The Omnipotent Magician: Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown 1716-83 
by Jane Brown.
Chatto, 384 pp., £20, March 2011, 978 0 7011 8212 0
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In the summer of 1771 William Constable had just returned to Burton Constable, his house in the East Riding of Yorkshire, after a lavish Grand Tour. He and his sister Winifred had spent £7000 and came home laden with pictures, sculptures, books and miscellaneous antiquities. Constable now regarded himself as a connoisseur or, as he put it, ‘a bit of a Vertu’. When the treasures were unpacked and tastefully disposed around the house, he turned his attention to the view from the windows and decided that it too needed bringing up to date in line with informed modern taste. ‘How to Clump my Avenues,’ he wondered in his notes, ‘How to Fence the Kitchen Garden, south Border etc, Whether the Road to the House would not be better Higher Up … consult about Water in the park … which kind of Evergreens for the W Front?’ These were the questions he intended to put to Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, then at the peak of his career as the most famous and sought after landscape designer of the day, who had been booked to make an inspection of Burton Constable and give his opinion of its ‘capabilities’ for improvement.

Constable’s notes are a précis of the Brown style. The ‘clumping’ or grouping of trees to make focal points, the careful management of water for practical and aesthetic effect and the rearrangement of awkward existing elements, even major ones like roads, were his established techniques for rendering the surroundings of a country house picturesque. The object of the interventions was to create an apparently natural, flowing landscape, one which, however artificially engineered, nevertheless looked much more like nature than did the parterres, allées and trimmed hedges of the 17th-century gardens they replaced. Brown was immensely successful. By the 1760s he was earning on average £6000 a year and he went on to stamp his ideal landscapes, including, as Jane Brown estimates, about a hundred and fifty ornamental lakes, all over the face of England.

Not everyone liked his work. Some contemporaries were hostile and even friends and clients were occasionally uneasy about the scale of his influence. A neighbour in Hammersmith, where Brown lived for some years, said he hoped to die before him as he would like to see heaven before it was improved. When Brown did die, in 1783, George III, to whom Brown was royal gardener, remarked to one of his staff: ‘Now Mellicant you and I can do here what we please.’ His style was popular enough to be widely and often badly imitated, and by the 1790s clumps, belts and lakes seemed stale and formulaic. Uvedale Price spoke for many of his contemporaries when he complained that Brownian gardens looked as if they had been ‘made by contract in London and then sent down in pieces’. It was an understandable, perhaps an inevitable reaction. As Cecil Beaton once pointed out, taste takes on average 25 years to complete a cycle and bring the fashions of the previous generation back if not into vogue then at least into critical focus. But in the case of Brown that did not happen, the reaction darkened into near oblivion, the curious nickname becoming little more than an echo. It was a century and a half before anybody wrote seriously about him or his work.

The pioneer was Dorothy Stroud, whose study of Brown appeared in 1950 and reappeared much revised in 1975. Stroud established the essential facts about this ‘familiar but insubstantial character’ and compiled a list of works on which every later writer has relied. She succeeded in making him more familiar, but scarcely less insubstantial as a personality, for unlike Humphry Repton, who occupied a similar position in the next generation and who invented the term ‘landscape gardener’, Brown published nothing and there are few surviving papers. Jane Brown has worked hard to fill in the gaps. She has found out that his mother was Ursula, née Hall, and that she was, like his father William, from a local family in Northumbria. She has also uncovered suggestive evidence that Brown had an illegitimate daughter, for whom he provided after his death.

Otherwise, the biographical narrative remains fragmentary. Her solution is to fill it in with rhapsodic evocations of weather, of the ‘the swish-swash of the tides’ off the Lincolnshire coast, and attempts to imagine Brown at work in ‘wintry dawns’. In extremis she invents extra characters such as the ‘rosy-cheeked pensioner’s widow’ with whom she would like to think Brown might have lodged during an obscure period of his early career. When all else fails she falls back on her own life and we learn that she has two children and a dog called Bertie. It is a book that reeks of enthusiasm but one which will irritate readers who believe that biography should deal in facts and that biographers should be heard but not seen.

