Five Books on Capability Brown - review by Tim Richardson

Tim Richardson

Earthly Delights

Five Books on Capability Brown


This year, in case you didn’t know it, is the tercentenary of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown’s birth. He was the landscape designer who advised at some 250 estates in England and exerted almost a monopoly on landscape style from the 1760s until he dropped down dead in the street in Mayfair one evening in 1783 at the age of sixty-six. With the assistance of a £900,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, there has been a plethora of open days, guided walks, conferences, lectures and even ‘capabili-teas’ to commemorate the work of a man whose world fame as a landscape designer is perhaps equalled only by that of André Le Nôtre, creator of the park at Versailles. Yet it’s a reflection of the ambiguous status of landscape design in the hierarchy of the arts in this country that no major institution proved willing to mount an exhibition devoted to Brown this year. (The V&A, for example, felt that 2016 was a good moment to concentrate instead on the topics of underwear and late 1960s pop culture.)

As a result, the dozen or so books and journal issues on Brown to appear this year constitute by far the most substantial product of the anniversary. In addition to the five full-length studies reviewed here, the gardens trusts of Yorkshire, Kent, Norfolk and Essex all published special editions of journals, while the Duchess of Rutland penned an enjoyably idiosyncratic book on Brown at Belvoir Castle. In addition, the University of Bath hosted a conference devoted to Brown’s considerable international influence (including on the design of Central Park in New York).

The avalanche is all the more welcome because, since Dorothy Stroud’s ground-breaking study of 1950 (revised in 1975), books on Brown have appeared only sporadically, and none of them could remotely be called definitive. It’s as if garden historians have been chary of tackling so massive a figure, whose work is notoriously difficult to encapsulate. The problems arise partly because one aspect of Brown’s skill was his facility in hiding the artistry that underlay his carefully moulded pastoral idylls, which typically feature spreading greensward, lakes, artificial rivers, low mounded hills and clumps or shelter belts of trees, all offset by grazing livestock and perhaps a classical temple or two. It was supposed to look entirely natural and today, after some 250 years’ maturing, it usually does. Like the landscape gardens he created, it is as if Brown is hiding while in plain view.

There is the accusation of uniformity as well. Brown’s style developed over time, but it is all too easy to fall into the trap, as Moving Heaven & Earth: Capability Brown’s Gift of Landscape by Steffie Shields (Unicorn 288pp £30) and Lancelot Brown and the Capability Men: Landscape Revolution in Eighteenth-century England by David Brown and Tom Williamson (Reaktion Books 270pp £30) do, of characterising his designs as basically agglomerations of stock features – bridges, lakes, clumps, hillocks – cleverly arranged to suit a specific topography. This bolsters the argument of Brown’s many detractors – namely, that his work has an identikit quality, that he ‘rolled it out’ over England like a carpet and, in doing so, ‘swept away’ (the biggest cliché) the great formal gardens of the preceding century. For enthusiasts of the Baroque, he will always be ‘Calamity’ Brown.

But the aesthetics are just a part of the story. One of the themes that run through all these books is Brown’s working method, which was the key to his success as a businessman. Unlike William Kent, the pre-eminent landscape designer of the previous generation, Brown was no dilettante. He was brought up in Northumberland, where his first job was at a local estate that relied on good water engineering – dams, conduits, drainage and field irrigation. (Kent was a terrible water engineer, as evinced by the cascade at Rousham and canal at Chiswick.) Shields makes particular play of Brown’s status as an engineer, arguing that it was this that brought him down to the Lincolnshire fenland and then on to a position at Stowe in the employ of Lord Cobham. This was the making of him, since it opened up a world of aristocratic patronage. It was Brown’s skill as an engineer, not as a designer or gardener, that made him a viable prospect early on in his career. Indeed, it was his reputation for practical nous – his ‘capability’ – that, arguably, remained his greatest asset throughout his career.

Sarah Rutherford’s exploration of Brown’s business style in Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens (National Trust 192pp £20) is a particular strength of her small-format study, which describes with clarity and brevity Brown’s way of travelling from place to place on horseback and surveying estates at speed, his network of trusted foremen and how he dealt with clients (usually with good humour, though on one occasion he ‘tore up the account before [his client’s] face and said his say upon that Business’). She is good on the differing characteristics of Brown’s favoured trees and also his pleasure grounds (smaller, enclosed areas near the house).

