and laid out trees and paths to match the Battle of Blenheim.

Whilst we can still enjoy Brown’s landscapes today we can also enjoy rhubarb much of the early maturing varieties coming from the Rhubarb Triangle near Halifax, Yorkshire where it is forced in dimly lit sheds.(2)

(1) Elvaston was the Country’s first Country Park in 1970.

(2) Rhubarb ( Rheum rhabarbarum) leaves are poisonous containing Oxalic Acid and in WWI many were poisoned when it was thought they could be used to alleviate food shortage.

Ref: rhubarbinfo.com.poisons.

Ref: Charles Darwin: The Power of the Place. Vol 2. E Janet Browne.

Ref: neconnected.co.uk. Sept 2nd 2016. Courtney MaCarton.

Ref: wikipedia.org.rhubarb/Pic.