It would have been much improved by a stronger sense of context, for while Brown may be largely lost to us as a knowable individual he is not entirely so. The few papers tell us something, and the circumstances of his life and work might be pieced together convincingly enough to describe in outline the qualities of the man who was able to rise from relatively modest circumstances to become a determining force in shaping English sensibility. Part of it was the luck of historical timing. Brown’s birth in 1716 coincided almost exactly with the early stirrings of the landscape movement. A year earlier, Stephen Switzer, one of the first promoters of the picturesque style, published The Nobleman, Gentleman and Gardener’s Recreation and when Brown was three, Alexander Pope, who believed that ‘all gardening is landscape painting,’ began work on the house and grounds at Twickenham which he continued to alter and write about for the rest of his life.

Gardening of this sort was not only painting, it was also from the outset poetry, philosophy and politics. Pope had moved, first to Chiswick in 1715 and then to Twickenham, to be ‘under the wing of my Lord Burlington’, whose protection was especially welcome in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising, when, as a Catholic, with several close friends under arrest, Pope too was an object of suspicion. Over the following years, as he repositioned himself more securely in Robert Walpole’s England, he and Burlington, ‘the architect Earl’, with the gardener William Kent formed the heart of a coterie that made landscape design into an art form with rules, conventions and, for those with eyes to see, quite distinct meanings. Pope’s Palladian villa had a garden that could be called ‘wild’ by the standards of the day and a mysterious jewelled grotto, all of it indicating a particular kind of cultivation, both patriotic and exotic. This was to be a modern Georgic, a Virgilian landscape modelled on Italy or, more specifically, the version of Italy to be found in the paintings of Poussin and Claude, but translated into English, in close consultation with nature and ‘the Genius of the Place’.

Horace Walpole was typically candid about the element of straightforward snobbery involved. In his essay on ‘The History of the Modern Taste in Gardening’ he poked fun at the old-fashioned style, with its terraces and walks ‘buttoned on each side by lines of flower pots’; he was especially crushing on the subject of topiary cut into novelty animal shapes, which indeed has never recovered its social cachet. This sort of thing, he wrote, could be put together by anyone ‘who had been born in and never stirred out of Holbourn’. The landscape garden by contrast was the product of cosmopolitan taste, a classical education, a Grand Tour and a familiarity with fine art. And so it came about that during the years of Capability Brown’s childhood, the reaction to formal gardens set in and ‘levelling, mowing and rolling’ followed on a considerable scale. Kent was sent to Italy to see what he was supposed to be imitating and when he came back he realised, in Walpole’s phrase, that ‘all nature was a garden’ and with his designs he ‘leaped the fence’ and joined the two together.

Embracing nature in this way, re-creating the living landscape as a Platonic ideal, in a ‘chastened or polished’ form, was of course expensive, another sign of exclusivity. Not only that but what Pope described as ‘calling in the country’ was a form of expropriation, visual always and sometimes literal, a blurring of boundaries between private and common land for aesthetic reasons which often reflected the real changes wrought by enclosure in the early part of the century. It was these enclosures, which had created a number of large estates, as yet undeveloped, that accounted for the speed with which the new fashion caught on. By 1739, the journal Common Sense was noticing wryly that ‘Every Man now, be his fortune what it will, is to be doing something at his Place, as the fashionable Phrase is; and you hardly meet with any Body, who, after the first Compliments, does not inform you, that he is in Mortar and moving of Earth; the modest terms for Building and Gardening.’

By this time Lancelot Brown was 23 and his life so far had been almost entirely shaped by his family’s connections with a landed estate in Northumberland, Kirkharle, the property of Sir William Loraine. Brown’s father had been Loraine’s land agent and his elder brother John became the estate surveyor. Brown’s father died when Lancelot was only four, but means had been found to keep him at school until he was 16, possibly with the help of the Loraines, after which he went as an apprentice to the head gardener at Kirkharle. It is one of the ironies of Brown’s peculiar reputation that in his lifetime and since he has been made to stand for the ruthlessness of 18th-century class divisions and for the Whig hegemony that coincided with the peak of his career. He undoubtedly benefited from both. The years between 1760 and 1780 saw another period of more intensive enclosure, resulting in more of Brown’s unified, sweeping landscapes from which an estate village or even a small town had not infrequently been removed in order to ‘extend the idea of a seat, and appropriate a whole country to the mansion’, as his contemporary Thomas Whately put it. Brown was attacked as a result, directly by Cowper in The Task and implicitly by Goldsmith in The Deserted Village. Yet his life also tells the opposite story of the considerable social mobility available to the educated Georgian artisan.

