Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown and I enjoy a slightly awkward relationship. Don’t get me wrong, I love his landscapes and never pass up an opportunity to visit any of his gardens.
Stowe, Croome, Wallington, Blenheim, Petworth – the list goes on and on; infinitely it would seem, since according to author Sarah Rutherford he was an indifferent record-keeper and many a place laying claim to his having had a hand in the design may well have a point – they just can’t prove it.
No, the reason I’m never quite sure what I feel about Brown is this: he was so very popular and created so very many landscapes that much of Britain’s gardening history up to the 18th century was lost in their creation. Baroque, rococo, Elizabethan and medieval gardens were ripped up by landowners desperate to recreate the new look, destroying ancient woodland, countryside and even entire villages in their wake.
This isn’t Brown’s fault, of course; it was Fashion and some of the worst offenders were nothing to do with him. Indeed, when Brown finally got himself a Royal commission at Hampton Court, he actually avoided destroying much of what was there already through respect for his forbears, inadvertently puzzling Catherine the Great. A great landscape garden fan, she paid over the odds for a collection of drawings of Hampton Court Palace’s gardens, only to find a bunch of sketches of the old Baroque Garden, which Brown had preserved. After years of languishing in a back catalogue at the Hermitage, the collection will be on display at Hampton Court from May as part of 2016’s 300th anniversary of Brown’s birth.
Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens is another by-product of the tricentennial festival and very handsome it is too. Colourful, readable and engaging, it follows Brown’s rise from respectable but not ultra-wealthy yeoman stock to Royal Gardener and Landscape Designer to the Great and Good.
Largely featuring National Trust properties, individual examples are used to show themes and tropes of Brown’s work as they appear again and again. Sweeping vistas, cedars of Lebanon, mirror-lakes, aesthetically-pleasing clumps of trees, eye-catchers and temples are shown within a context of the 18th century tradition of the Grand Tourists, returning home from continental jollies with suitcases full of ancient Greek sculptures, pantechnicons full of Roman architecture and memories full of obliging Neapolitan hostesses.
Brown’s easy-going nature (though he was known to lose his temper on occasion) made him indispensable to his employers who treated him with more respect, it would seem, than some of his contemporaries – Thomas Chippendale, for example, working inside the new palaces these toffs were building, found himself treated more like a tradesman than the naturally classy Brown. This may well have something to do with Chippendale’s need to be seen to be ‘great’, as opposed to Brown’s shunning of the limelight.
Brown advised on at least 250 sites; perhaps more. Personable, funny and popular, he included in his client list Royalty, six prime ministers and, apparently, half the House of Lords.
I mentioned at the top of this post that I have an uneasy relationship with Brown’s work. I will never forget the moment (at a Paul Sandby exhibition) when I realised that in order to get a landscape with mature trees in exactly the correct place, landscape designers needed to have started out with mature trees in all the places – it was a case of removing specimens until the perfect ‘natural’ look was achieved.
What I have to keep reminding myself is that Brown and the other landscape architects were creating something new, something cutting-edge and, as the omelette of great British classical gardens was prepared, great British countryside eggs got broken. Hey. After 300 years, those landscapes are now as traditional as anything that came before.
The main thing I got from this book was just how much I liked Brown. Sarah Rutherford has taken his history, methods and results and unpacked them, including side bars, maps and boxes with insights into specific parts of his oeuvre. Ice houses, kitchen gardens cascades and grottoes are all given space and I was particularly interested to read about some of the flowering plants Brown uses in his work, not a topic I associate with him.
More than all this, however, Rutherford has drilled down into Brown’s personality and relationships, both with clients and family, to portray a man rather than a movement. He may have used cutting-edge technology, state of the art design and pin-precise draughtsmanship but above all, Lancelot Brown was human. His landscapes, however large, are never bigger than his soul.
Capability Brown and his Landscapes is published by National Trust Books, an imprint of Pavilion Books, RRP £20