© Portrait of Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, c.1770-75, Cosway, Richard (1742-1821)/Private Collection/Bridgeman Images
Think of the English countryside, and it’s my guess it’ll be pretty green. There will be fields, and hedgerows, and picturesque little villages nestled in valleys: perhaps a steeple peeping up above a copse of trees.
All very artistic. And not, one shred of it, natural.
Our countryside has been shaped, sculpted, created by people. Whether you live, as I do, in an ancient landscape where the fields still show the lines of old pre-enclosure strips and the hedgerows go back centuries; or whether you’re in rolling acres of emerald green, there is little left of how England was before people arrived.
So all the fuss about what Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown did to the English countryside seems a little unfair to me. He was only, after all, doing what the monks and farmers and squires had done before him, only prettier.
More of a crime to be laid at his door in my opinion is his cavalier way of erasing hundreds of years of garden history, not to mention some spectacularly beautiful formal gardens, in a supremely arrogant gesture that simply assumed people wouldn’t want that. Ever again.
The only English renaissance gardens to escape Capability’s shovels and picks were those whose owners had no truck with this modern claptrap of serpentine paths and copses and ha-has and focal points: the owners of Westbury Court, Powis Castle and Hanbury Court, we salute you.
So few have survived the Brown tsunami, and so much has been lost: I’d have loved to have seen the 17th century water gardens by de Caus (complete with joke fountains in the Italian style) and parterres which were once the glory of Wilton House in Wiltshire. But Capability saw to it that such vulgar spectacles never survived beyond the 18th century and they only exist, sketchily, on paper now.
I think part of my problem with him is that I don’t trust ‘gardeners’ who don’t do plants. Landscapers tend to talk in broad sweeps: I’m a detail person, the turn of a petal, the contrast of purple against lilac, the simple glory of an opening daisy. I don’t think Lancelot had much time for all that. And that’s why I instinctively don’t respond well to his style of doing things.
Of course, there’s no escaping Mr Brown at the moment, and it’ll get worse next year when the tercentenary starts: the 300th anniversary of his birth is as good an excuse as any to reassess his life and legacy. Carved into the hillsides of England as it is, you can’t ignore it.
Fortunately it’s to be neither a hagiography nor a hatchet job: just an honest reappraisal of the man who left us Stowe, Chatsworth, Blenheim, Alnwick, Hampton Court, Badminton… the list goes on (there are more than 250 of them).
There are to be learned conferences at Bath and Sheffield Universities, and at Hampton Court Palace (where Capability had his office) looking at everything from his management of historic gardens to his impact on the British landscape.
Lots of gardens are restoring Brown-designed chapels (Compton Verney, Warwickshire), re-envisioning Brown’s landscapes (Moccas Park, Herefordshire), or rolling back later growth to reveal Brown’s landscapes as he would have wanted them seen (Trentham Park, Staffordshire).
And already there’s lots of thought-provoking stuff out there about Brown, his legacy, his genius.
This Channel 4 programme was a real eye-opener: there’s a brilliant bit where John Phipps, who knows more about Brown than pretty much anyone, walks Alan Titchmarsh through Belvoir Castle explaining how to ‘read’ a Capability landscape.
Mr Phipps also pens a fantastic blog, The Brown Advisor: you can write in and put any question you like to him. Recent gems include ‘Where are Brown’s conkers?’ and ‘Did Brown sing in the bath?’
It all amounts to a lot of work and a lot of thinking about the man who had a longer-lasting and more profound effect on the English landscape than anyone before or since. It’s no more than he deserves: you can see his influence in everything from Prince Charles’s views on architecture to Dan Pearson’s advocacy of a sense of place in design. Like him or loathe him, there aren’t many people you can say are still making an impact 300 years after they came into the world and changed it forever.