Brown sent two of his sons to Eton. One of them became an MP, and his brother John married a daughter of Sir William Loraine. In his dealings with clients the surviving letters show him at times exercising professional tact, but they don’t show him fawning. Indeed the boot could as easily be on the other foot. Lord Bruce of Tottenham Park received a stiff telling off when he tried to alter arrangements to meet, for Brown had a tight schedule and Bruce had to keep to his place in the queue: ‘I have been calculating my time entirely for your Lordship and it will be an extreme mortification to me … I have been contriving to make everybody meet me at their respective places which puts it out of my power to alter my route.’ The agent at Tottenham was afraid they would be ‘excommunicated’ if they resisted Brown’s plans and although Lord Bruce sent apologies and presents of game his gardener was not to be fobbed off with venison and flattery, writing back brusquely that he had been ‘hurried beyond measure of late’. With clients who behaved themselves Brown was on terms of warmth and relative equality. At New Year, Lord Brooke sent ‘compliments of the Season to his old friend Mr Brown’ and Hester, wife of William Pitt the Elder, was anxious to assure him of her own and her husband’s ‘sentiments of Esteem and Friendship’. That Brown was not overawed by the circles in which he eventually found himself moving is suggested by his account book, in which his very considerable salary as royal gardener is indexed alphabetically with his other incomings, under ‘K’ for ‘King’.

The confidence must have been partly temperamental but it was based on solid foundations: his education in the village school in Kirkharle and the locally well-respected Cambo school, as well as his apprenticeship with William Loraine. And Northumberland in the 1730s was intellectually far from provincial. Loraine was skilled in ‘Architecture and Physic’. A keen improver of his estate, he had no sooner inherited than he began work to shift the village to higher ground away from the house and get rid of his grandfather’s parterre in favour of fashionably wide lawns. Nearby at Wallington, Brown’s brother George was turning himself into a mason-architect under the tutelage of Daniel Garrett, who had been Lord Burlington’s clerk of works and a colleague of Kent. Much later, Brown’s most tenacious enemy, the architect William Chambers, who had managed to get himself a Swedish knighthood with which he made much play, attacked him as a kitchen gardener, a peasant who had emerged ‘from the melon grounds to take the periwig and turn professor’, but this was very wide of the mark, as Horace Walpole and his friend the poet William Mason were quick to point out. Mason’s verse retort to Chambers was admired by Hester Thrale for its ‘Fire and pungent Satire’.

Whatever the elusive details of his personality may have been, Brown was clearly a respecter of persons only up to a point and a man who could evoke respect and warmth in people who were not easily pleased. Another client, Lord Harcourt of Nuneham Courtenay, admired his ‘private character’ as much as his art, adding tantalisingly: ‘I felt an affection for him, and liked his company, in spite of his puns.’ The puns are sadly lost, along with so much else, but the trajectory of Brown’s career after Kirkharle is eloquent. It took him, within a couple of years, to the heart of the landscape garden movement. Stowe, in Buckinghamshire, the home of Lord Cobham, was the centre of Whig opposition to Walpole’s regime. It was also the place where moral allegory and political manifesto were being most powerfully expressed in mortar and the moving of earth, and in 1741, in what was to be his last employment before setting up on his own account, Brown became head gardener at Stowe. By the time he arrived the gardens and their buildings were a dense exposition of the ‘liberal and patriotic principles’ of Cobham’s faction, their plan literary to the point of literalness. The scheme had taken its impetus from an essay by Addison in the Tatler describing a dream Garden of Liberty from which ‘Borders and Parterres’ had been banished in favour of natural planting amid which the ‘Arts and Sciences’ flourished in a state of improved nature. There was a Temple of British Worthies dedicated to Locke, a Temple of Ancient Virtue based on the temple of Vesta at Tivoli, and an ironic Temple of Modern Virtue constructed as a ruin round a headless statue of Walpole.

