Was Lancelot Capability Brown a great landscape designer?

Britain’s most famous gardener, landscape
architect and garden designer was born in 1716 at Kirkharle in Northumberland. Lancelot
was the fifth child of a land agent and a chambermaid. We can guess that his first birthday
was a happy event and when he died, at the age of 67, Brown’s reputation was as high
as the sky. He lived at Hampton Court and his circle of admirers included the king,
the prime minister and much of the nobility. But in 1816, a century after his birth, Brown’s
reputation was lower than mud. He was remembered, but as a tasteless country bumpkin who had
tricked a generation of landowners into wrecking their ancestral estates.
In 1916, the bicentenary of Brown’s birth passed un-noticed. It was a terrible year
in a terrible war and the only garden historian to have recognised Brown’s talent in the
preceding century was German. Published in the fateful year of 1914, Marie-Luise Gothein’s
marvellous History of Garden Art, can hardly have been popular in England.
But by 2016, everything had changed for Brown. The tri-centenary celebrations laud him as,
in Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe’s words, ‘one of the great designers in the world without
doubt’. In my opinion, however, there is room for doubt. For several reasons.
The first reason is that while some of Brown’s projects are very fine, others are disappointing.
Blenheim is one of Brown’s best designs and looks wonderful, particularly when the
sun is low in the sky. Scampston, however, is barely recognisable as a Brownian landscape
design and could easily be mistaken for farmland. The second reason for having doubts about
Brown is that much has changed and it is now hard to know exactly what he did, because
we lack drawings of the existing sites and because Brown did not show changes to landform
on his drawings. Prior Park is my favourite ‘Brownian’ design – but no record survives
of what he actually did – if anything. We really only know that he was paid, as recorded
in the account book. The third reason for doubts about Brown is
that his surviving plans are, to say the least, disappointing. They are ‘working drawings’
much more than they are spatial designs. Lakes are shown but there is no information about
landforms, either existing or proposed. The fourth reason for doubting Brown’s talent
can be dismissed: the torrent of abuse directed at him from the 1780s to the 1920s can be
explained by a shift in the common understanding of the word ‘nature’.
In 1700, artists used ‘nature’, as in the phrase ‘human nature’ to mean ‘essential
character’ or ‘ideal character’. This was a Platonic idea and, for designers, imitating
nature meant using the square, the circle and the straight line in their designs.
When Brown’s reputation went into free-fall, ‘nature’ was well on the way to its modern
use, as in wild nature’, to mean ‘unaffected by man’.
In the mid-eighteenth century, when Brown’s reputation was at its height, serpentine lines
were conceived to be more natural than straight lines. But in comparison with the irregular
and jagged lines which had become popular by the end of the century serpentine lines
were seen as not-very-natural. Even the wise and generous Gertrude Jekyll had a dislike
of Brown: she described his work as ‘sham natural’ and attributed this to ‘his ignorance
and want of taste’. Brown continued being insulted and ridiculed
until, in the 1920s, he came to be recognised as a designer with a classically English style.
Christopher Hussey, praised his aesthetics with references to Hogarth and Burke, but
saw him as a practical man in the grip of a theory. This diagram shows the theory and
some of the plans which resulted from its application.
Let’s have look at a dozen Brownian parks. The Grecian Vale at Stowe is the probable
origin of Brown’s style. At the age of 25 he worked here under the direction William
Kent – who was 56 and and had seen many small Roman temples in classical landscapes in and
around Rome, where Kent had lived for 10 years. Bowood has a fine lake designed by Brown in
the 1760s and ornamented with a small Grecian temple.
At Audley End, Brown obliterated a renaissance garden. His own plan is inelegant – and may
not have improved the scenery. At Trentham Brown designed a large-scale composition
of water, landform and trees. He can hardly have changed the form of the land and it probably
determined the shape of the lake. At Castle Ashby, as at Trentham, Brown designed
a fine park which is now seen from a Victorian terrace garden
At Sherborne Castle, Brown designed a lake which improved the scenery. Whether it was
good for the fauna and flora is another matter. Alnwick Castle helps us understand Brown because
there are illustrations of its previous condition which can be compared with the results of
his work. Brown made the scene less wild and more serpentine.
Danson Park in South London was designed by Brown or by one of his assistants in the 1760s.
It suffers from uninspired local authority management but is a good example of a feature
for which Brown was much-criticised: the grass sweeps up to the front windows of the mansion.
Cows making cow pats could be seen just outside drawing room windows.
At Harewood, the Brownian park provides an excellent view from the terrace, which Charles
Barry added in the 1840s. Without the terrace, the composition would be incomplete.
At Chatsworth, Brown created a fine parkland setting for the old house, making the River
Derwent calmer and more serpentine. Parts of the old renaissance layout were removed
but have, to a degree, been re-created by subsequent Dukes of Devonshire.
At Corsham Court the landscape Brown designed is pleasant but could be mistaken for farmland.
Longleat, like Chatsworth, had a renaissance house and garden. A visitor described Brown’schanges
in the 1760s ‘there is not much alteration in the house, but the gardens are no more.
They are succeeded by a fine lawn, a serpentine river, wooded hills, gravel paths meandering
round a shrubbery, all modernised by the ingenious and much sought-after Mr Brown’.
So what should we conclude about Brown as a designer? I think of him as charming, talented,
trustworthy, hard-working – and lucky – but not as a creative genius. In the long run,
the lakes he created will be his most lasting contribution to the English landscape – and
their form came much more from the lie of the land than from the designer’s hand.
Like all good landscape architects, Brown believed in consulting the genius of the place.


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