LITERARY REVIEW March 2011
well as a series of cascades that allowed the river to flow in and out. Alter ing the topography required such extensive engineering work that Brown joked that ‘the Thames would never forgive him for what he had done at Blenheim’.
The exact number of landscapes that were on the receiving end of Brown’s transforming zeal will never be known, but it was at least 170 and perhaps as many as 200. The number is astonishing when one considers the huge expense of his projects. One estate required the planting of over 100,000 trees. At Petworth, Brown erased George London’s rectilinear garden, transported 64,000 tons of soil, dammed the stream, and created one of his signature lakes. Despite the turmoil and upset that his projects caused to owners while their parks were r ipped apart, he was never short of work. When a potential client asked him to redesign her Irish estate, Brown replied that it would be impossible: ‘I haven’t finished with England yet.’
Brown worked on the Blenheim project for ten years and was paid a total of £21,500 for his work – about £1.5 million today. During this time he was also accepting commissions from numerous other patrons, and accepted the position of master gardener at Hampton Court in 1764. It is estimated that throughout the 1760s and 1770s Brown enjoyed an average annual turnover of £15,000. His genius would never have been revealed were it not for the vast wealth that was pouring into the country during the mid-eighteenth century. The money had to be spent somehow and ‘improving’ the landscape was a recognised symbol of progress and prosperity. As expensive as Brown’s designs were, they did not outstrip his clients’ ability to pay for them: of the peers who s i gned a p ro t e s t i n 1778 a g a i n s t p ro l ong i ng t he American War, ten of them had annual incomes of over £200,000 (Mr Darcy’s £10,000 a year suddenly looks rather middle class).
Brown died in 1783 of a stroke, while going to visit his daughter. Almost immediately, his critics started a campaign of vilification that Humphry Repton, Brown’s intellectual successor, did his best to counter. Brown was lambasted for being a destroyer of ancient gardens, of not being ‘natural’ enough, or for being too tame according to the new taste for the Romantic Gothic. His reputation fell further with the Victorians and their predilection for manicured rockeries and shrubberies. It was not until Dorothy Stroud ‘rediscovered’ Capability Brown in 1950 that his work became popular again. Jane Brown has written extensively on gardens, including Sissinghurst and the garden at Buckingham Palace. Although undeniably knowledgeable, her feel for landscape history outstr ips her skills as a biographer. The Omnipotent Magician i s well-meaning but Dorothy Stroud still reigns supreme. To order this book for £16, see LR bookshop on page 12