Brown had arrived at the locus classicus of the Augustan landscape garden, the ‘superbe solitude’ admired by Rousseau. Stowe was also, as its historian John Martin Robinson puts it, a centre of power where ‘policy was framed, governments made or broken … and the expansion of the British Empire planned’. Not until the later 18th century – after Brown’s time – did it become ‘the place from which England was governed’, but by 1741 much of the garden was complete and it seems most unlikely that what Jane Brown refers to vaguely as its ‘political and poetic undertones’ really ‘passed him by’. He was at Stowe when James Gibbs built the Temple of Liberty. This curious triangular, turreted, ironstone building with battlements on the outside and elaborate spurious heraldry on the inside, connecting Lord Cobham with his Saxon ancestors and their ancient freedoms, was the climax of the iconographic programme and an early symptom of what would come to be called the Gothic Revival. Brown must have thought something about it. What exactly his politics were is impossible to know. Not all of his patrons were Whigs but most were, and the letters of support to Pitt, asking with growing concern about his fragile health, suggest more than general self-interested good wishes. Stroud concluded that Brown’s sympathies were essentially Whig, which seems probable, unlike Jane Brown’s entirely unsupported theory that he was a secret Jacobite.

Even so she is right to suggest that the intricately literary landscapes of which Stowe was the epitome were not to be Brown’s way. His chief contribution there, the Grecian Valley, carried out under Cobham’s guidance, has a breadth and simplicity of effect that looked forward to a new generation of landscaping, freer in appearance, if no more effortless in fact. The Grecian Valley, fringed with undulating belts of trees, is a dog-leg-shaped declivity whose gentle Arcadian slopes were the result of two years of earth moving.

Brown was married while he was at Stowe, to Bridget Wayet. The wedding took place in the little medieval church on the estate, which Cobham had refrained from either prettying up or knocking down, satisfying himself with merely screening it with some tactfully planted trees. After a decade of being ‘lent out’ by his employer to various friends for their improvements, Brown had built up a portfolio of work and had enough well-placed connections to enter into practice on his own account. He worked fast, taking only an hour or so on horseback to survey an estate and rough out an entire design. Business flowed in. As well as clumps, belts and water, his other great device for managing landscape was the sunken fence or ha-ha. This, whatever Horace Walpole and others said about its intrinsic Englishness, was certainly a Continental and probably a French invention, but it was Brown who carried it to perfection and sent it back across the Channel as an integral part of the jardin anglais, in which open views across country and sloping lawns could be divided on the ground, while united to the eye.

In his mature style, looser than Kent’s and more allusive, the overtly emblematic gave way to the metaphorical. The aesthetics of landscape were now widely enough understood to be read without words, but they still had an underlying grammar. Towards the end of his life Brown, walking in the gardens he had created at Hampton Court, gave Hannah More the only personal account of his methods known to survive. ‘“Now there” said he, 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.”’

Such deliberateness seemed like pedantry to a later generation but to Brown’s clients it was infused with the very latest ideas. Good taste as delicately rhythmical, to be found in the fluid serpentine of Hogarth’s ‘line of beauty’ and the ideal smoothness described in Burke’s Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, reached its perfect expression in close-mown lawns and curving expanses of water, as the baroque gave way to the rococo. The subtlety of the effects that Brown achieved for such an informed public were less apparent to later ages unfamiliar with the founding texts, but in recent years John Phibbs has rediscovered some of them. He has analysed Brown’s use of ‘point blank’, the dead centre of a house, as an axis on which to pivot pairs of views, similar but not symmetrical, like the paired landscapes of Claude. As with the ‘pairs’ of lakes that were in fact a single waterway dammed and the interruptions of old avenues with widened entrances or shrubbery, Brown developed a syncopated picturesque, audible and delightful to a well-tuned ear.

The other, potentially unsettling, contrast that was becoming increasingly evident during Brown’s career was with the changing landscape beyond the country park. It was not only enclosure that was altering life in the villages: the hefty engineering techniques that enabled Brown to operate his great tree-moving machine, the digging, draining and shifting of tonnes of earth and rubble by teams of labourers, belonged as much to the dawning canal age as to the late Augustan. Brown had commissions on estates near the potteries at Tixall and Ingestre, and in Flintshire, where the opening of his landscape garden with its much admired cascades was attended by a crowd of local people which included 80 colliers. Celina Fox, in The Arts of Industry in the Age of Enlightenment, a thoughtful book that would have made a useful addition to Jane Brown’s bibliography, writes that ‘all engineering is social engineering’, and Brown’s contemporaries on both sides of the ha-ha were perfectly aware of this. His landscapes were designed for screening out as well as calling in the surrounding country, and beyond the parks the finely nuanced language of landscape design was being spoken, if imperfectly, among the furnaces, coalmines and canals.

