The Earth Moved for Him THE OMNIPOTENT MAGICIAN: LANCELOT
‘CAPABILITY’ BROWN, 1716–1783
By Jane Brown (Chatto & Windus 384pp £20)
‘CAPABILITY’ BROWN, THE most famous of all eighteenthcentury landscape designers – and the father of the landscape garden – never wrote a manual or recorded his musings for posterity. In fact, were it not for an illuminating conversation with Hannah More in 1782, the year before he died, critics might have got away with the accusation that he possessed nothing but a good eye for effect.
Stowe’s famous lake and the picturesque garden tour replete with Palladian bridge, Elysian Fields, and Temple of Ancient Virtues. In accordance with their vision, particularly Kent’s, the gardens at Stowe became park-like places for walking and discovering rather than simply looking. Brown, who became head gardener in 1741, was so well versed in Kent’s style that his major contribution to Stowe – the Grecian Valley – moves effortlessly out from the Elysian Fields without any stark interruption or change of mood, belying the massive quantities of earth that were shifted to create it.
Even as late as 1751, three years after Kent’s death when Brown had already struck out on his own, he was still labouring under the shadow of his mentor. The diarist Horace Walpole visited Warwick Castle, where Brown had accepted a commission from Lord Brooke, and noted somewhat dismissively that ‘it is well laid out by one Brown who has set up on a few ideas of Kent and Mr Southcote’. Two years later, however, Brown had become so successful that he was able to keep an account at Drummonds Bank.
Fortunately for Brown’s reputation, More recorded the encounter. The two were at Hampton Court Palace when Brown directed her attention to the landscape:
Par t of the secret to Brown’s success can be divined from his nickname. It was allegedly given to him because of the way he would march a l l over a p roper t y be f o re i n f o r ming t he owners whether it possessed the right capabilit ies for his attentions. When Brown assessed a landscape he was looking for water as much as he was looking for contours, views and woodland. His patrons were
‘Now there’, said he, pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and t here ’ , pointing t o another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is p roper, I make a colon; at another part, where an interruption is desirable to break the view, a parenthesis; now a full stop, and then I begin another subject.’ Thus Brown revealed that his ‘natural’ designs were the epitome of the expert grammarian’s art.
The Grecian Valley, Stowe, c 1750
Another common misperception about Brown was that he emerged fully formed in the mid-eighteenth century, his ideas entirely sui generis and at odds with every other landscape architect in the country. Rather more prosaically, Brown actually served a long apprenticeship under William Kent at Stowe. It was Kent who trained and schooled him in the new style of picturesque gardens that were beginning to replace the formal parterres, avenues, allées and walled gardens of the Baroque era.
Kent and his predecessor Charles Br idgeman were responsible for enamoured with the new poetical depictions of nature as gentle and pastoral. In David Hume’s words, ‘the eye is pleased with the prospect of cornfields and loaded vineyards, horses grazing and flocks pasturing; but flies the view of briars and brambles, affording shelter to wolves and serpents’.
The ‘prospects’ provided by Brown included serpentine lakes, gently undulating lawns, strategically planted clumps of trees that led the eye to rolling views, and simple canvasses of ‘natural’ colours. At Blenheim
Palace, which is considered to be Brown’s magnum opus, he erased Henry Wise’s scheme and constructed a dam to hold back the River Glyme. This created a 45 hectare lake that was ornamented by Vanbrugh’s Grand Br idge as
LITERARY REVIEW March 2011