Monday 2 July 2012

My Favourite Historical Character: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown

The Genius of Place  - or the Man who would improve on Nature

Linda Buckley-Archer

I’m always drawn to his kind, quizzical eyes whenever I visit the vine at Hampton Court - which I do, absurdly often.  I don’t, however, know much at all about the man.  But what I do like – very much – is his eye (to borrow Pope's phrase) for the genius of place.

‘Now there’, said [‘Capability’ Brown], pointing his finger, ‘I make a comma, and there’, pointing to another spot, ‘where a more decided turn is proper, 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.’
Lancelot Brown speaking about the grammar of design in 1782.

Lancelot 'Capability' Brown

The wheel has turned full circle.  From being dragged around endless National Trust properties as a young child, I gradually progressed from protesting, to acquiescing and, ultimately, to being the one doing the dragging.  Our school holidays were punctuated with trips that involved crunching up the long, dusty drives of the stately homes of England in our old maroon Ford Consul.  In its glove compartment, the well-thumbed book of National Trust properties was always to hand.  All those picnics in grassy car parks, the bracing walks through the surrounding countryside, the slower walks (oh, so slow) through walled kitchen gardens and herbaceous borders.  And all the while my horticulturally-minded parents would admire varieties and (oh, the shame of it) would occasionally secrete a choice leaf cutting into pocket or handbag.  If we were lucky, there was the reward of a tub of ice cream at the end of it.  It instilled in us children a certain idea of Englishness; I suppose it brought to life for me certain aspects of England’s history.

Something slowly accreted in my impressionable young brain during all those long summer afternoons.  What it was, I think, was a kind of burgeoning, unthinking love of the English landscape.   It was not the architectural jewel rescued by the National Trust that affected me, but rather the land into which it had been set.  What I did not appreciate until much, much later, was that what I took to be England’s lovely countryside was often, in point of fact, Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s idealised vision of it.  Unlike the geometric designs typified by Le Notre’s plan for Versailles a century earlier, Brown turned his back on formality, straight lines and symmetry,  and took his inspiration, instead, from Nature.   A good percentage of the beautiful ‘views’ I grew up admiring were actually examples of his beautiful landscaping.

Writing in the 40s, Brenda Colvin commented that “it was in the eighteenth century, in England, that garden and landscape first came together and were seen to be in relationship.  The idea of designing gardens as part of the wider landscape, and the wider landscape as a garden, was new, and was not fully grasped even in the eighteenth century.”   It was this idea that was embodied in  Brown’s designs.  For him the garden was inseparable from the landscape in which it was situated.   Anything that smacked of artificiality Lancelot Brown abhorred:  formal planting, hedgerows, fences were all torn out.   Lawns were laid right up to the house to avoid the division between garden and landscape. Earth was shifted (64,000 tons of it at Petworth) to generate the perfect curve or sweep of land. Streams were damned to form serpentine lakes and breathtaking cascades (he famously flooded Vanbrugh’s bridge at Blenheim Palace in so doing).  Majestic single specimens or clumps of trees were planted to highlight and accent nature’s bounty.  For one of his designs Brown planted over 100,000 trees to create the desired effect.  Hugely influential and widely copied, Brown’s designs still draw admirers from all over the world.   

Born in Northumberland in 1716, Brown served a long apprenticeship under William Kent at Stowe.  In a career that spanned five decades (he died in 1783),  Brown travelled the length and breadth of the land, and was nothing if not prolific.  In his long career he worked on upwards of 170 of the great gardens of England:  these included  Hampton Court, Petworth, Blenheim, Burghley, Longleat, Wycombe Abbey, Syon House, Temple Newsam, Harewood House. Compton Verney, Claremont, Stourhead and Warwick Castle.  Whether you realise it or not, you will probably have seen his labours.  He also planted the Great Vine at Hampton Court in around 1768, and you can still buy the grapes in season (which are delicious and have a lovely bloom to them).  I understand that you can even acquire plants propagated from it.  Around thirty of the gardens he designed are open to the public.  In this year of the 2012 London Olympics, whose opening ceremony will be celebrating England’s green and pleasant land, I would like to propose a toast to the inimitable Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, a man of whom it can be truly said that he transformed the English landscape.
If anyone is interested in finding out more about the man and his work, may I recommend Dorothy Stroud’s classic biography Capability Brown, as well as the more recent The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown by Jane Brown.

Linda Buckley-Archer’s Time Quake Trilogy is published by Simon & Schuster in the UK and the US.


H.M. Castor said...

Lovely choice, Linda, & a beautiful post. I had never seen his portrait - what a wonderful expression in those eyes!

Penny Dolan said...

An interesting man - and such a curious face! I too love those wide NT English landscapes, but when visiting I can't quite forget how existing villages, hamlets and homes were often destroyed or moved elsewhere so that the visual perfection of this style - and other great house Edens - could be achieved. But certainly Brown is a man to admire.

alberridge said...

Stunning post, Linda.I'm one of the ignoramuses who've seen his work dozens of times without even realizing, and now will have to look again.

And how peculiarly English it all is! Studying 17th century France I've really struggled with the curtailment of nature, but this is both control and liberation in one movement.

Laurie Graham said...

Enchanting portrait, and a lovely post. I see we can look forward to a great anniversary month.

Linda B-A said...

Thanks Harriet and Penny - the portrait is very characterful, isn't it? You can just imagine him eying up an estate to see if it had 'capabilities' and calculating how many houses were going to be a blot on his landscape... Somehow, in an age of Twitter and public enquiries, I think Lancelot Brown's imagination would have been rather more constrained. Nevertheless I love his quintessentially English landscapes - he's had a big influence on me one way and another. I think we should be very proud of him.

adele said...

Marvellous! He's one of my heroes too and I love the National Trust. We don't drive or own a car but if we did, I'd join NT at once. As it is, I frequent the shops and visit as many NT places as I can courtesy of friends and things like Friends of the Fitzwilliam etc. Fabulous-looking chap.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

I see his work (or at least his influence) at once when I see a great old house with sweeping grounds and views. He really did transform our landscapes. Great choice.

Linda B-A said...

Many thanks, Laurie, for your comment. Louise, I love what you say about control and liberation - that's exactly what it is. Adele and Marie-Louise, I knew I wouldn't be the only History Girl to be fond of Lancelot Brown. As this is going to have to be my penultimate post, I was pleased to be able to squeeze him in.

Sue Purkiss said...

Wonderful face - he looks as if he'd have a tale or two to tell, and would tell them well!

Anonymous said...

Nice article. You might be interesting in this development of a Lancelot Brown sculpted head from documentary sources, for the Brown Tercentary in 2016. If anyone knows of any less well known or less attributed works of Brown than may assist, please make contact!