Brown’s contemporary Josiah Wedgwood, whose ascent from the artisan ranks has parallels with Brown’s own, bought the Ridge House estate near Burslem in 1766 and built a house for himself on it, the tastefully classical Etruria Hall. This was also the site of his pottery works and he had chosen it because it was on the planned route of the Trent and Mersey Canal, which would give him a waterway to transport materials in and finished pots out. In vain he tried to persuade James Brindley, the canal engineer, to make it wind in a Brownian serpent past the front of the house. Brindley was as unbending as his route. There was no requirement in the lie of the land for the canal to be anything other than dead straight, and so to Wedgwood’s mortification ‘the inflexible Vandal’ denied him ‘one line of Grace’. Etruria was thus, for all its pretensions and allusions, marked out to the eye of taste as a factory, not a landed estate. Only gentlemen could afford redundant curves, and indeed they must have them, to indicate their quite different relationship to the land. At Tottenham, Brown suggested a ‘cure’ for the irredeemably straight avenue by opening out the entrance with a clever use of shrubbery and an existing beech.

For all of which the idea of Brown as a relentless roller-over of existing landscapes is another of the injustices in his popular reputation. He did not always intervene. One of his first disagreements with George III was at Hampton Court, where the king was keen, like so many of his subjects, to get rid of the old formal gardens. Here Brown refused, ‘out of respect to himself and his profession’ as he put it, to destroy what was by now a historic design, though significantly he could not bring himself to keep up the topiary. Nor was he remote from the economic realities of estate management and the agriculture on which it depended. He popularised the ferme ornée, the planned decorative walks round working farmland, and often left common land unenclosed where he had the choice. He did occasionally move estate cottages, but then he would move anything, up to and including the main house if, like Vanbrugh’s Claremont, it was low-lying and old-fashioned. The new house there, for Lord Clive, dominated the higher ground, which suited both the landscape and its fabulously wealthy owner, who had, Brown told Dr Johnson, a chest full of gold in his bedroom.

Not everything in Brown’s astonishingly successful practice went smoothly. Lakes sometimes leaked. At Audley End there was a misunderstanding about which way the river was meant to bend and at Cambridge he made a serious category error. His scheme for the Backs treated the private gardens of all the colleges from Peterhouse to Magdalene as a single park enclosed by a sweeping belt of trees and punctuated with clumps. The strongly individual and in some cases mutually hostile colleges declined to be clumped and Brown was sent on his way with a gracious letter of thanks and an engraved silver tray.

Like opera or any other art that depends on immensely elaborate processes for the suspension of disbelief, the sublime in landscape gardening was always on the brink of the ridiculous. Brown’s friend David Garrick, to whom he suggested making a tunnel under the road to connect the two parts of his Thames-side grounds, may have been the first person to satirise it on stage in Lethe, or Aesop in the Shades in 1757, in which Lord Chalkstone, played by Garrick himself, declines to be rowed across the Styx on the grounds that it isn’t serpentine enough to be genteel. Gazing into the orchestra pit, he remarks: ‘Here’s a fine ha-ha! And a most curious collection of evergreens and flowering shrubs!’ After Garrick, Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock were among many to make play with Brown and his landscapes before his reputation took an equally sudden plunge.

Its revival almost exactly two hundred years after the start of his career was part of the postwar rediscovery of what was left of rural England. Christopher Hussey, introducing the second edition of Stroud’s book, described its ‘main impulse’ as the ‘growing concern with problems of country planning, preservation of scenery, and relation of buildings to their setting’. He might have added the simultaneous revival of interest in reclaiming canals and, in 1955, the Reith Lectures on The Englishness of English Art, in which Nikolaus Pevsner lit on the picturesque as a living tradition and one that might be the salvation of modern town planning. By 1993, Brown was well enough remembered to be satirised again. Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia dusts down some of Peacock’s better jokes, catching Brown’s reputation at the moment when he was going out of fashion, when ‘nature as God intended’ was giving way to Romanticism in the form of Repton, represented in Arcadia by Mr Noakes, who introduces towering crags and savage forest where the hyacinth dell once was and replaces the gazebo with a ruinous cottage. So it went with some of Brown’s creations. Others simply perished by neglect, were built over, turned into golf courses as at Wimbledon, or rendered invisible by their sheer success in imitating nature. Yet there have also been restorations, physical and critical, and if Jane Brown’s book does little else it testifies to the widening public awareness of Brown, a process on which English Heritage just a few weeks ago set its seal of approval, with the unveiling of a blue plaque set with picturesque asymmetry on his house at Hampton Court.

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