Shields’s slightly hagiographic study concludes with a controversial theory that all of Brown’s work can be placed in the context of his Christian belief. (The strongest argument put forward in favour of this is his choice of motto, ‘Never less alone than when wholly alone’.) The book is the result of a huge amount of research and is strong on factual detail, but the structure makes it somewhat indigestible, with repetition a problem and substandard photography letting it down.

Brown and Williamson’s study of the ‘Capability Men’ is the most academic book among these, and accordingly sports a dismal grey jacket. As the authors warm to their theme of resurrecting the reputations of Brown’s contemporaries, such as Richard Woods and William Emes, they begin to treat Brown as one among several Capability Men. The argument is understandable, but surely it is a bit much to suggest that Brown was simply one of a team (perhaps the captain), when the sheer number of parks he designed, in a wide range of regions, far outstrips the work of all his contemporaries put together. Their book is strong on the cultural and economic backdrop to Brown’s milieu, with contemporary maps (often rather dim) favoured over modern photographs. However, the numerous subchapters – with deadly titles, such as ‘Neoclassicism, modernity and improvement’ – disrupt any hope of narrative flow or wide appeal.

The greatest challenge lies in conveying a sense of Brown’s overall conception of landscape design, and only John Phibbs, a garden restoration consultant, has seriously attempted this. After a lengthy period of gestation he has produced non-identical twins: a pair of books that he presents as complementary works, to be bought together at a combined cost of £95. (Good luck with that.) The brick-like Capability Brown: Designing the English Landscape (Rizzoli 280pp £45) is the picture book while Place-making: The Art of Capability Brown (Historic England 360pp £50) is a distillation of Phibbs’s thoughts on Brown after decades working on – or obsessing about – his landscapes.

The photographs by Joe Cornish in Capability Brown are by far the best ever taken of Brown’s landscapes. In double-page spreads, they capture both the majesty of Brown’s vision and the individuality of the estates where he worked. If what is required is a book that reminds us of Brown’s greatness, then this is it. But it is much more than a picture book. Phibbs’s reputation as a major authority stems from his deep engagement with the underlying geometry of Brown’s designs (including his ‘point blank’ theory – his habit of placing large trees right in front of the house to encourage diagonal or lateral views) and his emphasis on the financial aspect of much of his advice.

Fifteen of Brown’s landscapes are covered in detail. Estates such as Petworth and Burghley are compellingly presented as jigsaws of agricultural amenities, which Brown ordered and manipulated to create an all-embracing landscape aesthetic that was designed to be experienced on foot, on horseback, by carriage or by boat (Blenheim, for example, was ‘a landscape to move through’). Phibbs’s arguments become more subtle over the course of the book, concluding with a theory of ‘gradation’ with regard to the ordering of estates. On his initial site visit, Brown would ride to the highest point and work out what needed to be done and how all the different components of the estate might connect with one another. A rather eccentric, manifesto-like conclusion suggests that Brown’s overriding vision was of a ‘pre-lapsarian England’ – of fields and woodland with no hedges or evidence of hunting, all predicated on the reassuring superabundance of pasture for haymaking.

Place-making is the most eagerly awaited of the current crop of Brown books. (Unfortunately, publication has been delayed until February next year.) It expands on the ideas in Capability Brown and offers a masterly close reading of Brown’s landscape designs on the ground, supported by apt quotations and liberal illustrations. It begins with a long section about estate management, touching on pasture, woodland and deer (there is even a subchapter devoted to that important topic, manure). This is a brilliant stratagem, as it puts Brown’s work in its correct context and adds the kind of detail that only a practical landscape consultant can provide: the section on trees, for example, clearly distinguishes between mingling, massing, groves, glades, belts, single trees, clumps and also trees arrayed to mimic military formations in commemoration of great British victories, such as at Dettingen.

If the book has a shortcoming, it is the dearth of case studies of individual estates (which, admittedly, Phibbs’s other book provides). But the wealth of insight into the aesthetics, mechanics and economics of late 18th-century estate life is unparalleled. We learn about everything from Brown’s use of ‘bursts’ and ‘peeps’ in his approaches to the craze for mini battleships in the 1750s and 1760s and the links between English liberty and Gothic architecture (he even puts forward the argument that ‘cricket is a Gothic sport’).

In his final paragraph Phibbs cannot resist attacking the ‘piffling iconographies’ of Stowe, Stourhead and the other great landscape gardens of the first half of the 18th century. This prejudice perhaps ought to be indulged, even by those of us who love the gardens of that period, given that Brown has been far more attacked than defended in recent decades. John Phibbs has done more for his reputation than anyone else.

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